Friday, November 23, 2012

Post-truth political appreciation

For once, I found myself nodding straight through a David Brooks column. Today he pays tribute both to Lincoln and to the new film by that name:
The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way.

It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical. 

The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gets this point. The hero has a high moral vision, but he also has the courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality. 

To lead his country through a war, to finagle his ideas through Congress, Lincoln feels compelled to ignore court decisions, dole out patronage, play legalistic games, deceive his supporters and accept the fact that every time he addresses one problem he ends up creating others down the road.
That is dead on. Specifically, in pursuit of passage of the 13th Amendment, Lincoln, to secure one cache of votes, agrees to receive a peace delegation from the South, though he has no intention of allowing peace on anything but his own unconditional terms. To avoid what would be irresistible pressure to end the war immediately should the delegation's approach become known, he uses a semantic dodge worthy of Mitt Romney to aver that there is "to my knowledge" no peace delegation  "in Washington" -- true because he's ordered that its arrival be delayed by several days. He also tacitly directs supporters to hire operatives who specialize in buying votes with patronage. All the while, Daniel Day-Lewis's Lincoln imparts to the viewer (this viewer, anyway) the clear sense that, to a certain undefinable point, the end here justifies the means. And those means include, as Brooks points out, prolonging the war a few extra weeks to secure the amendment banning slavery -- without which, as Lincoln spells out for us, the emancipation may prove reversible.

My favorite moment of political maneuvering in the film captures the paradox of power in the United States' checked-and-balanced system. Lincoln and his cabinet and House allies, still a couple of votes shy, are trying to work out the endgame when it outs that, as rumored, Lincoln has agreed to accept a peace delegation from the South. Despair and outrage ensue, Lincoln seems on the brink of losing control of his coalition. At that point, this most patient and inclusive of leaders cuts off discussion and lights into his team for acting like "pettifogging Tammany [somethings] " and losing sight of the main object. He works to a climax: "I am the President of the United States, clothed in immense power" -- and orders them to go out and get the votes he needs, no longer troubling him over how.

The joke is that the only "power" he has at that moment is his personal -- and mainly moral -- authority over those in the room to make them adopt his own nonnegotiable must-get as their own, and use any means necessary to secure it.  It's a "great and powerful Oz" moment for a leader not given to ostentatiously throwing his weight around, and there's at least a thread of self-mockery for a leader who understands as well as any the limitations of his power.  But the mockery is a minor chord, because he's making that "immense power" real as he speaks, and he knows it. 

I am reminded of a story told in a children's picture biography of Lincoln popular when I was a kid.  Lincoln, in top hat, is driving his carriage on a narrow road lined with thick mud on either side; another carriage comes from the opposite way. Lincoln calls out to the other driver to give way. The other driver tell him to give way himself. Lincoln, rising slowly to his full top-hatted height and silhouetted by the setting sun, thunders, "Give way, or I'll...I'll...I'll...!" The other fellow cries out in capitulation, veers off into the mud and promptly gets stuck.  Lincoln stops and helps him pull out. The other man timidly asks Lincoln what he would have done had the speaker refused to yield. "Why, I would have given way myself," Lincoln replies.  Another Wizard of Oz moment, apocryphal or no.

