LINCOLN: The “Long Rough” History With Fairness

 Lincoln    One would be hard pressed to find a more educational, entertaining, and sensual two and a half hours of film than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. That this movie comes to us at a time when an African-American sits in the white house seems prophetic. It is this information that provides the dramatic irony that streams throughout the arguments against abolition on the floor of congress and makes the viewer keenly aware of Lincoln’s moral courage even as Lincoln, played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis, himself could not verbalize how

the effects of a 13th Amendment passage would manifest.

The 16th president was a driven man, an autodidact with a tremendous humility that tempered the tremendous power that comes with the Presidency. The movie, taken from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, lays to rest the oft told tales of Lincoln’s moral ambivalence towards the idea of ending slavery. The central conflict in Lincoln deals with the opposition of the Democrats in the House of Representatives to the passage of the 13th Amendment and educates the viewer as it pulls apart the south’s argument for the continuation of slavery. The importance of this amendment passage is obvious. But, the rush of activity to pass this legislation in that particular month (January 1865) rather than wait for a new pro-Lincoln congress to be seated needs explanation.  The prevailing rationale was that Lincoln wanted to show cross-party approval to prove a national unity. But, hadn’t national unity been evident with Lincoln’s reelection in 1864? In his New York Times review of Lincoln, professor of history at the University of Virginia, Philip Zelikow, suggests Spielberg is the truer “historian” here because the movie’s explanation “that Lincoln and…Secretary of State William H. Seward,  realized that the war might end at any time and when it did, any prospect for passing the amendment as a means to win the war would end with it” (NYT Opinionator, 2012), provides a more persuasive argument.  Using this premise, Spielberg sets up the intrigue prompted by the parallel story of   Francis Preston Blair Sr. (played by the late Hal Holbrook) the well-respected, conservative Republican and his attempts to arrange secret peace talks between Confederate and Union envoys. It is plausible that had these talks actually taken place prior to the vote, and a peace agreement been signed, the argument for the passage of the 13th Amendment (the necessity of outlawing slavery forever to end the war) would have been found weak.  Spielberg’s movie pulls back the curtain on the workings of the House and the men who filled the air with jubilant applause or boos and hisses depending on the matter at hand. But even this frat-house atmosphere did not minimize the effect of the heightened language used to cut and rend its target with precise aim. The radical Republican (no oxymoron in this instance) Thaddeus Stevens, played beautifully by Tommy Lee Jones, spouted erudite rejoinders that made me wish I had a paper and pen to record his words for personal posterity (and usage).

The four-month period covered in the film represents the last four months of Lincoln’s life and serves to humanize Lincoln, his family and close friends. We hear Lincoln – before we see him – his dreams being recalled to his wife, Mary Todd, played by Sally Field. The sense that his wife is the vessel into which Lincoln’s hopes for the future of a whole country are poured is prominent from the very beginning. We are treated to Lincoln’s soft nurturing side as he spots his son Tad (played by Gulliver McGrath) asleep by the fireplace and proceeds to get down on the floor, lovingly stroking his son’s hair before hoisting him on his back for the trip to bed thus completing what we come to believe is this father and son’s bedtime ritual. It is hard to say who is responsible (director or actor) for the humanity that animates Lincoln. Maybe it is simply the collective elegance of Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg that binds the audience to the film’s message. The same can be said for Mary Todd Lincoln. Sally Field lets us see the tormented Mrs. Lincoln who, after suffering a parent’s worst nightmare – the death of a child – continues to waver between fierce reality and a drain-circling melancholia. We see Mrs. Lincoln’s insight as she attempts to locate her place in history, suggesting that she will be forever seen as the hysterical wife and impediment to a famous husband.  Today, Mary Todd Lincoln would be treated with a well prescribed anti-depressant and expected to snap out of it for the sake of the country.  But parental torment is not hers alone. Both husband and wife do verbal battle in an argument laced with a combined, unresolved grief. It is Lincoln who acknowledges his grief, declaring it just as legitimate as his wife’s. The president’s outburst emotion underscores the enormous weight wrought by the his desire to pass legislation of great scale and the heart-deadening sadness of his child’s death.

