Obama still looks to Lincoln for inspiration

Sat, Nov 17, 2012, 00:00

AMERICA:Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln is a gripping account of political process

President Barack Obama invited director Stephen Spielberg, the actor Daniel-Day Lewis and the cast of the film Lincoln to a screening at the White House on Thursday, the eve of its distribution nationwide.

It is a safe bet Obama was one of the most ardent viewers. As a senator, he used to seek inspiration at the Abraham Lincoln memorial at night. As president, he was sworn in on Lincoln’s Bible and has several times invited the nation’s leading historians to dinner at the White House, to ask them what Lincoln and other great presidents would have done in his position.

There on the screen was Day-Lewis, in a phenomenal performance that is already tipped for an Oscar, embodying the idealistic and pragmatic president in the aftermath of a hard-won re-election.

With his reedy Illinois drawl, bawdy humour, humanity, melancholia and above all skill as a political strategist, Day-Lewis is Lincoln.

Lincoln faced a dilemma in the winter of 1864-65.

The Union army had turned the tide and the Confederates wanted to sue for peace, but on terms that would ensure the perpetuation of slavery. Lincoln was convinced his 1862 emancipation proclamation would not be sufficient; he needed a 13th amendment to the constitution, abolishing slavery forever. Peace and the amendment were in conflict.

Lincoln was forced to drag out negotiations until he could push the amendment through Congress.

Although it shows the carnage of the Civil War, Spielberg’s film is above all a gripping account of a normally tedious subject: political process.

In one of the most powerful moments of the film, an awe- inspiring Lincoln pounds on the table before the January 31st, 1865, vote on the amendment. “I am the president of the United States of America, clothed in immense power. You will procure me these votes!” he declares.

Reprobates

Spielberg, it will be recalled, donated $1 million to Obama’s re-election campaign.

Michael Hogan, the arts and entertainment editor for the Huffington Post, calls that scene a “memo to President Barack Obama from your powerful friends in Hollywood: You are the president of the United States, clothed in immense power. Now use it.”

The film is a reminder that Congress has always been a den of reprobates, that US politics have always been contentious. The debate on the 13th amendment lasted three weeks.

Watching Republicans and Democrats hurl insults at one another amid flights of brilliant rhetoric, you can’t help longing for the epoch of orators, before congressmen read teleprompters to camera in front of an empty chamber.

Prospects for passage look grim when Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, played by Sally Field, urges him to stop relying on cabinet ministers and get his hands dirty in the quest for votes.

We see Lincoln going out in his horse and carriage, calling on recalcitrant representatives, stooping his 6ft 4in frame to enter a garret where shady political operatives plot arm-twisting and offers of patronage to ensure the amendment’s passage.

Lincoln borders on deceit to hide peace negotiations that might derail the amendment. Thaddeus Stevens, a representative from Pennsylvania and an ardent abolitionist, played by Tommy Lee Jones, comments after the vote: “The greatest measure of the 19th century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

In his first term, Obama was notoriously reluctant to engage with Congress. Perhaps that began to change this week, when he challenged Republican Senators who maligned his UN ambassador and held a negotiating session with congressional leaders on debt, deficits, spending and taxation.

Lincoln, like Obama, knew what it was to be hated. One of the most virulent pamphlets against his re-election called him “Abraham Africanus” and featured his alleged dialogues with Satan.

The 13th amendment decrees that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude . . . shall exist within the United States.” When it passed by a margin of two votes, a great cry of joy rose up outside the Capitol building.

I heard a similar cry last June 28th, when the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Its author, too, may one day be credited with greatness.

What we know to be moral and right was not evidently so at the time. There were politicians who disliked slavery but feared that abolition would lead to suffrage for blacks and women.

Those arguments now sound like a distant echo of present-day debates about same-sex marriage, regarded by many Democrats as the civil rights issue of our time.

Like many a Hollywood epic, Lincoln gives the reassuring impression that no matter how fraught the process, America does the right thing in the end. That reading forgets that Lincoln was assassinated 2½ months after the 13th amendment passed, for advocating citizenship for blacks. It would take another century for African Americans to achieve a semblance of equality.