Brooks's honoring of the political animal recalls (for me)  the conclusion of Joe Klein's Primary Colors, when the fictionalized Clinton figure (Jack Stanton) delivers his own disquisition about what it means to be a politician. He is trying to convince the disillusioned narrator, a black Stephanopoulos (more or less), to stay with him as he drives to the presidency -- notwithstanding that he's just used oppo research to induce his most potent rival for the nomination to bow out. Here's Stanton: 
Only certain kinds of people are cut out for this work--and yeah, we are not princes, by and large. Henry, you know this better than anyone . You've watched Larkin, you've watched O'Brien, you've watched me do it. Two thirds of what we do is reprehensible. This isn't the way a normal human being acts. We smile, we listen--you could grow calluses on your ears from all the listening we do. We do our pathetic little favors. We fudge when we can't. We tell them what they want to hear--and when we tell them something they don't want to hear, it's usually because we've calculated that's what they really want. We live an eternity of false smiles--and why? Because it's the price you pay to lead. You don't think Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was a president? He had to tell his little stories and smile his shit-eating, backcountry grin. He did it all just so he'd get the opportunity, one day, to stand in front of the nation and appeal to 'the better angels of our nature.' That's when the bullshit stops. And that's what this is all about. The opportunity to do that, to make the most of it, to do it the right way--because you know as well as I do there are plenty of people in this game who never think about the folks, much less their 'better angels.' They just want to win...I mean, in the end, Henry, who can do this better than me? You think there's anyone out there who'll do more for the people than I will? (pp 504-505, Warner paperback ed.).
The movie also touched on another aspect of the Lincoln paradox -- that the kindest and most compassionate of men persisted relentlessly in the most horrendous extended bloodletting the world had known to that date. He did so at first, ostensibly, to preserve the union -- government of the people, for the people, by the people -- at any cost, but ultimately, as the movie dramatizes, to eradicate slavery, which was originally both the precipitating cause of the union breakup and avowedly not Lincoln's goal (though containing slavery was).   Preserving the union by force was, absent the higher, originally disavowed goal of ending slavery, an outlandish legal and moral proposition: how could such a union be deemed indissoluble when vast majorities in the core seceding states were in favor?  As Lincoln's secretary Hay says at the end of Gore Vidal's fantastic novel Lincoln, the South, had a perfect right to secede -- unless you weigh their brutal subjugation of the African Americans among them in the balance (that's my addition, not Hay's).

Adam Gopnik recently meditated on that strange moral equation -- and a version of Brooks' paradox of the politician -- as follows:
The new Spielberg-Kushner-Lewis movie, “Lincoln,” reminds us (or will, once widely released) that Lincoln’s entire conduct in office during the war was based on the fiction that the secession had never happened—that the South was not a rebellious nation but, rather, a bunch of outlaws running around in gang regalia. What you could see had just happened—a bunch of states becoming an alien nation—had not. This fiction of continuity, of an indissoluble union in the face of its rather evident dissolution, was essential to Lincoln’s case and to his credo.

To this list of—what shall we call them?—higher liars (sounds harsh, though it conveys something of the idea) most other great politicians might be added. F.D.R...[and Reagan, and Obama].
That "fiction" of an indissoluble union was originally, for Lincoln, an end in itself -- or rather, a necessary condition for democracy not to perish from the earth.  By the end, it fused with and served a more ultimate sense of justice -- though couched, with Lincoln's characteristic humility, as a conditional, provisional perception:
Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
I've wondered more than once why I find this proposition so moving. I don't "believe" it -- that is, I don't believe that a personal God focused on human affairs sent the war as punishment for collective sin. But I do believe that democracy is a kind of social evolution of humanity -- an adaptation that enables the species to thrive -- and that Lincoln pushing the Civil War to its conclusion in his own ruthless-merciful way was a kind of miracle.  I also feel that, in a 19th century key, Lincoln's assertion that the universe bends toward justice meets Obama's test for injection of religious values into politics: as an appeal to universal reason, independent of any particular theological belief (beyond theism).  That is, Lincoln puts his religious intuition forward as an "if/then," underpinned by a sense of justice that he invites the listener to share, laying claim only to "firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right."  That is all that any leader can ask, the only claim to authority a democratic leader can make.

Update: Adam Gopnik has more today (11/24) on Lincoln's ultimate ends. See also his terrific 2007 essay about the lawerly underpinnings (and biblical and Shakespearean resonances) of Lincoln's rhetoric.

On two sources for Lincoln
Don't underestimate Thaddeus Stevens


  1. Just wonderful. Damn it, now I'm going to have to go see Lincoln.

  2. Your pardon for quibbling about a minor line in an otherwise solid piece, but the Civil War was not only not "the most horrendous extended bloodletting the world had known to that date", it wasn't even the worst going on at that time. It was unique among modern wars of Western Europeans and their descendants but the Taiping Rebellion was one of the worst things the world has ever seen and even it was not the worst thing Asia had seen at that point.