Easy chair — From the February 2013 issue
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Had Spielberg really wanted to make an historical epic about compromise, he could have filmed a chapter in the life of Lincoln’s great adversary Stephen A. Douglas, champion of the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas–Nebraska Act. Now there was a bamboozler.
But the movie Spielberg actually made goes well beyond justifying compromise: it justifies corruption. Lincoln and his men, as they are depicted here, do not merely buttonhole and persuade and deceive. They buy votes outright with promises of patronage jobs and (it is strongly suggested) cash bribes. The noblest law imaginable is put over by the most degraded means. As the real-life Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives, is credited with having said after the amendment was finally approved: “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
The movie is fairly hard on crusading reformers like Stevens. The great lesson we are meant to take from his career is that idealists must learn to lie and to keep their mouths shut at critical moments if they wish to be effective. Lobbyists, on the other hand, are a class of people the movie seems at pains to rehabilitate. Spielberg gives us a raffish trio of such men, hired for the occasion by William Seward, and they get the legislative job done by throwing money around, buying off loose votes — the usual. They huddle with the holy Lincoln himself to talk strategy, and in a climactic scene, Spielberg shows us that a worldly lobbyist can work wonders while a public servant dithers about legalisms. Happy banjo-and-fiddle music starts up whenever they are on-screen — drinking, playing cards, dangling lucrative job offers — because, after all, who doesn’t love a boodle-bundling gang of scamps?
To repeat: Spielberg & Co. have gone out of their way to vindicate political corruption. They have associated it with the noblest possible cause; they have made it seem like harmless high jinks for fun-loving frat boys; they have depicted reformers as ideological killjoys who must renounce their beliefs in order to succeed. This is, in short, what Lincoln is about. All right, then: what does it mean to make such a movie in the year 2012?
Tony Kushner, the celebrated playwright who wrote the script for Lincoln, told NPR that the project had allowed him “to look at the Obama years through a Lincoln lens.” As in 1865, he said, there is enormous potential now for “rebuilding a real progressive democracy in this country.” There are “obstacles” to this project, however. And among the most notable ones, in Kushner’s view, are those damn liberals — or more specifically, “an impatience on the part of very good, very progressive people with the kind of compromising that you were just mentioning, the kind of horse trading that is necessary.”
Many observers have described Lincoln as a gloss on President Obama’s struggles with the Republican House of Representatives. The film’s real message, however, is both grander than this and much smaller. It is, in fact, a two-and-a-half-hour étude on yet another favorite cliché: the impracticality of reform.
In truth, though, things are more complicated. Abolition was nine parts grassroots outrage to one part Washington machination. And since the middle of the Bush years, we have been living through another broad revival of reform sentiments. What ignited this revival, and what has kept it going since then, is a disgust with precisely the sort of workaday Washington horse-trading that the makers of this movie have chosen to celebrate. Remember? The Duke Cunningham and Jack Abramoff scandals. The soft-money campaign donations. The lobbyists who wrote the Medicare prescription-drug benefit. The lobbyists who wrote the financial-deregulation laws. The power of money over the state.
I myself think it’s healthy that public outrage over this stuff has simmered on into the Obama years; there’s still plenty to be furious about. The lobbyists may be Democrats now, but they are pulling the wires for the same interests as always. The people who supported the deregulation of Wall Street (or their protégés) are still in power. And even the president’s great health-care triumph was flawed from the beginning, thanks to a heavy thumb on the scales from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.
Maybe complaining about all this is yet another hang-up of the contemporary Thaddeus Stevens set, who can’t see that tremendous victories await if they’d just lighten up about reform. But maybe — just maybe — reform is itself the great progressive cause. Maybe fixing the system must come first, as a certain senator from Illinois once seemed to believe, and everything else will follow from that.
Lincoln is a movie that makes viewers feel noble at first, but on reflection the sentiment proves hollow. This is not only a hackneyed film but a mendacious one. Like other Spielberg productions, it drops you into a world where all the great moral judgments have been made for you already — Lincoln is as absolutely good as the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark are absolutely bad — and then it smuggles its tendentious political payload through amid those comfortable stereotypes.
If you really want to explore compromise, corruption, and the ideology of money-in-politics, don’t stack the deck with aces of unquestionable goodness like the Thirteenth Amendment. Give us the real deal. Look the monster in the eyes. Make a movie about the Grant Administration, in which several of the same characters who figure in Lincoln played a role in the most corrupt era in American history. Or show us the people who pushed banking deregulation through in the compromise-worshipping Clinton years. And then, after ninety minutes of that, try to sell us on the merry japes of those lovable lobbyists — that’s a task for a real auteur.
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