Giving Thanks for Lincoln

David Brooks wrote that Lincoln shows the nobility and malleability of politics, politics as the one change agent that can really deliver. I sat rapt by the movie’s demonstration of Lincoln’s political legerdemain, maybe because of the times spent watching historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author of A Team of Rivals (on which Steven Spielberg based the movie), offer historical opinions on NewsHour election panels. (And certainly because of Tony Kushner’s gorgeous screenplay.)

Lincoln describing to his cabinet how he took war powers, and what he construed them to mean, was an elaboration of politics as profoundly human science. Lincoln working out — evidently as he went — the precedent-in-practice of being a president governing a nation in civil war.  Lincoln arriving by carriage to negotiate with his political opponents for votes for the 13th Amendment, acknowledging that he could not change racist hearts but hoped always to appeal to higher minds. Emancipation would be the outcome of war fought so cruelly that 600,000 lives were lost. But we remained one United States of America, a union, not federations in which states’ rights could thwart the republic. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is willful, a force of persuasion, and reason and intuition. And he is charming, and flawed.

If the movie does not exactly make it easy to empathize with the office of the presidency, it makes the office grow in stature and along with it your admiration for our country’s most illuminated moments. The movie is successful not only intellectually but emotionally – in the stolid but sweeping cinematography, the period details such as the sperm-oil lamps in the White House, the intimacy of audiences between the president and the people that by today’s lights present the consummate politician without handlers, pre-polls, in a condition in which both wildness and self-restraint can mix.

An inspired Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, is true to her reputation as a “wildcat,” one who did not hesitate to tell off congressmen come to a party in her house. Having lost a child (and still to lose their youngest son, Tad, and her mind, after her husband’s assassination on April 14, 1865),  Mary in Sally Field’s portrayal gives no centimeter to the notion of a woman without an agenda of her own. You can see her working out in process the manipulation of outcomes she knows he will see through, but that she feels deeply herself. Indeed, the lack of afterword concerning Mary Todd Lincoln after the assassination, the morning of the day they had shared a carriage ride in which Lincoln spoke to her of wanting to visit Jerusalem, “to walk in the steps of David and Moses,” seemed an unfortunate decision among other very canny filmic choices. (I loved the arc of the mourners behind Lincoln’s deathbed.)

That Lincoln deliberated his office’s executive decisions and played the shrewd politics that carried our country into its path of greatness, conveys. The individual prices that history demands become, over time, a story, like all others. In this case, a story not to miss.


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