Lessons for Obama, from Abe Lincoln

In Spielberg's "Lincoln," a vilified president outfoxes his hateful opponents in a bitterly divided America

Published November 3, 2012 10:00PM (EDT)

Abraham Lincoln remains until further notice the standard by which all presidents are judged, and by which all invariably fall short. The task that confronts presidents and turns them prematurely gray – look at pictures of Barack Obama in 2008 and today, or George W. Bush in 2001 and 2008 – has two levels that are often in conflict. He (one day soon we may get to add “she”) must fight the political battles of the day, with all the compromise, arm-twisting, prevarication and skulduggery that implies, while still holding in mind larger and more abstract questions about the role of the United States in the world, the moral imperatives of history, the will of God.

Neither Obama nor Mitt Romney is foolish enough to compare himself directly to Lincoln, but whichever man is elected on Tuesday faces a political landscape nearly as divided and poisonous as the one confronted by the 16th president. Moreover, this year’s election will vividly illustrate that the schisms of the Civil War – over differing visions of justice and equality, competing ideas about states’ rights and federal power, cultural divisions between North and South – have yet to heal, long after the passage of many generations and enormous waves of demographic change ought to have rendered them irrelevant. I have no doubt about which candidate Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner believe comes closer to the Lincolnian ideal, but their remarkable film “Lincoln” offers urgent lessons to both candidates, and the rest of us, about how to wield political power in times of crisis. Whether those lessons still pertain in the dysfunctional climate of the 21st century is another matter.

Each of those presidential components mentioned enough is loaded with swamps and pitfalls, and the combination has led presidents astray over and over again. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the father of the New Deal and the great hero of liberalism, overstepped his constitutional authority repeatedly, paving the way for the near-imperial presidency of today, and established himself as an elected tyrant, running for a third and fourth term (leading to the 22nd Amendment, which limited presidents to two elected terms or 10 total years in office). Richard Nixon was a coldhearted genius on both domestic politics and foreign-policy issues – and, in today’s terms, pretty much a centrist Democrat – who was seduced by executive power, and his own paranoia, into a series of petty and stupid blunders. The aforementioned junior Bush, by reputation a decent and kind man in private, was lured into ruinous overseas adventures by the grandiose historical claims of neoconservative intellectuals, simultaneously trashing our economy and our global reputation.

Lincoln stands apart from other presidents in the way he managed those competing demands and for other reasons too. It can be tempting, even irresistible, to view Lincoln as a trans-historical figure bigger than his context, an autodidact biblical prophet from the Western wilderness – beset by dreams and visions, and by what we would probably now call a lifelong depressive illness -- who towered above the prejudices and factional infighting of the 19th century much as he literally towered over his countrymen. (At 6-foot-4, Lincoln was among the tallest Americans of his era.) Indeed, I think there’s still something to be said for that romantic conception. But Steven Spielberg’s remarkable film “Lincoln,” like the historical work on which it’s partly based (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestseller “Team of Rivals”), depicts the 16th president as a leader of great complexity, first and foremost a shrewd political operator and a forceful wielder of executive power.

“Lincoln” is unquestionably the heavyweight film of the fall season and opens in theaters next week; I’ll have more to say about its cinematic and narrative qualities then. (OK, I’ll cheat a little: It’s a tremendous accomplishment on many levels, and Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and Spielberg himself need to clear some space on the mantelpiece by February.) It’s neither a sweeping biopic nor a Civil War epic, although there are a handful of harrowing battlefield sequences. Indeed, the entire film is based on the final two chapters of Goodwin’s book, and its time period is limited to the winter and spring of 1865, between Lincoln’s reelection and his assassination. (In this context, that probably doesn’t count as a spoiler.) There’s no log cabin, no debate with Stephen A. Douglas, no Gettysburg and, mercifully, no John Wilkes Booth, whose name is never uttered.

Instead, “Lincoln” is tightly focused on the signature political accomplishment of Lincoln’s presidency: the passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery forever, in a Washington battered and embittered by four years of war. If the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 is more famous, Lincoln himself was well aware of its inadequacies. The proclamation was legally dubious at best and an unconstitutional exercise of war powers at worst, and rested on several contradictions, as Lincoln explains to his cabinet in the film. If the Confederacy was an illegal rebellion within the Union rather than a sovereign nation at war with the U.S. (as Lincoln always maintained), then he had no authority to overrule legitimate state law. Furthermore, seizing the slaveowners’ property as war contraband seemed to imply that Southern blacks were property, rather than citizens with equal rights before the law.

Only an amendment to the Constitution could bring a permanent and definite end to slavery in America, and Lincoln believed it was urgent to act immediately, both for moral reasons and tactical ones. It would send a clear signal to the world about the direction of America’s future, and it would cut away the economic foundation that held up the tottering Confederacy. But getting such an ambitious proposition through the Congress of 1865 was a daunting political task that required persuasion, negotiation, guile and underhanded strong-arm tactics more than high-flown rhetoric.

