I’d been reflecting on the movie Lincoln with a certain uneasiness. I deeply appreciated how the movie brought to life a moment of American history that recalls the deep racism that permeated the Congress during the Civil War, and the courageous role Lincoln played in fighting for an end to slavery. Yet something very deep was missing, and that became clearer to me after reading the misguided response to the movie by David Brooks, a former editor at the right-wing Daily Standard who now makes inroads with some liberals by spouting pro–status quo wisdom from his perch at the New York Times.
In his column on November 22, 2012, Brooks sums up the individualistic ethics of contemporary conservatives in the course of praising the wisdom of Lincoln, which was directed by Stephen Spielberg from a script by Tony Kushner. Precisely what Brooks loves about the movie is what I believe to be its most disappointing aspect. I loved the film’s brilliant production but felt more than a little upset by the aspects of its message that Brooks praises.
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.
Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good. This is a self-restrained movie that celebrates people who are prudent, self-disciplined, ambitious and tough enough to do that work.
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