Lincoln: Public Choice 101
By David Henderson
My long-time friend, Tom Nagle, wrote the following letter to American Way, the American Airlines in-flight magazine, after reading an article on the making of the film, Lincoln. I convinced him that the probability of his getting the letter published in that magazine was close to zero and so he gave me permission to publish it here:
Your story [December, American Way] about the making of Lincoln aptly describes it as a “textured, intimate film about the Abraham Lincoln few people know: the clever politico, the complicated family man, the Republican revolutionary.” All true, but it left the reader with the impression that the movie portrays Lincoln as the honest saint we learned about in school. What is really great about the movie is its honest portrayal of a man who blatantly lied to and manipulated even his most intimate advisors, bought votes with bribes, and unnecessarily extended a war that was costing more lives every day in order to secure a goal that neither a majority of Congress nor a majority of the public shared. As such, he showed himself not to be the “honest Abe” we learn about in school, but more like some highly effective but morally compromised modern presidents: Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon come to mind. The tension between my feelings about Lincoln’s means and the laudable end, slavery’s definitive demise, left me thinking often about the film and its implications for democracy. If others are affected in the same way, Spielberg may have created something that does more than merely entertain.
New York Times columnist David Brooks, on the other hand, observing the same facts in the same movie, had this to write, in a column, titled–and this is not from The Onion–“Why We Love Politics”:
It [the movie Lincoln] 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.
Tom Nagle, who is often a fan of Brooks’ columns replies:
I am absolutely flabbergasted by Brooks’ piece, and that it ran in the New York Times. He writes, “Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good.” Lincoln wasn’t making just “personal compromises.” He made decisions not just to sacrifice his own integrity but to sacrifice the lives of thousands of people, many impressed into service against their will, in order to achieve an objective that he thought was more valuable than they were! What this movie showed is that when presidential power trumps the power of the legislative branch that represents the popular will and the judicial branch that enforces constitutional limits–as both Lincoln and modern day neoconservatives espouse–then we cease to become really free people and become just pawns in a bigger plan. In the case of Lincoln, the plan happened to produce something of enduring value. But in the case of Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, and George W. Bush, to name just those about whom most all will agree, the unprincipled exercise of power has been far less beneficial.
I think “far less beneficial” has to be the understatement of the day.