Barack Obama and the lessons of Lincoln
You have got to admire Steven Spielberg. He has taken the well-worn story of Abraham Lincoln’s final days and turned it into a pointed piece of contemporary political commentary. When he first met Doris Kearns Goodwin back in 1999, well before she had completed her masterly account of the Lincoln White House, Team of Rivals, it seems Spielberg decided to film an episode in Lincoln’s life that would ring true at the time of release many years later. He chose to concentrate his “Lincoln” movie on a pivotal time in the presidency: the final five months when Lincoln had just been re-elected, when the Civil War was all-but won, and when the fractious House was undecided about whether to fall in with Lincoln’s stated aim of abolishing slavery.
There is an obvious comparison to today’s politics, with President Barack Obama newly re-elected and facing a similarly hazardous short period to dragoon a recalcitrant and largely hostile House to do his bidding over taxes, entitlements and spending. Where Lincoln was working against the clock to ensure the Civil War would continue long enough to prevent Southern pro-slavers from returning to the Union Congress to wreck his plan to outlaw slavery, so Obama is teetering at the edge of a similarly perilous precipice. And just as Lincoln was surrounded in government by his old rivals, so Obama has as loyal lieutenants his former challengers for the Democratic candidacy, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.
As Spielberg’s movie shows, Lincoln rejected his close colleagues’ assessment that the daunting arithmetic of the divided House meant he would fail to force through his emancipation measure. Lincoln’s towering achievement is so well known to make a spoiler alert unnecessary. Through guile, arm-twisting, argument, bribery, and bullying, the president pressed on and, while he kept members of a Southern peace delegation kicking their heels, the requisite votes were found to convert his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 into law. Whether Obama can pull off a similar coup and save America from a ruinous combination of high taxes and deep public spending cuts remains to be seen.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is also an eloquent reminder that not long ago Republicans were the defenders of civil rights for all. The Party of Lincoln has long since turned its back on such noble thoughts and become a redoubt of grouchy old men bemoaning the fact that America, a nation of immigrants, has become a multicultural haven. What would Lincoln have made of the skulduggery and dissembling that led Republicans in so many states to hastily pass laws ostensibly to ward off voter fraud that are in fact shameless attempts to hinder the poor, the young, the old and those in racial minorities from using the ballot box? That pained groaning you hear is Honest Abe spinning in his tomb in Springfield, Illinois.
The screenwriter of Lincoln, Tony Kushner, mainly keeps to historical fact, though in the opening scene he imagines a conversation between the president and two black soldiers that forges the link between the slice of history we are about to witness and the events we are living through. While one infantryman nods in deference, the other urges the president to do the right thing, to fulfill his destiny and give blacks freedom and the vote. With the war almost won, the young man argues, it is no time to backslide. The young soldier looks forward to an election where former slaves stand in line to vote and eventually take their rightful place in Congress.
The hurricane of hatred that greeted Obama’s election and the tsunami of slander since that has questioned his religion, his birthplace and his legitimacy show that, 150 years after the Civil War’s end, many Americans fail to live up to Lincoln’s noble aspirations. The scale of sublimated race hatred that underpins the birther movement and the numbers who consider the president to be alien or foreign betray widespread racial prejudice. Conservatives have demonized all successful liberal leaders, starting with Franklin Roosevelt and reaching fever pitch with Bill Clinton. But the visceral venom and dog-whistle racism directed toward Obama is even more intense. And directed toward a wider group of Americans. Not many are offended when FDR is attacked for being a traitor to his class. Clinton may have been half-jokingly dubbed the first black president, but conservatives didn’t hate him for his skin tint. But when Obama is attacked for being black it is an offense against American ideals and an assault upon all blacks.
While Spielberg’s Lincoln makes plain that there were many northern Democrats who were unconvinced by Thaddeus Stevens’ argument that blacks were no different from whites and should be treated accordingly, the 2012 election appears to have reawakened old Civil War passions. No sooner had the bunting been put away than more than 25,000 residents in six states — Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina — petitioned the White House demanding a referendum to allow them to secede from the Union.
Ron Paul, former leader of the Republican libertarians, has returned from retirement to back the breakaway movement. “Secession is a deeply American principle,” he writes. “If a people cannot secede from an oppressive government, they cannot truly be considered free.” Secession may prove uncomfortable for those who demand it. Imagining a red and blue American divorce, the humorist Paul VanDevelder wrote in last Sunday’s LA Times, “It’s time to divvy up the china and draft a property settlement. … You get … 90 percent of the hurricanes, most of the mosquitoes and the obese people (and all of their healthcare costs).”
The desire of so many Americans to break free because they cannot accept the democratic verdict of the people — what some, quoting John Adams, Lord Acton and Ayn Rand, consider “the tyranny of the majority” — threatens the very Constitution they affect to admire. Lincoln famously declared, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” but went on to say he expected old enmities to soon be forgotten and Americans to reunite. “I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other,” he said. Today it seems the chasm that separates red Americans from blue Americans will get deeper before we become a whole nation again.
Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W.W. Norton. Read extracts here.