Friday, November 23, 2012


“Politics means a slow, powerful drilling through hard boards, with a mixture of passion and a sense of proportion.” So said Max Weber in his famous 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation.” Weber's dictum is superbly illustrated in the wonderful new Spielberg movie, Lincoln, which I saw earlier today - a superior alternative in every way to the media-enhanced, shopping idiocy of "Black Friday." It's a longer than average movie, but one well worth the time it takes and the investment of attention it requires.

The film's superb acting dramatizes the events surrounding the passage of the 13th Amendment by the Lame Duck Congress in January 1865. Lincoln's struggle to translate his life-long hatred of slavery into constitutional reality through the (then-as-now) less than perfect medium of the United States House of Representatives is sensitively portrayed - a portrayal that simultaneously highlights Lincoln's commitment to the principle of abolition and his superb sensitivity to the political context within which he had to work. In the process, the viewer is invited to appreciate the terrible tragedy that was the Civil War, its incredible toll in human lives and casualties, the challenges so many serious (and many not so serious) politicians faced in simultaneously trying to save the Union and end the scourge of slavery, and lastly the tremendous personal toll on Lincoln himself, his wife (whose anxieties and sufferings are more sensitively portrayed than Mary Lincoln has usually been), and his sons.

Slavery was the "original sin" of the American experiment, and its painful legacy still haunts our nation. It did, after all, cause a bloody civil war, which in the final scene (of Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural) is interpreted by Lincoln as God's judgment upon the United States for the sin of slavery. No tragedy in American history can quite compare with either the Civil War and the twin evils - the sins of slavery and secession - that produced it.

That said, the movie makes a larger point about the interplay of principle and practical politics - and about the need for personal engagement on the part of the President in implementing his agenda. This film is an excellent civics lesson in the theory and practice of democratic politics and presidential leadership. As such, it deserves serious study on the part of today's political actors - and everyone else. 

The challenges facing the current Lame Duck Congress cannot compare, of course, to the abolition of slavery and the prosecution of the Civil War. But they are serious challenges that touch on issues of fundamental principle (not least the fundamental principle of equality and what that must mean in actual practice). The issues facing this Lame Duck Congress will likewise also have long-term ramifications for the country's moral meaning, as well as its fiscal condition. And, for a wholesome resolution to result, sustained, committed, effective presidential leadership will also once again be required.

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