If only we could hustle President Obama and Congress into a screening room and require repeated viewings of Lincoln.
And if only we could lock ourselves in there as well, because the smartest film ever made about politics offers nuanced insights about the messy reality of governance, and about a democratic process run by flawed mortals whose noble aims often require ignoble means.
The cinematic Abraham Lincoln — rendered life-size yet iconic by Daniel Day-Lewis — says it best. He compares noble aims to true north on a surveyor’s compass. True north is essential, he tells a congressman, but you also have to navigate “the swamps and deserts and chasms along the way” — however grubby the journey may be. If you can’t do that, he asks, “what’s the good of knowing true north?”
And so, in pursuit of a constitutional amendment to ban slavery and thus take the first giant step toward equality for all, Lincoln was prepared to do whatever it took. His face is on a coin today, but back in his day, he understood that making legislative sausage was often a distasteful exercise, particularly when it involved a House of Representatives that Secretary of State William Seward called “a rat’s nest … of talentless hicks and hacks.”
It was January 1865, and a polarizing president had just won a re-election race that many predicted he would lose. For four years, he had been ridiculed by the conservative opposition party as too liberal, and by liberals in his own party as not liberal enough.
He was relentlessly assailed by his enemies as a despot (“King Abraham Africanus the First” went one actual insult quoted in the film), an “ignoramus,” a “liar,” a “zoological curiosity,” “a disgrace from the very beginning,” and “an egregious failure” (actual insults not used in the film). His Capitol Hill critics complained that he was too passive (in today’s parlance, that he “led from behind”), that he was intellectually arrogant, and that his spooky inscrutability impaired his relations with Congress.
Nevertheless, he knew his true north: He needed the 13th Amendment. He had freed the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation, but he had done so as a “wartime necessity” using his ill-defined powers as commander-in-chief. If the war ended without abolition embedded in the Constitution, the courts might order re-enslavement — which would undercut the whole purpose of the war and betray the men who had died fighting.
In politics, timing is everything. Lincoln, often loath to act boldly, knew he had a narrow window. He had to tame the rat’s nest with great speed, corralling a two-thirds majority before the war ended. He needed 20 votes from the pro-slavery opposition party, which would never materialize if the war ended first. They would figure, who cares what happens to the slaves if we already have peace?
Lincoln also knew that the representatives would never pass the ban on slavery if he merely appealed to the better angels of their nature. So, as accurately depicted in the film, he deputized Seward to do what needed to be done. If recalcitrant lawmakers had to be bought off, fine. Some of them were lame ducks due to leave office soon; they would be “looking for work,” said Lincoln, and he had “jobs to fill.” He deputized Seward to sweat the dirty details, and Seward hired some rascals to give Lincoln further deniability.
Lincoln had a slew of lawyerly tricks. When a rumor reached Congress that a Confederate delegation was seeking a peace deal, Lincoln’s foes insisted that the slavery ban be shelved if the rumor was true. Was it true? Lincoln answered: “So far as I know, there are no peace commissioners in the city, nor are there likely to be.” It was true that they weren’t in Washington; they were down in Virginia, and Lincoln didn’t intend to let them get to Washington.
Today, a statement like Lincoln’s would be eviscerated on Twitter as a bald-faced lie. But in the moment, his non-denial helped save the amendment.
So did his supreme self-confidence. When it was crunch time, and his chief House ally whined about still being two votes short, Lincoln erupted (in another quote plucked from the history books for the film): “I am the president of the United States, clothed in immense power, and you will procure me those votes!” Again, the means of procurement were immaterial.
The ban on slavery passed the House by the slimmest margin. Of course, many lawmakers voted yes because their consciences dictated it. But many voted yes because they had been promised sweet sinecures — as tax assessors, port inspectors, postmasters. One voted yes because Lincoln’s House allies (at his request) had agreed to reverse the results of the congressman’s narrow election loss. Others voted yes for purely pragmatic reasons, figuring that if slavery was banned, the rebels would lose their reason for fighting and give up faster (a consideration Lincoln encouraged). Some voted yes to be on the winning side. And still others simply succumbed to Lincoln’s charm.
In the end, the abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens observed, “the greatest measure of the 19th century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” And that’s politics in the real world: grimy and sublime. Compromise is the oil that enables government to work and, every once in a while, achieve something transcendent.
Late in the film, Lincoln ponders the nature of existence, asking, “Are we fitted to the times we’re born into?” On this holiday season, we should be thankful that he was a brilliant politician fit for his time. And if he and that rat’s nest could get it together to end slavery, surely our current politicians can cut a deal that steers us away from the fiscal cliff. Come on, folks, do Abe proud.
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org