The pragmatism of Obama and Lincoln
WORLD VIEW:In times of war as commander-in-chief, the US president has the authority to take measures out of “military necessity” to safeguard the state. On January 1st, 1863, 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln did precisely that, signing the Emancipation Proclamation that set free, at least in theory, more than three million of the four million slaves still languishing in the Confederate South.
The proclamation, historian Eric Foner argues, was as much a military as a political measure designed to undermine the Confederacy by creating a vast potential pool of black Union soldiers in the plantations of the South, but it “marked the turning point of the civil war and of Lincoln’s understanding of his role in history”.
Two years later, the war dragging on, immediately following his re-election and only months before his assassination, Lincoln would follow up the proclamation by pushing through Congress the 13th amendment to the constitution, banning slavery.
Those three weeks of intense political shenanigans as the president mustered the two-thirds majority he needed in the House are the focus of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, due to open here shortly and which by last weekend had already taken $107 million (€81 million) at the US box office in six weeks. It appears likely to produce an Oscar for Daniel Day-Lewis, reportedly superb in the title role.
The interest that the film has provoked is in part a function of Spielberg’s pulling power, but the repeated self-identification by US president Barack Obama with his hero Lincoln has given it an unusual political saliency for a historical work.
Unusually for a product of Hollywood, historians have largely paid tribute to the film’s faithfulness to events, and to what is known of the main dramatis personae. Unusually, too, the film provides a new, cogent, historical explanation of the urgency of Lincoln’s actions.
Criticism of film
Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner have faced criticism, however, for what is seen by some as diminishing the role of African Americans in their own emancipation and the minor parts they play in the film. Jon Wiener writes in the Nation: “While the acting is great, there’s a problem with the film: it is dedicated to the proposition that Lincoln freed the slaves . . . The end of slavery did not come because Lincoln and the House of Representatives voted for the 13th amendment.
“During the three weeks that the movie deals with, [William T] Sherman’s army was marching through South Carolina, where slaves were seizing plantations. They were dividing up land among themselves. They were seizing their freedom. Slavery was dying on the ground, not just in the House of Representatives.”
The criticism has some validity, but Spielberg may well argue, as he did earlier with Oskar Schindler, that he is not telling the story of emancipation, or the Holocaust, but of one man’s part in confronting it. Selectivity is inevitable in such a project, but does it undermine its value? Arguably only in as much as it contributes to perpetuating the Great Men Make History school of history-telling.
Such arguments are all about contemporary agendas and perceptions of Obama and his role – it’s not enough, we are being told, to have a black man (or a heroic white man like Lincoln) in the White House to empower blacks.
In that sense the film, in focusing on these particular three weeks, is also making a subtle, and not accidental, point about politics and about Lincoln as a role model. “This is a good time to reintroduce Lincoln to the country,” says Obama supporter Spielberg.
David Brooks, a Republican-leaning columnist in the New York Times, sees it as an important morality tale about politics and the grubby necessity of compromise to achieve noble ends: “You can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others – if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical . . .
“To lead his country through a war, to finagle his ideas through Congress, Lincoln feels compelled to ignore court decisions, dole out patronage, play legalistic games, deceive his supporters and accept the fact that every time he addresses one problem he ends up creating others down the road.”
Obama might not want to put it so bluntly, but his pragmatic centrism, a disappointment to many supporters, is cut from this can-do, realist cloth as much as his idealism is from Lincoln’s championing of emancipation (not, in any case, as unambiguously righteous as many would have it – but that’s for another day).
Spielberg’s subtext is not altogether flattering.