Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir feeds our twin cravings for movie insight and political prognosis, and skirts the review embargo on Spielberg’s Lincoln by talking about the man in terms of the film.
Abraham Lincoln remains until further notice the standard by which all presidents are judged, and by which all invariably fall short. The task that confronts presidents and turns them prematurely gray – look at pictures of Barack Obama in 2008 and today, or George W. Bush in 2001 and 2008 – has two levels that are often in conflict. He (one day soon we may get to add “she”) must fight the political battles of the day, with all the compromise, arm-twisting, prevarication and skulduggery that implies, while still holding in mind larger and more abstract questions about the role of the United States in the world, the moral imperatives of history, the will of God.
Neither Obama nor Mitt Romney is foolish enough to compare himself directly to Lincoln, but whichever man is elected on Tuesday faces a political landscape nearly as divided and poisonous as the one confronted by the 16th president. Moreover, this year’s election will vividly illustrate that the schisms of the Civil War – over differing visions of justice and equality, competing ideas about states’ rights and federal power, cultural divisions between North and South – have yet to heal, long after the passage of many generations and enormous waves of demographic change ought to have rendered them irrelevant. I have no doubt about which candidate Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner believe comes closer to the Lincolnian ideal, but their remarkable film “Lincoln” offers urgent lessons to both candidates, and the rest of us, about how to wield political power in times of crisis. Whether those lessons still pertain in the dysfunctional climate of the 21st century is another matter.