Saturday, December 08, 2012

Following Lincoln's Moral Compass

(Reflection on the film LINCOLN directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Tony Kushner. Based especially on Doris Kearns Goodwin's LINCOLN: A TEAM OF RIVALS.)

A compass will surely lead you North, says Daniel Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln in the recent film, but it cannot tell you of swamps and mountains in the way.   I'm paraphrasing Tony Kushner's remarkable screenplay, here, because that single line encapsulates one of the three qualities in Lincoln that I most admire, and this response to the accusation that he has "no moral compass" is the most succinct that I've encountered in a lifetime of reading about the 16th President.

The screenplay is structured to show both Lincoln's relentless pushing towards his goal (winning Congressional approval for the 13th amendment) and the maneuvering he has to do to get there -- including canny backroom political deals as well as personal moral persuasion.  His dream of piloting a ship towards a vague shore, shown early in the film, underscores the main line of the film.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film captures another trait of Lincoln.  Scene after scene, he is the least imposing character in the room:  gaunt, weary, intent on others' words -- whether these are tight-lipped politicos pronouncing their certainties about the future, or cheeky young soldiers black and white who voice their aspirations to their Commander-in-Chief.  Yet we are always drawn to watch him.  He was a man who listened.  He drew others out, hearing both what they said, and what they implied.  In the film, Lincoln is always taking into account the minutiae of political and military decisions and weighing the personal impacts they'll have against national, partisan, and moral concerns. Two moments stand out this way:  a scene in which Lincoln signs a pardon for a deserting soldier, and a scene at the telegraph office where, all alone, he listens to the young telegraph operator's opinion, then slyly revises his dictated telegraph message for Confederate negotiators to be maddeningly ambiguous -- affording his administration what would today be called "deniability."

In the movie, when Lincoln has made up his mind, he quietly turns the other person's speech around to persuade them face-to-face. It's in the White House kitchen, away from a state ball elsewhere, that firebrand abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens accuses him of having "no moral compass." Lincoln's answer sways Stevens and tips momentum towards passage of the 13th Amendment banning slavery, Lincoln's main objective in this movie.

The other trait that I've always loved is Lincoln's sense of humor.  The actor portraying Secretary of War Stanton (to my eyes a perfect embodiment of the Stanton I've seen in photos and read about in biographies) blusters away in anger when Lincoln begins "one of his stories" at the telegraph office where everyone awaits news from a critical battle.  It happened a lot in real life. I've read elsewhere that Stanton did publicly chide Lincoln for inappropriate levity, and Lincoln reportedly replied, "I laugh because I must not weep."

I searched the internet for any historical basis for the "moral compass" line, and, finding none, took time to read then-Senator Obama's appreciation of Lincoln in a speech at the Chicago Institute.  I share his vision of the man and President.  Link here:

I also happened upon this anecdote, of personal interest to me: 

Mr. Lincoln was so poor that when he was elected to the Illinois State Legislature, he had to ask his friend Coleman Smoot for a $60 loan. "Smoot," asked Mr. Lincoln, "did you vote for me? Admitted Smoot, "I did that very thing." Then, Mr. Lincoln responded, "that makes you responsible. You must lend me the money to buy suitable clothing, for I want to make a decent appearance in the Legislature." (Richard J. Behn, 2004 is Research Director of the Lincoln Institute.)

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