The movie’s subtle lighting lends itself to the somber plot. The soft close lighting of the lair belonging to democratic party operative William Bilbo, played convincingly by James Spader, added to the intrigue of the Bilbo character who, now freed from prison by Lincoln, begins to lobby/politic for the passage of the 13th  Amendment.  The relationship between Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward, played by David Strathairn, embodies John Hay’s (Assistant Private Secretary to Abraham Lincoln) description of a “friendship…so absolute and sincere…between these two magnanimous spirits.” Seward is by turns conscience and devil’s advocate assuring Lincoln of multiple perspectives on issues. But it is Day-Lewis’s Lincoln who commands the screen as he is shuttled around a muddy Washington in an open carriage and as he spurs then halts his horse through battlefields quiet but for the smoke and blood. We see the pain of a man, a husband, and a father as he sadly takes in the faces of the dead – young men the age of his oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln who desperately wants to fight for the Union cause. Lincoln’s calm demeanor is broken three times – once in his argument with his wife, and when he slaps his oldest son in parental frustration with his son’s military aims, and again when he pounds his fist on the desk yelling for his team to get the votes needed to pass the amendment.   This last outburst sets off a montage of activity detailing  perfectly calibrated cajoling, lobbying and the promising of all manner of perks to the congressional lame ducks. Lincoln’s insistence on getting the necessary votes rather than be satisfied with Blair’s peace arrangement with the south leaves one to shudder at the potential for disaster had the south been left to take care of its slave “problem.”  It is as if Lincoln knew this, knew of his limited time left and was quite willing to endure the long rough history with fairness.

I Don’t Want Much…

 

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUV•WXYZ

There are some systems that shouldn’t be tampered with – the IRS, a good relationship, or sleeping babies and puppies come to mind. But, for the sake of civilization, I have to  tamper with the foundation of our communication. Yes, the alphabet. My problem with letters can be traced back to childhood where I had to continually sub -vocalize those powerful 26 letters in the order I learned them whenever I had to alphabetize something. I carried this habit into adolescence and even…into high school. There I was, 15 years old, working a summer job in the guidance office where filing was the order of the day. Needless to say, I gave those 26 little beasts a real lashing; ABCDEFG…. I’m sure at least one of my college recommendations contained the parenthetical evaluation, “should do well once she learns the alphabet.”  In my weaker moments I worried about my condition – my dirty little secret if you will. Declaring an alphabetical truce I moved on with my life of disordered letters until my, then, nine year-old niece (Tiffany) picked out her favorite letters from her handwriting tablet – there were six of them; E, A, N, T, D, O. I asked her why she liked these letters more than the others. She said, “cause they talk more.”  Two things became crystal-clear that day – one was, I never had a dirty little secret (at least that wasn’t one of them). And the other epiphany was that the entire alphabet should be rearranged because some letters are clearly misplaced. For example, E should be first. It appears to be the most used letter so why send others and me with my condition on a sub-vocal roller coaster ride? If we put E first then D, A, N, T, O should follow though not necessarily in that order just as long as they are on the good side of M – I have to admit M is right where it should be  – beautifully balancing linotype order and a writer’s desire. Now I have a problem J and k. Seriously, these two must be extremely well connected to have gotten this far up the letter ladder. J and K don’t work well in pairs, at least not like T and H or E and T. I really love T and hope to find out just what letter god was so offended by T’s personality that it would be put after Q!   The letter Q should be stripped of its free-speech rights because it is obviously part of the one percent, living as it does, vicariously off the good graces of C and K. (There will be no room for posers in my alphabet). I haven’t overlooked L which is in it’s right place at the helm of M. The letter L provides an orthodox antecedent M N O P. This well-established Letter is the locus of every child’s verbal trip through the arguable 26 – just listen the next time the pre-schooler in your life recites the alphabet,  “…ellen em opee…” This is pronounced with a fair amount of gusto as the recitee knows s/he is more than half way home. And then comes  X – a clear case of a well balanced, good looking letter so, like Q, an obvious concubine of, in this case the letter Z who truly does all the work.   I don’t trust the letter Y.  Why? Really, how can I trust a letter that clearly can’t make up its mind if it wants to be a vowel or a consonant – that “sometimes Y” expression is really a hedging of bets here. I want Y to take a stand – even if it has to stand alone like the letter I. (There’s a lot of courage in I). And finally, there’s Z.  My friend the Zippo lighter with the image problem (in an age of gold-plated devices).  Z has been the mule for the bad law firm of X,T & S far too long. This deceit must stop. I’m thinking a good self-help seminar would help with Z’s poor self-image.

So, there you have it, the culmination of thousands of letters and more trips through the upper and lower 13 than I care to count. Do I still sub-vocalize the alphabet when called upon to alpha-order names and such?  In this age of high-tech programs and processors that can do the bidding of human beings – don’t even ask.

This After Life

I met a woman who said

Hell is right here on earth

 She greets  each morning

In  the bookstore

Name-tag and smile affixed

While  I ponder her life

Her gray head bobbing in

Agreeable kindness

Surely this decency

Makes days for others 

Bearable – not hell

But she is waiting for

An  afterlife;  A life after this…

The crisp stillness of a frost-bitten

 Morning

The murmuration of the starlings

The fire-red epaulettes of the black birds

The gifts wrought and left

From the arthritic ages of man

The quiet of the graveyard

At sunset a golden light

Hanging  the last leaves of fall

The stone-certainty of epitaphs

This life that hides

The longing to adorn

The walls

Of this hell

With beautiful

Engagement,

Achievement

Something better

More smile-worthy

Than responsibility

And a pulse