Steven Spielberg didn’t want his new movie about Abraham Lincoln to open during the election campaign. It would have become a political football, its message distorted by speculation about the similarities between the two tall presidents from Illinois and their political circumstances.
Besides, “Lincoln” isn’t about a campaign. It focuses on just a few weeks in Lincoln’s life, as the newly re-elected president faces the challenge of getting a piece of critical legislation through a lame-duck Congress with the clock ticking. Sound familiar?
Actually, it’s coincidence that Speilberg’s riveting story hits theaters just as a high-stakes congressional debate looms. Tony Kushner started working on the script years ago, long before Barack Obama’s re-election was predictable or a fiscal cliff was added to the contemporary landscape.
But it’s a happy coincidence.
It reminds us that what happens in Washington is important, that bitter partisanship can give birth to great changes, and that the exercise of political power is messy and ethically compromising, even in pursuit of a noble cause.
Spielberg paints stunning pictures of Civil War battlefields, but “Lincoln” is a story of a piece of legislation, not of war.
At issue is the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which would forever prohibit human slavery in the U.S. Through his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln had already freed the slaves in Confederate states. But that was an exercise of emergency wartime powers, he explained to his cabinet. Like some other things he felt he had to do to win the war, it was possibly – no, probably – unconstitutional.
In any event, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t apply to border states, where slavery had continued. Nor would it apply if states were no longer in rebellion. There was nothing in it to ensure that slavery wouldn’t return at the end of the bloody war America had fought over it.
With the closing acts of that war in sight, the window to write abolition into the Constitution was closing. The 13th amendment had been passed by the Senate, but had fallen short in the House. As Grant’s army chased Lee in a punishing retreat across Tidewater Virginia, Lincoln chased the dozen votes he needed in the House.
Based on a small section in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” Spielberg’s story of the 13th Amendment carries her emphasis on Lincoln as a crafty politician as well as a visionary, courageous leader.
“I am the president of the United States, clothed in immense power,” Lincoln says in both the book and the movie, and he uses that power. His agents trade appointments for the votes of House members who had lost their seats in the election. Lincoln plays fast-and-loose with the truth, promising one faction he’ll meet with a peace commission from the Confederacy while reassuring another there would be no such talks.
In Daniel Day-Lewis’ riveting performance, Lincoln’s ethical corner-cutting comes across as tragic, noble and, given the circumstances, necessary.
Seven score and eight years later, another drama is about to unfold in a lame-duck Congress. Again, a president may have to scramble for enough votes in the House to navigate the fiscal cliff on his own terms.
And how’s this for historical coincidence: George Pendleton, leader of the House Democrats arguing against the 13th Amendment, had been, just weeks before, the vice-presidential candidate on the ticket Lincoln defeated. And who’ll lead the House Republicans in negotiations over whatever bill Obama puts forth to avoid the fiscal cliff? The vice-presidential candidate he just defeated, Rep. Paul Ryan.
Deals will be cut and loyalties tested in the weeks to come. Likely, they will involve the more than 80 members who’ll be leaving Congress in January. Lame-duck sessions are always unpredictable, with the departing members tempted by revenge and self-interest, even as they are freed to rise above the political considerations that guided their careers.
With so many moving parts at play in today’s fiscal quandary – taxes, spending, budgets and economics – the narrative will be hard to follow and the compromises may seem petty and corrupt.
But the moral choices facing Lincoln and his peers weren’t nearly as simple as they seem from our historical distance. And the road toward what he and the Founders called “a more perfect union” was neither straight nor smooth. It was paved, then as now, with politics.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the MetroWest, Mass., Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at email@example.com.