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Spielberg’s Lincoln: A Lesson in Realpolitik for a Squeamish Age Spielberg’s Lincoln: A Lesson in Realpolitik for a Squeamish Age

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Spielberg’s Lincoln: A Lesson in Realpolitik for a Squeamish Age


This image released by Walt Disney Pictures shows Daniel Day-Lewis portraying Abraham Lincoln in the film "Lincoln." (AP Photo/Disney-DreamWorks II, David James)()

You know that every commander in chief has thought this numerous times, if not actually said it aloud: "I am the president of the United States of America, clothed in immense power. You will procure me these votes."

What that meant for Abraham Lincoln, who uttered those words in Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln, was a trio of hard-drinking, hard-smoking lobbyists rushing around town finding defeated House members who would exchange their votes for a postmaster job. They are sleazy, comic figures helping a president achieve one of the noblest and most strategically important practical goals in American history: passing a constitutional amendment ending slavery.


The gulf between Lincoln’s means and his ends, as portrayed by Spielberg, is staggering. A nation riven by slavery will not stand, therefore abolition will both right a terrible wrong and preserve the union. Two purposes that could not be loftier, and a president who could not be more down to earth. Lincoln is intimately familiar with each vote target’s circumstances and vulnerabilities, and personally advises the lobbyists on what to offer. He’s not above evasion or improvisation or scheming as he juggles his determination to pass the amendment with Confederate peace overtures that could kill it.

Don’t bring the Confederate delegation to Washington, he tells a Union peace envoy. Keep them in Hampton Roads, Va., for now. Word leaks out, of course, as Congress is preparing for the big vote. Amid the inevitable rush of furious questions, Lincoln demonstrates impressive mastery of the non-denial denial. Peace delegation in Washington? Not that I’m aware of.

Spielberg based his movie on a portion of Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Lincoln’s Cabinet. “He wanted to show that a politician can be a great guy at a time when we’re cynical about politics,” Goodwin said in an interview with NBC’s David Gregory.


If Lincoln were operating now, though, Americans would be following all the wheeling, dealing, and good-government lamentations in real time on Twitter and cable TV. I’m guessing there would be plenty of cynicism, and certainly no halo — at least until decades later. 

The bald jobs-for-votes bargaining in Lincoln would be illegal now under the Civil Service system. The insults hurled on the House floor back then were more colorful. But while the “incentives” and language are different, the process is not unfamiliar to any follower of modern politics.

The late senator Arlen Specter held out for $10 billion in Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill to fight cancer. Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins insisted on shrinking the overall package. They provided votes 58, 59, and 60 to get it passed.

Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the 60th vote on health reform after extracting restrictions on abortion funding and a promise that the federal government would pay the entire cost of the Medicaid expansion required by the law. Forever. Only in Nebraska. 


Then there was George W. Bush’s Medicare prescription-drug program. In the days before the 2005 vote, the administration suppressed an unpalatably high cost estimate. On the House floor, during that unprecedented three-hour vote, GOP Rep. Jo Ann Emerson hid on the Democratic side of the chamber to evade her party’s vote counters. GOP Rep. Nick Smith was told that his son, running to succeed him, would not receive the party endorsement if he voted no.

The goals of those three laws — staving off a second Great Depression, reaching for universal health insurance, filling in a major coverage gap for seniors — aimed high (Kearns Goodwin calls Obama’s health law “transformative”), but they don’t have the moral grandeur of ending slavery. The most analogous moral moment in this century may be the coda to Lincoln’s reach for the high ground: the Civil Rights Act of 1965, pushed and shoved to passage by another master arm-twister, Lyndon Johnson.

“He calls on us through the ages to commit ourselves to the unfinished work he so nobly advanced—the work of perfecting our Union,” Obama wrote of Lincoln in February at He reportedly was “incredibly moved” by Lincoln, which he screened at the White House this month.

The film is in fact incredibly moving, but it is also more than that. It’s a realpolitik instruction manual and a spine-stiffening serum for politicians and those who elect them. It exalts ends without sugar-coating means, and holds out the promise of vindication — in history, if not their lifetimes — for leaders who wield their “immense power” to perfect the nation as they see it.

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