SAN JOSE, CA, December 2, 2012 - Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Lincoln’ has been out in theaters since mid-November and has generally received positive reviews and a few remarks from pundits putting in their two cents worth of semi-intelligent commentary. One reviewer pointed out that ‘Lincoln’ is receiving “bipartisan” support. Even New York Times columnist, David Brooks, praises Spielberg’s biopic on Abraham Lincoln’s efforts in pushing for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Brooks actually went further in his recent article when he praised the film’s depiction of politics as a noble pursuit in the overall development of social good.
In reality, there are two clear points obscured by Brooks’ simplistic perceptions of this movie focusing on an incredibly dramatic period of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. The first point is that presidents are unique individuals who will operate the apparatus of government based upon their respective capabilities and individual character traits. The second point is that the political power the presidents possess while empowered by the office can be utilized for the good or the opposite of good; or more specifically, such power can be used for destructive ends. It is not that government, as an entity under its own power, would have the capacity to create societal good or to perpetrate harm upon the people. People wield the power for good or harm based upon who they are.
President Abraham Lincoln was a strong president, but more importantly, he was a man of strong conscience. Although a very adept politician, he was one who had a substantial moral compass and a deep sense of right and wrong. The problem of using a slice from Lincoln’s life and portraying a portion of his presidency as an overall representation of the man or his work is that such a portrayal can be used to justify the work of other presidents who were not men of good conscience or men of strong moral character. In other words, using one example of presidential power politics to justify other examples of the same does not support the general claim that government can accomplish noble goals for the public good.
Brooks laments that the United States exhibits an anti-political sentiment in our day and that by seeing ‘Lincoln,’ people can have a better impression of politics than the impression that it is “low, nasty, corrupt and usually fruitless business.” The fact is that this aspect of politics is undeniable. It is all that and often worse. Watching a movie about how an incredibly moral man fought through all the crap that had to be dealt with in the political arena in order to change the country for the better does not generate a more favorable impression of politics. Brook’s point is that politics is portrayed and actually is “noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good.” Really?
While it may be true that political action can generate positive results, it is also true of the opposite reality because power politics can be a double edged sword. Politics can be equally ignoble and can favor the overly ambitious and selfishly motivated in their struggle to obtain objectives for personal gain or their Party’s profit. Is it that hard to recognize within the U.S. in the present day? It has actually been so for quite a long time in the nation and probably has been so since governments were first created among men. There are several examples of corruption throughout history and several blatant examples of such political corruption at the highest levels of the United States where the office of President was used for personal or Party privilege.
The reason that Abraham Lincoln stands out so strongly against such a backdrop of political manipulation and self-centered motivation is that what he did as president, he did for others. He worked not for selfish personal gain, he stood strong on principles that he believed in and that had been forged in blood by other selfless men – the founding fathers. As president, of course Lincoln was capable of playing the political game; but, he played it with humility and dignity. Lincoln stands out as such an example for action of good, not because politics is noble; he stands out because he was noble and put the good of the country first. Other presidents who were not so endowed, have played, and will play a much different game of power and presidential persuasion.
The movie, ‘Lincoln,’ could not easily reveal how the man, Lincoln, developed a strong character and became someone so driven that he was willing to do almost anything to accomplish his goal of freeing the slaves. However, in Lincoln’s life, he had served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, but lost his re-election bid at which time he decided to go back to his private law practice in Illinois. He was successful as a contract law attorney, and he could have remained in private law practice in Illinois during the 1850s, but the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and the Dred Scott decision handed down by the Supreme Court in March of 1857, altered his life forever.
Abraham Lincoln, like many in the North, was shocked at the Supreme Court’s decision that Mr. Dred Scott and his family were to remain as slaves despite legal precedent in the states that would have allowed the family their freedom. Lincoln believed it was totally wrong and decided to re-enter the political arena. He left the ineffective, divided Whig Party to join the infant Republican Party. He challenged one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, when he ran to unseat Stephen A. Douglas, who had designed and successfully ushered through Congress the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The subsequent Lincoln-Douglas debates vaulted Lincoln into the national spotlight as he became known throughout the nation as a key abolitionist.
On the other extreme, Democratic President-elect James Buchanan exercised a power of persuasion that made a significant impact on the outcome of that Dred Scott decision. Historians now point out that prior to his inauguration in March of 1857, Buchanan tampered with the Supreme Court’s decision by influencing one of the jurists. Specifically, Buchanan, taking the advice of the Southern Democrats, persuaded Associate Justice Robert Grier, a fellow Pennsylvanian, to vote with the Southern justices against Dred Scott in order to obscure the significance of the Southern dominance on the Supreme Court. Buchanan, a Southern sympathizer, hoped that the Supreme Court decision would put the issue of slavery out of the hands of the general public and put it to rest so as to expel it from the arena of public debate. The “nobility” of politics took a supreme hit as such presidential pressure on a Supreme Court justice was totally inappropriate.
Another more blatant and even brutal outcome from presidential power politics came in 1830 as the great granddaddy of the Democratic Party, Andrew Jackson, pressured Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act which directly resulted in the deaths of thousands of American Indians. President Jackson, played presidential power politics in a much different way. Instead of the nobility of what Lincoln accomplished for the slaves in his Proclamation of Emancipation or in his efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, Jackson served his own interest and the interest of his political supporters at the expense of the American Indians in the Southeast.
Jackson was probably as adamant that Congress pass the Indian Removal Act as Lincoln was when he was pushing the vote on the Thirteenth Amendment. But there was an incredible difference in purposes and the outcomes of the respective political pressure. Human beings were affected in totally opposite ways. The Thirteenth Amendment made slavery unconstitutional. The removal legislation was deemed unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled in Worcestor vs. Georgia that the Native American tribes were sovereign nations and that state law had no jurisdiction over tribal lands, and essentially that Jackson’s efforts were unconstitutional. Georgia and Jackson ignored the Supreme Court ruling. Jackson is reputed to have said: “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”
What can be learned from presidential power politics? It is a double edged sword. Politics becomes noble when noble and virtuous men or women are able to enter the political arena and hold on to the principles they acquired from sources more pure and virtuous than they could learn within the government. Fortunately, the family, the church, the synagogue, the mosque, the schools are still places in America today where respect and trustworthiness of the individual are in greater supply than within the halls of government. Public service and selflessness are still noble traits to pursue, but are often attacked and targets of corruption, not ideals learned within the contemporary political arena. Hopefully, citizens will grow to better discern the difference between the selfless and the selfish as public servants are elected.
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