Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Yes, Team of Rivals was Tony Kushner's "principal source" for Lincoln

I came to  Michael Vorenberg's Final Freedom: The Civil War, The Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment (2001) via Timothy Noah, who suggested in a New Republic  "best books" listicle  that this book was likely the unacknowledged main source of the movie Lincoln,  In a Jan. 10 followup, Noah notes that "Lincoln isn't adapted in any meaningful way from its nominal source, Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals, which despite its many virtues dedicates only a few pages to the film's central narrative--the passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution" and that Final Freedom is "a book rich in narrative detail that [screenplay author Tony] Kushner surely feasted on."

I finished Final Freedom yesterday, after a slow read, noting points of convergence and divergence with the movie along the way. A week or two ago, I reread Goodwin's four pages on the House's passage of the thirteenth amendment in January 1865. And what struck me right away -- and now again as I read those pages again -- is that the film's narrative shape and thematic focus bear a much closer resemblance to Goodwin's short hero's narrative than to Vorenberg's richly detailed, polyphonic tic-toc.

Preparing to write that thought up, I went to TNR to pull Noah's article and discovered that he has gone on something of a quest to get Tony Kushner to acknowledge a debt to Vorenberg. In a followup,  Noah spoke to both Kushner and Vorenberg.  Kushner acknowledges having read Final Freedom, and praises it warmly, but denies that it was a primary source. Reading his response was for me a case of reading more or less what I was about to write. So..me first! -- it's my blog. Then, Kushner and Vorenberg.

Final Freedom is a great book, and there's a lot of factual overlap with Lincoln. But it feels different. That's partly a matter of length and context. Final Freedom chronicles in great detail the fight to pass the amendment in the Senate in the spring of 1864, during which Lincoln remained neutral, and the jockeying over whether the Republicans and Lincoln should make the amendment part of their election platform, which they did only when prompted by a third-party convention to their left; and the near-disappearance of the amendment during the campaign of 1864, when both sides effectively decided it was too hot to handle, its political effects too uncertain. Throughout, it's clear that while Lincoln was deeply committed to securing emancipation by one means or another, he was exquisitely sensitive to the effect of any word or deed of his on public opinion as he struggled to steer the war effort through a period of horrific bloodletting and demoralizing military setback in the spring and summer of 1864. 

Even where Vorenberg's narrative overlaps with Lincoln, in January 1865, it does not really have the drive set by theatrical convention, perhaps established by the musical 1776, that casts the passage as a Herculean lift, against the odds and up against the clock. With a stronger Republican majority about to be seated in March 1865, ultimate passage was a near-certainty: the question was more when than if. And in Vorenberg's telling, Lincoln's likely motives for suddenly urging passage in his Dec. 1864 address to Congress were multi-valenced:

1) The turning of the tide of war toward the North in late 1864, and Lincoln's subsequent reelection, generated strong popular demand for the amendment.

2) Military victory was not yet certain, and Lincoln wanted the slavery question settled (in times of military setback, the public tended to view emancipation as an obstacle to peace).

3) Having effected emancipation by executive decree, Lincoln wanted the decision decentered as well as settled: "If Congress quickly adopted the amendment and submitted it to the states, Lincoln could say that slavery was out of his hands. No longer could his opponents spread the false word that only his demand for emancipation stood in the way of peace (p. 177).

4) Passage of the amendment in Jan. 1865 would both unite Republicans -- some of whom wanted to effect emancipation by legislation imposing various other conditions on the South, and some of whom wanted to substitute an amendment guaranteeing suffrage and full civil rights to African Americans. It would also have a bipartisan sheen, pulling in some 20 Democratic votes.

Further, Final Freedom has a cast of dozens. Lincoln deserves credit for dramatizing the limits of presidential power and relatively complex dynamics in Congress.  But Vorenberg's book is quite naturally far less centered on Lincoln than the film is.

Goodwin's four pages, in contrast, read like one of those extracts from Plutarch you may have read at the back of your high school edition of one of Shakespeare's history plays: a precis of the whole. It's Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln.  His motive is simplified to the most compelling -- let's settle the question once and for all (never mind the by-then far more fraught questions of securing African Americans' civil rights and voting rights). The clock is ticking relentlessly. The off-color shenanigans deployed to get the votes are compressed in those four pages, along with Lincoln's known episodes of one-on-one lobbying, and Lincoln's (now-) famous dodge about the peace commissioners whose overtures he had authorized not being "in the city. His pithiest get-it-done-now statements (real and perhaps apocryphal) are all in there.

