Commentary Magazine

The Missing Lincoln

The surprising popularity of Steven Spielberg’s movie about Abraham Lincoln adds a new chapter in the country’s long love affair with the man American schoolchildren will someday learn was the real Daniel Day Lewis. The love affair stretches back more than 150 years. It is dotted along the way with improbable episodes showing that not all the fond feelings would be requited, if Lincoln were around to return them. 

We can only imagine how this well-paid corporate lawyer, this eloquent defender of the free economy and fastidious advocate of constitutional restraint, would have reacted to the annual Lincoln-Lenin Day celebrations got up by the American Communist Party in the 1920s and 30s. Or think of his reaction to James Vardaman, governor of Mississippi in the darkest days of Jim Crow, the most fervidly racist politician of his day, and, so he claimed, a worshipful admirer of Father Abraham. Vardaman gave impassioned speeches about his affinity for “the immortal Lincoln,” including one in Lincoln’s hometown, Springfield, Illinois, on the 100th anniversary of his birth. He took the occasion to demonstrate that their political philosophies were “substantially identical.” Brothers under the skin, so to speak.

It never stops, this appropriation of our greatest president for dubious purposes. He evolves in the public mind to conform more closely to the self-image of each generation’s verbal class. Which is what makes Spielberg’s movie such an interesting document, and its popularity such an unexpected marvel. Lincoln is not merely the most plausible rendering of Lincoln in the history of movies, vivid in detail and execution. It also rises above the self-flattery and wishful thinking that corrupt so many of us when we set our minds toward the greatest American of all. 

The most recent standard one-volume biography, for instance, was published for the Lincoln bicentennial and written by Ronald White, the former dean of the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Accordingly, White gave us a Lincoln who might have gotten an M.A. in Social Justice from—where else?—the San Francisco Theological Seminary. The biography came nestled in the pillowy jargon of a California therapist: Politicians “shared” ideas rather than expressed them, soldiers had “spouses” instead of wives, brutal public debates were “conversations,” and the death of a child would “open a new chapter” for the parent. Lincoln’s life, wouldn’t you know it, was a “journey”—indeed a “spiritual odyssey”—through a “struggle for identity.” Best of all, he was “comfortable with ambiguity.” You could almost picture Abe in a hot tub at Big Sur, hat removed.

I can’t picture Barack Obama in a hot tub—it’s an upside to my lack of imagination—and his view of Lincoln is slightly sterner than White’s, but our current president has happily led the intellectual campaign to persuade the public that Abraham Lincoln, while not a perfect man, did indeed bear a striking resemblance to Barack Obama. During his first days in Washington, as a freshman senator, Obama stage-whispered that in times of perplexity he would lope, Jimmy Stewart–fashion, to the Lincoln Memorial for spiritual sustenance. He declared his presidential candidacy in 2007 at the old statehouse in Springfield, intoning a speech gravid with Lincolniana. 

“Through his will and his words, he moved a nation,” Obama said then, with the implied threat that he was about to do the same. Yet there was nuance to Obama’s Lincoln. “Abraham Lincoln,” he said, “had his doubts.” (So they’re not exactly alike.) And when Obama was elected, the Lincoln references came in a cascade: The president-elect trained to Washington on the same route
Lincoln traveled in 1861, at the inauguration he placed his hand on Lincoln’s Bible, and the menu at his celebratory luncheon was plucked from the Lincoln White House and served on replicas of Lincoln dinnerware. 

If any of Obama’s admirers found this effort tasteless or embarrassing, I didn’t hear of it. At the front rank of those admirers, of course, were Spielberg and the left-wing playwright Tony Kushner, the pair who, as it happens, are most responsible for Lincoln. For all its fastidious attention to detail, their movie contains anachronisms—moments when Kushner and Spielberg can be seen squeezing Lincoln into the 21st century, or rather squeezing bits of our century into Lincoln. Most of these require a tin ear. Several historians have objected to the presidential potty mouth. While a few accounts survive of Lincoln dropping the f-bomb, it’s unlikely that the word was used, either by the president or by those in his presence, as freely as it is by Hollywood actors and screenwriters, in life and in Lincoln

More telling, though more obscure, is the misuse of politically loaded language. Here he evokes less the Big Sur hot tub and more the studios of MSNBC. Hollywood’s Lincoln speaks of “human dignity” and “fairness” in the humid, sentimental sense that contemporary liberals favor. In truth, Lincoln himself scarcely used these words, at least as far as we know. In his collected speeches and letters, dignity usually appears ironically, and fairness, as a euphemism for recasting social institutions to uplift the downtrodden and reward their self-appointed benefactors, is never used at all.

In such subtle, and maybe unconscious, ways do the filmmakers enlist Lincoln into the cause of contemporary liberalism. They fail spectacularly, because they are true to the story they tell—Lincoln’s finagling of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to ban slavery. The episode shows a dozen facets of his endless complexity: guile, kindness and ruthlessness, patience and impatience, eloquence and plain speaking, humor and high moral seriousness. Seen in full flourishing, such a character can only be understood as a celebration of the kind of politics that nearly all Hollywood movies about Washington have disdained. Consider Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where politics is purified by an unelected outsider who rouses the disenfranchised into a self-righteous mob; or even Legally Blonde 2, where politics is purified by an unelected outsider who looks simply fabulous in pink. The same disdain, not coincidentally, infuses the dream of Obama’s liberalism, in its belief that partisanship and self-interested wrangling, the stuff of politics, are obstacles to “moving this country forward” and “bringing us together.” 

Disdain for politics is close cousin to a desire for authoritarianism. This explains why the sharpest criticism of Lincoln has come from Spielberg’s left, where impatience with democratic procedure and disputation lies closer to the surface. 

A historian from Northwestern University called Kate Masur set the moviemakers straight in an op-ed for the New York Times. Their chief crime, she wrote, was perpetuating “the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.” In her piece Professor Masur scarcely mentions Lincoln at all, in keeping with the fashions of the day: Academic history doesn’t want to appropriate Lincoln, just belittle him. In the racial and ethnic spoils system of the modern academy, the approved—indeed, obligatory—view is that “the slaves freed themselves.” There’s a grandeur to the absurdity of this idea, and it has the desired effects. It valorizes African Americans, sidelines Lincoln, and demotes the old white dudes in frock coats and mutton chops who argued, voted, and executed the laws. Most important, it trivializes the processes of self-government by which social progress is legitimately made. 

But Lincoln shows a leader directing those processes toward the highest moral purpose, elevating leader and process alike. It celebrates self-government by staring straight at it, and straight at its wiliest practitioner. Through the small details we get a sense of Lincoln’s largeness, so much vaster than Vardaman, or the Leninists, or therapeutic liberals, or bitter academics seem to understand. Spielberg shows what students humbled by Lincoln always come to know eventually: He really does belong to the ages.

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson, who appears monthly in this space, is the author of Crazy U, now out in paperback and on the Kindle.

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