Lincoln’s political ingenuityAbraham Lincoln was a political genius. He lived a multilayered political life. He was generous but cruel, humble but great. He was a lofty martyr but armed with a Machiavellian astuteness. His leadership crossed contradictory lines.
“Lincoln,” the film by director Steven Spielberg, examines the former president’s leadership. The movie features the story of the battle to pass the 13th Amendment at the House of Representatives. It was the most dramatic political game in American history.
The movie begins in Washington in January 1865. The war was heading toward Lincoln’s victory for the North. Lincoln was a re-elected president, and his Republican Party was the majority party. And yet, it doesn’t have the required two-thirds majority to make the amendment. Lincoln was 20 votes short.
The opposition Democratic Party put priority on peace negotiations with its Confederate government. The party couldn’t negotiate or make concessions as a whole, while the ruling party was split between the hawks and the doves.
During Lincoln’s presidency, the Civil War continued to rage. In the four years of the war, 620,000 died, and the movie graphically portrays the bloodshed.
On the front lines, soldiers memorized the Gettysburg Address. The speech was short. The three-minute address contained 272 words but represented the essence of the power of presidential language. In the speech, Lincoln (played in the film by three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis) promised “a new birth of freedom,” signaling his determination to end slavery.
In the middle of his presidency, Lincoln presented the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a temporary measure resorted to during the war and could have been subject to a new legal interpretation after the war. Lincoln was determined to complete constitutional protection for it before the war ended.
His strategy in Congress was versatile. He persuaded, appeased, communicated with and pressured lawmakers all at the same time. His first targets were scores of lame duck opposition congressmen. Although they failed to be re-elected, they still had about two months in the office. Lincoln tried to persuade them to break away from the party platform. In return for their political apostasy, he offered them top government posts. It was closed-door politics based on back-room logrolling.
State Secretary William H. Seward (David Strathairn) worked as a secret fixer. He used to be Lincoln’s political rival, but he became a loyalist during the deal.
Lincoln also concentrated his efforts on the straightforward tactics of persuasion. He visited the houses of opposition lawmakers late at night. In front of a door in the dark night, his leadership of communication shone.
He also needed to satisfy the moderates in his party. Their leader was Francis P. Blair (Hal Holbrook). Blair volunteered to lead the peace talks with the South, and Lincoln accepted the offer. It was a gamble. If the negotiations were made public, all he had worked on would crumble, and he would face attacks from the opposition party.
Lincoln was at a crossroads of whether to end the war or to end slavery.
He then raised the stakes by playing contradictory cards, making breakthroughs with paradoxes and twists. Spielberg displays how Lincoln plays the game of politics with extreme emotion.
Lincoln also managed to placate the radical Republicans. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) was a fierce opponent of slavery, and his attitudes fueled the Democrats’ wariness.
“A compass will always point you to true North, and if you follow its path, you will surely never reach what you seek, for you cannot survive the swamps, rivers, and chasms you must cross on your way” said Lincoln in an example of his charm. Stevens then says he doesn’t hold with equality in all things, just equality before the law. Spielberg’s imaginative power heightened the tension at the moment of the amendment’s roll-call vote. The peace talks with the South rose as an obstacle, and the opposition party asked for the truth. Lincoln said the southern government delegation wasn’t in Washington, but were still in the northern states. He slyly avoided telling a lie, and his ability to react quickly reminds us of Machiavelli’s art of lying (“the better the liar, the better the prince”).
The amendment was passed by two votes. In the movie, Stevens summarized the event by saying, “The greatest measure of the 19th century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
It was another truth that Spielberg captured about Lincoln as a master of politics. The two faces of Lincoln’s politics served a noble purpose.
Politics is mudslinging, and a great history is built in the mud. Lincoln’s politics are a mixture of straightforward strategy and bending the rules. Courage, decisiveness and constituency are the driving forces, and he had an associate who played the villain.
In the movie, Lincoln had candid conversations with soldiers. He told his aide that he always listened “with all three of my ears.” That counterbalanced the sly old side of his politics.
U.S. President Barack Obama is a Lincoln expert. He said the movie taught him a lesson on how to live as a president. He has used the legacy of Lincoln wisely.
The movie also makes us compare Lincoln’s politics with that of Park Geun-hye. Her strategy of trying to push the government restructuring bill through the National Assembly is poor. The Saenuri Party and the Blue House are not fierce, and her strategists are weak. The film sends an important message to Korean politics.
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon