Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Was Lincoln an Earlier Day Lyndon?

Some might think it was good timing to delay seeing the film "Lincoln" until the week of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Actually, sheer inertia caused the geezer to wait so long. Once I dragged my body to the local theater and took in the show, the most surprising thing was I didn’t go sooner.

Did Honest Abe fib on occasion?
Another surprising thing was that the film drew large audiences during long runs.  The story line is not the kind of plot designed to lure hordes of paying customers by appealing to the baser human instincts, as Hollywood usually does. It was more of a serious history lesson than a light-weight entertainment.

For example, at one point Mr. Lincoln gave his cabinet a very basic and detailed lecture on the legal reasons the 13th Amendment to the Constitution needed to be passed by Congress, including the observation that his famous Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the southern states, may have been illegal. Usually, this sort of stuff would bore audiences into some serious nap time. I found it fascinating, and didn’t hear a single snore resonating in the theater.

In these days when the American public rates Congress just a notch or so above its fondness for root canals, there were striking similarities between the ways the film depicted Washington politicians and today’s perceptions of them. Descriptors such as “corrupt, deceitful, overly ambitions, and manipulative” might apply.

Lincoln certainly came across as a master manipulator, but he skillfully avoided the less complimentary labels by arranging for others to do the dirty work. In fact, the film showed him managing all sorts of unethical conduct without actually telling a blatant lie. “Honest Abe” at his best? It appeared that way even if the honesty was only skin deep at times.

Of course, we never can be sure about the historical accuracy of a Hollywood production. “Lincoln” shows President Lincoln cleverly and persistently overcoming dedicated opposition to ramrod passage of the 13th Amendment through the Senate. Wikipedia, a fairly reliable source, says Mr. Lincoln “did nothing to help push through Congress the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.”  One or the other is wrong.

Historically accurate or not, the film ultimately did a good job of re-posing an age-old philosophical question: Does the end justify the means?  In the end, Abraham Lincoln surely exerted a mighty influence on the abolition of slavery throughout the United States, no matter how he did it.

We are told that President Lyndon Johnson spent long hours in the 1960s on the phone twisting arms and making deals to gain passage of key civil rights legislation and “Great Society” social justice programs.  Might we assume some of his conduct could have been classified as “unethical”?

What do you think? Are questionable tactics OK if they help bring about great good?


Kay Dennison said...

Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures. And to be honest, I can live with that.

Kay Dennison said...

And oh yeah, I can't wait to see it!!!

Tom Sightings said...

I saw the movie abt two weeks ago. A solid film, a little smaltzy in parts (like the reciting of the Gettysburg address), but a great performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. Johnson was as corrupt as any politician -- but we forget that thus has always been so.

PiedType said...

My brother saw the movie just last week and went out of his way to write to me, praising it, urging that I see it, and wishing we has someone like Lincoln around today to get some things done in Washington. It's been on my short list to see, but considering I get out to only one or two movies a year and a new Die Hard opens today ...

schmidleysscribblins, said...

I have ordered the DVD. Don't frequent theaters many germs. Haven't been ill in years...knock on wood.

Reading the Caro book on LBJ and also several other books on Lincoln, including Team of Rivals by Doris K. Goodwin. Apparently the Lincoln movie is based on this book.
These books have been eye-opening, especially the LBJ book. I had no idea the Kennedys hated him so much.

Just bought another book on Silent Cal....Coolidge. The history professor at GMU (my alma mata...2012) who teaches the course on the American presidents frequently appears on the PBS Newshour.

For me, these books are an extension of my history grad work, but you might enjoy them...All are well written. Dianne

PS He also uses Decision Points by G.W. Bush.