Spielberg’s Lincoln Speaks To Our Dysfunctional Congress of Today As Much As The Divisions of 1865


Watching Stephen Spielberg’s latest film Lincoln, you cannot help but think how John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnel or Harry Reid, along with President Obama might benefit by viewing the film and taking away some of the lessons about democracy and legislating that it offers us. It’s January 1865 and President Lincoln wants to get 20 votes from departing Democrats who were beaten in the most recent November elections at the end of the Lame Duck Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States completely abolishing slavery in perpetuity. It’s passed the Senate already, but was rejected earlier in the House. How the President gets those twenty additional votes and what precisely he was trying to save with preserving the Union is central to the film. In those days it was the Republicans who championed civil rights for blacks and were the liberals and moderate liberals, and the Democrats that sought to maintain white supremacy and were the most conservative or reactionary element, the exact reverse of what it is in our own time.

We might note Lincoln compromising with conservative Republican party leader Preston Blair, allowing him to respond to a peace overture from the Confederate government that would, if accepted, permit them to keep some or all of their slaves to make the killing stop right away rather than seeing it go on for a fourth spring in a row when the roads are firm and the killing picks up. Lincoln knows Blair’s diplomatic demarche will fail but he compromises and in return gets Blair’s supporters in the House of Representatives-the most conservative Republicans– to back passage of the amendment. He is uncompromising with his cabinet that he wants those twenty votes any way possible for the greater good of the country that would come with passage of the Amendment.

Some wirepullers from New York brought in by Secretary of State William Seward and Thurlow Weed get to work offering second-term plum appointments to departing Democrats in return for a parting vote “Aye” or yes on the Thirteenth Amendment–somthing they’ve opposed to date. Others are subject to arm-twisting by the President and one or two get one of Lincoln’s story’s and an urgent emotional appeal to do what is right for history. The President, his cabinet, the smoke-filled room boys, all get to going to the mat for each and every vote. Even absentions from some naysaying Democrats help them to their goal.

It reminds us that making laws–even those that are of enormous moral rightness and consequence can still come via a lot of shenanigans behind the scenes. The legislative process is messy and often infuriating. Germany’s First Chancellor, Otto Von Bismark is famously to have remarked that making laws was like making sausage. You did not want to know how it was done but the final result was the most important end to be sought. Laymaking in Congress, whether it is to free four million people or to get a good start on budget cutting and raising taxes on the most wealthy Americans in a budget deal to avoid the Fiscal cliff come next January 1st ought not to be expected to be a pretty show. But it needs to get done–and done right.

Thaddeus Stephens, the great abolitionist leader of the House of Representatives–the top Radical, left-wing Republican, has to deny positions he has taken for years in that body in order to get the law to gain the support of legislators who fear full emancipation means black equality with whites or even some sort of black supremacy. His humbling himself and sitting on his hands and remaining out of the fray help conservative Democrats who the wire pullers have been working on, and the Blair conservative Republicans to stay with the President and vote “Aye” for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Daniel Day Lewis’ Lincoln portrays a man who knows that removing the cancer of slavery from the nation’s future is essential to preserving the United States and the ability of a democracy to function and avoid chaos. Should Obama insist on a very leveraged budget deficit bill this December that makes the top two percent pay higher tax rates AND closes some of the loopholes or shrinks deductions the rich commonly take to get the revenue we need to pay down the debt? Will he insist on leaving Social Security out of the debate entirely, and ensuring that changes to Medicare will not be vouchers, nor will they affect benefits? There will have to be something given to House Republicans to get this bill passed and avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” at the end of the year.

The Democrats are in a roughly analgous position to Lincoln’s Republicans after the 1864 Presidential election except that they do not control the House, despite picking up nine seats there. A lesson from Speilberg’s Lincoln is that despite our differences on very contentious issues, we CAN legislate and the Congress can function properly. We can learn a lot from the vote of confidence Spielberg gives to the ability of the people to govern themselves–the American democratic experiment, and the unquenchable thirst for freedom for all of our people and not just some. At one point, an opponent of the Thirteenth Amendment makes the point that if blacks get equality then women too will have the vote! It may resaonate even more with us in this age who feel how ridiculous were the fears of opponnents at the time. How ridiculous the fears of opponents to President Obama’s move to tax the wealthiest Americans at Clinton Era tax rates in which they thrived. And how ridiculous will opponents of Obamacare look someday.

We need the historical context and perspective this film provides in our present day political debate and seeming impasse in a dysfunctional and unwilling to compromise Congress. Truthfully, the Republican Party of today needs to change course to make this work. And in return, the Democrats need to find common ground on some budget reduction measures that Republicans view as needed and important.

A final word to President Obama: take a look at that film and note the Iron-willed determination of Lincoln in 1865 on the abolition amendment. Hear him say that “I am the President of the United States and I am clothed with immense power.” Do you hear that John Boehner? Eric Kantor? And the Tea Party Caucus? Let the arm-twisting, cajoling, negotiating, and compromise so essential to making democracy work begin!

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