Regarding the exchange of votes for jobs, Vorenberg is both more detailed and more ambiguous than Goodwin. He claims that there is only one more or less documented case in which a vote for the amendment was swapped for a job (by Ashley, and ultimately unconsummated because Andrew Johnson did not acknowledge the deal), and while he acknowledges allegations that bribes were offered, he finds no evidence that any vote actually changed hands for money. Seward's agents of influence come off more as veteran mainstream political operatives, admittedly comfortable with the venal conventions of the times, than as the off-color rogues they seem in Lincoln.

The two authors' treatment of an alleged incident that made for a great movie scene is instructive. Here's how I saw the movie moment:
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. 
To the extent that this anecdote was fact, it did not take place in a cabinet meeting. Here's how Goodwin describes it:
He assigned two of his allies in the House to deliver the votes of two wavering members. When they asked how to proceed, he said, "I am President of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by constitutional provision settles the fate, for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come--a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes."  It was clear to emissaries that his powers extended to plum assignments, pardons, campaign contributions, and government jobs for relatives and friends of faithful members  (Team of Rivals, p. 687).
Two things to note here: 1) Goodwin relays the story uncritically, as fact; and 2) she fits the tale into the narrative of Lincoln puppet-mastering the vote procurement process.  Compare Vorenberg:
According to John B. Alley, a Republican congressman from Massachusetts, the president called two members of the House to the White House and told them to find two votes for the measure (it is not clear in Alley's story whether they already supported the amendment). When the congressmen asked for more specific instructions, Lincoln supposedly responded, "I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes."

Alley's recollection, published twenty-three years after the event, was one of many reminiscences that implicated the president in the unseemly political bargaining that occurred during the days before the final vote. Such tales became ammunition for those critics of Lincoln - both his contemporaries and later historians - who accused him of forsaking principle in pursuit of policy. But the evidence in this instance does not bear out the image. There is not one reliable source, nor even an unreliable one, that reports the president making any specific promise in exchange for a vote for the amendment.86

Still, Alley's account, while difficult to believe in its specifics - Lincoln was not the sort of executive to say, "I am President . . . clothed with great power" - does suggest the role the President took in the final drive for the amendment. By endorsing the measure in his annual message and by directly confronting specific congressmen, Lincoln sent a clear signal that he would look kindly on those opposition members who switched their vote. The message was certainly received in the House. "The wish or order of the President is very potent," said an opponent of the amendment during the debate. "He can punish and reward."s7

Yet, rather than offer specific promises to potential converts, Lincoln let his lieutenants make the bargains and use his name to seal the agreement. This arrangement kept the president uninvolved in shady negotiations while giving tremendous bargaining power to Ashley, Seward, and others working for the amendment.Probably a few deals were designed in this fashion, and at least one is well documented. Congressman Anson Herrick, a New York Democrat, already approved of the amendment in principle (his paper, the New York Atlas, had published editorials in its favor), but he was reluctant to break with the majority of his party by voting against it. From Ashley and others - but not from the president - Herrick received a promise of an appointment for his brother as a federal revenue assessor in exchange for his vote. After Congress adopted the amendment, Lincoln assured Herrick that "whatever Ashley had promised should he performed," and he sent the recommendation for Herrick's brother to the Senates`' (Kindle locations 2470-2490).
The two versions are not incongruent. Both suggest that Lincoln did signal that while keeping his hands clean he would authorize unseemly trades, short of cash bribes, effected by his lieutenants.  But Vorenberg doubts that Lincoln was as naked about it as Alley intimates, suggesting a greater distance between Lincoln and the dealings.

There's one final irony in Vorenberg's exquisitely nuanced depiction of the multiple (and mixed) individual motives, political pressures, and maneuvering that led to passage of the thirteenth amendment in Congress.  In Vorenberg's telling, the process was less corrupt than it was later depicted. When the war ended, alliances between "War Democrats" and Republicans collapsed; Republicans accused Democrats who voted with them of corrupt motives, and Democrats countered with corruption allegations of their own:
More commonly, however, speakers and writers dismissed the temporary bipartisan alliance as the result of mere opportunism, if not illicit bargaining. Such was the verdict of the Republican Henry Wilson, whose monumental Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America looked dubiously upon the congressional coalition that approved the amendment: "Many acted from the highest convictions of religious obligation.... Others were prompted mainly by humane considerations and a natural detestation of slavery.... But a larger number still, it is probable, acted from prudential considerations merely."' I Other Republicans went further. In reminiscences published long after the war, former Republican congressmen George S. Boutwell, Albert G. Riddle, and George Julian all pointed to sinister intentions on the part of opposition congressmen who supported the amendment. Thanks in large part to such unflattering and politically motivated accounts, the amendment was permanently tainted with the mark of corruption.92

