'Lincoln' movie shows politics at its best in a master's hands

David Brooks /

Published Nov 28, 2012 at 04:00AM

We live in an anti-political moment, when many people — young people especially — think politics is a low, nasty, corrupt and usually fruitless business. It’s much nobler to do community service or just avoid all that putrid noise.

I hope everybody who shares this anti-political mood will go out to see “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner. The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way.

It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.

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.

The movie also illustrates another thing: that politics is the best place to develop the highest virtues. Politics involves such a perilous stream of character tests that the people who can practice it and remain intact, like Lincoln, Washington or Churchill, are incredibly impressive.

The movie shows a character-building trajectory, common among great politicians, which you might call the trajectory from the Gettysburg Address to the Second Inaugural.

In the Gettysburg phase, a leader expresses grand ideas. This, frankly, is relatively easy. Lots of people embrace grand ideals or all-explaining ideologies. But satisfied with that they become morally infantile. They refuse to compromise, insult their opponents and isolate themselves on the perch of their own solipsism.

But a politician like Lincoln takes the next step in the trajectory. He has to deal with other people. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” does a nice job celebrating an underappreciated art, the art of legislating.

The movie is about pushing the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives. The political operatives Lincoln hires must pay acute attention to the individual congressmen in order to figure out which can be appealed to through the heart and which through the wallet.

Lincoln plays each potential convert like a musical instrument, appealing to one man’s sense of idealism, another’s fraternal loyalty. His toughest job is to get the true believers on his own side to suppress themselves, to say things they don’t believe in order not to offend the waverers who are needed to get the amendment passed.

That leads to the next step in the character-building trajectory, what you might call the loneliness of command. Toward the end of the Civil War, Lincoln had to choose between two rival goods — immediate peace and the definitive end of slavery. He had to scuttle a peace process that would have saved thousands of lives in order to achieve a larger objective.

He had to discern the core good, legal equality, among a flurry of other issues. He had to use a constant stream of words, stories, allusions and arguments to cajole people. He had to live with a crowd of supplicants forever wanting things at the door without feeling haughty or superior to them.

If anything, the movie understates how hard politics can be. The moral issue here is a relatively clean one: slavery or no slavery. Most issues are not that simple. The bill in question here is a constitutional amendment. There’s no question of changing this or that subsection and then wondering how much you’ve destroyed the whole package.

Politicians who can navigate such challenges really do emerge with the sort of impressive weight expressed in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. It’s a speech that acknowledges that there is moral ambiguity on both sides. It’s a speech in which Lincoln, in the midst of the fray, is able to take a vantage point above it, embodying a tragic and biblical perspective on human affairs. Lincoln’s wisdom emerges precisely from the fact that he’s damaged goods.

Politics doesn’t produce many Lincolns, but it does produce some impressive people and, sometimes, great results. Take a few hours from the mall. See the movie.