Lincoln faced fractious opposition even within his own party, both from the right and the left. Conservative Republicans led by Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook in Spielberg’s film) favored a negotiated truce with the Confederates, and wanted to kick the slavery question down the road indefinitely, while the radical Republicans under legendary abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) viewed Lincoln as a hair-splitting, legalistic compromiser who was eager to settle for half measures. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party had fought and lost the 1864 campaign on an openly pro-slavery (or at least anti-abolition) platform, but remained bitterly opposed to Lincoln and everything he represented. In the movie we see Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), a New York machine politician and an infamous "Copperhead" (Southern supporter within the Union), denounce the president on the House floor as a traitor and tyrant who yearns to subvert democracy and establish himself as an American Caesar. All of that’s found in the historical record; while Kushner’s screenplay compresses actual events, not much of it is fictional or even supposititious, beyond private conversations within the Lincoln household. Still, it’s impossible not to hear pre-echoes of the hateful and intemperate political discourse that’s so easy to find today, directed at the current occupant of the White House.

Indeed, the startling conclusion forced upon you by “Lincoln” is that the more things change in American politics the more they stay the same. It’s true that the two parties have switched identities to a large degree, and also that the central issues of the day and the nation’s demographic landscape would seem incomprehensible to anyone from Lincoln’s time. But 160 years on, we have an Illinois lawyer in the White House who is seen as an overly cautious reformer by many of his supporters and as the devil incarnate by his opponents. One party is dominated by Northern liberals devoted to a racially inclusive future, and the other by angry Southern whites clinging to an incoherent mythology of the past. No one outside departments of history uses the word “federalism” in 2012, but the underlying dispute about the role of central government that fueled the Civil War remains a fundamental dividing line between the parties.

Even the limits of presidential power, which Lincoln overstepped several times in the name of claimed moral righteousness, remain contested in similar fashion. Like many other people, I’m profoundly disturbed by the way the last two presidents have employed extra-constitutional authority to send purported terrorists to secret prisons, and to order the killing of both foreign civilians and American citizens who aren’t enemy combatants in any ordinary sense. But as “Lincoln” makes clear, in practice, we have entrusted our presidents with the power to violate the law on our behalf for most of our history. Congress has largely abdicated its constitutional oversight role or used it for narrow political purposes (as in both cases when a sitting president was impeached), and our only recourse against tyranny remains the highly imperfect remedy of the ballot box. Will historians of the future judge, say, the clandestine killings of Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage son (both U.S. citizens) to be illegal but justifiable, as most would now view the Emancipation Proclamation?

I’m not suggesting that anything on Barack Obama’s résumé comes close to the 13th Amendment, or is likely to. While the American public likes him pretty well (at least those who don't utterly despise him), which may save his bacon on Tuesday, the Northern majority of the 1860s loved Abe Lincoln. On controversial questions like national healthcare and same-sex marriage, you can see Obama trying to negotiate the Lincoln dance between the long game of philosophy and principle and the constricted realm of political possibility. In fact, I think it's clear that Obama thinks about the bigger historical picture, maybe too much so; it's on the mucky ground of quotidian politics that he has been consistently outmaneuvered.

It's true that Obama has been hemmed in by a united and hostile opposition, but so was Lincoln, for most of his time in office. Lincoln worked “across the aisle" with ideological opponents on occasion, but only opportunistically, seizing an advantage when he saw one. Spielberg's film focuses in vivid detail on the grunt work of manipulating the 13th Amendment through that lame-duck Congress of 1865, which included more than 60 defeated Democrats, who were now free to vote their conscience on the question of slavery -- or at least to be bought off, intimidated or browbeaten.

Can Obama or Romney or any future president emulate the combination of moral vision, philosophical depth and political prowess that Lincoln possessed? Well, let's stop pretending that Romney is likely to win, or that if he does he'll be anything except a handsome front man for big capital. Given the shadowy combination of corporate power, K Street lobbyists and super PAC money – all unimaginable in Lincoln’s time – contemporary presidents have lost most or all of their autonomy to pursue change on a historic scale. There are ample reasons to prefer Obama over his opponent, but most of them are negative: The Republican Party has become a nightmarish coalition of Wall Street suits and anti-government radicals from Podunk, united primarily by their extreme whiteness. As far as policy goes, neither 2012 candidate is likely to enact anything close to his proposed agenda.

As for Lincoln, he lived only a few weeks after his great legislative victory, and only a few days past the end of the war. He died at the hands of a deranged pro-slavery zealot who misunderstood rhetoric for reality, and believed all the outrageous things said about the president by his opponents. (If Fox News had existed in 1865, Fernando Wood would’ve been a regular, and Booth a fanatical viewer.) Booth was a roguish, handsome actor well known throughout the country -- it was rather as if Johnny Depp had turned assassin -- who genuinely believed he would be acclaimed as a hero and was dismayed to learn that even the Southern public was horrified.

The Lincoln assassination was a devastating coda to those years of bloodshed, and still feels like an unhealed trauma, all these years later. It was both tragic and ironic in the truest sense, since Lincoln had chosen a path of reconciliation with the defeated South, resisting calls from Thaddeus Stevens and others to dispossess the plantation owners, burn down their houses, and bring Confederate leaders and officers to Washington for trial and execution. Given Lincoln’s moral temperament and his enormous sense of responsibility for the war dead on both sides, it was the only choice he could have made. But if he’d somehow known that we’d still be fighting and re-fighting that damn war, eight generations later, with no end in sight – well, you have to wonder.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abraham Lincoln Civil War Daniel Day-lewis Lincoln Movies Our Picks Slavery Steven Spielberg