Instead of denying the corruption charge, Democrats usually took up the muckrake and swung it at Republicans. When Samuel S. "Sunset" Cox, a former Democratic congressman from Ohio, first published his memoirs in 1866, he mentioned nothing about crooked dealings behind the Thirteenth Amendment. But after rumors circulated casting a villainous light on the amendment's non-Republican supporters, Cox changed his story. In 188 S, when he published his second autobiography, the former Ohioan, now living in New York, had just won a seat in Congress by campaigning against the financial misdealing of the Republican administration. Cox accordingly revised his tale of the Thirteenth Amendment's approval to include an episode in which a roguish, unnamed, "radical" Republican tried without success to reap a $1,000 payoff by securing Cox's vote.'

Regardless of the actual extent of corruption behind the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment - and certainly there was some - the later accounts of illicit activity did poor service to the cause of constitutional abolition. The widespread story that the Thirteenth Amendment was the offspring of expedient if not illegal politicking, combined with the judicial disuse of the measure, diminished the amendment in the eyes of the American people. For nearly a century after the measure's adoption, the amendment was all but effaced from public memory (pg. 243).
How sad, if the spin was in fact more corrupt than the action.  It's as if the Republican narrative about passage of the Affordable Care Act were to gain credence as the dominant historical narrative. Lincoln, a bit paradoxically, somewhat simplifies the corruption narrative and yet subsumes it in the monumental accomplishment -- as does Goodwin.

Which brings us back to Tony Kushner's response to Noah's accusations that he failed to credit Final Freedom adequately. Here's Kushner:
Tony Kushner acknowledged, in a phone conversation earlier today, a debt to Michael Vorenberg's Final Freedom, which I previously identified as the likely principal source for Kushner's Oscar-nominated Lincoln script. Vorenberg's book, Kushner told me, contains "a very detailed and as far as I know the only finely detailed account of the congressional battle" to pass the 13th amendment, including Secretary of State William Seward's role in hiring some colorful characters to grease the skids. "It's the definitive account of that," Kushner said. "I admire [Vorenberg] enormously as an historian... His book is fantastic."

But Kushner disputed my speculation that Final Freedom was the principal source (if any there be) for Lincoln. Of Final Freedom's importance to writing his script, Kushner would say only that he has "a short list of 20 or 30 books that were significant to me, and Michael Vorenberg's book is certainly one of them." (He read many more books, of course, in the course of his research.)

"I would never take someone's work, make a play or movie about it, and just hope that nobody noticed," Kushner told me...

The principal source for the Lincoln screenplay, Kushner insisted to me, was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. "No book that I read was as significant" in influencing his script. "Doris's book is a magnificent account of Lincoln as a master politician," Kushner said. "That is the Lincoln that I really wanted to write about." Team of Rivals is, Kushner said, "the book to which I am most indebted," and it was where he first encountered the story of the 13th amendment's passage, though "not in any great detail."
Needless to say at this point: I agree! This is completely credible to me. Kushner's Lincoln is Goodwin's Lincoln -- and the movie, while it does a good job showing the limitations of presidential power and how Lincoln navigated them, is more Lincoln-centric, more of a great-man narrative (and yes, Lincoln was a great man!) than Vorenberg's more polyphonic and nuanced telling.

By the way, Vorenberg agrees, too.  Noah relays his response:
I’m not sure it’s such a stretch to say that the film was adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Certainly there is much of Goodwin’s book that made it into the film—not simply certain facts from history but the texture of the period and the character of Lincoln and others, especially cabinet members. I do want to make clear that, in my opinion, if Kusher’s screenplay is “adapted,” it wasn’t adapted from my book. I don’t deserve that credit. Bits of my book may have ended up in the screenplay, but so did bits of many other books. I think that Kushner’s screenplay, aside from being a great piece of writing, is a nice synthesis of much historical work, and he deserves credit for getting a very good handle on the vast Lincoln literature. I’m sure that much of that credit also goes to the historical advisors you mention, all of whom I admire and regard as top-notch: Harold Holzer, James M. McPherson, and of course Doris Kearns Goodwin.
But Noah won't take 'no' for an answer. He finds Kushner disingenuous and Vorenberg a little craven. I think he's suffering from discoverer's pride.

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