[On Sundays, this blog looks beyond jobs and careers in “Sabbath.”]
The Man Inside the Hero
I just finished rereading David Herbert Donald’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. I read the book some years ago and found it even more impressive on a second reading. Donald states early in the book that his goal was to follow Lincoln’s voice and words, which he does to a great degree. Every historian has to select examples and design a narrative. Donald’s Lincoln is a struggling human, not a superman. He wrestles with political as well as moral questions. Most importantly, for most of his presidency, his peers see him as indecisive and a failure.
Many of Lincoln’s critics did not understand how his mind worked. They were serious people who thought they had all the answers. Lincoln was humble and often tortured by self-doubt. At the same time, he was a leader who knew when to make a decision and take responsibility for his action. Donald depicts Lincoln as often being too involved in decisions related to military strategy. Frustrated by his generals’ lack of success or aggressiveness, Lincoln would devise his own battle plans. That all changed when he named U.S. Grant to lead the Union Army. Lincoln put his faith in Grant, and, despite early setbacks in 1864, his final choice of generals proved to be wise.
As a politician, Lincoln had to balance a Republican Party that was divided on the question of Emancipation. Many in the party agreed with Northern Democrats who want peace with the South even if it meant leaving slavery in place. Lincoln himself wavered on this question. He sought various compromises that included compensating former slave holders and colonizing the former slaves. In the end, influenced by anti-slavery advocates like Frederick Douglass and inspired by the sacrifice of African American soldiers, Lincoln became a strident champion to end slavery. Again, he adapted with the conditions of his time.
Lincoln’s genius was not so much his intellect or even his words as it was his lack of ego. Where other leaders could only see one path, Lincoln kept an open mind and accepted the fact that he could be wrong. When reporters pressed him to explain his policy, he answered, “My policy is to have no policy.” Throughout the war, Lincoln changed his mind and tried different approaches. Some, such as suspension of habeas corpus and shutting down opposition newspapers, were condemned as dictatorial. However, as Donald outlines in his biography, Lincoln faced such opposition that he had to bend the law to save the Union. Long before William James or John Dewey, Lincoln was a pragmatist who judged actions on results rather than ideals.
History never repeats itself. It is useless to speculate about how Lincoln would address contemporary issues, such as health care, civil liberties, or political division. The one lesson I think we can take from his life and political career is the need to balance principled belief with an openness to change. Maintaining the Union was Lincoln's primary mission as President. That never changed. How he achieved that end in the face of so many challenges was the magic.
[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that explore topics outside of the job world.]
Politics and the Oscars
There are three films nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture that fascinate me: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo. All tell stories that the public knows: the 13th Amendment was passed, Bin Laden was killed, and the hostages were released. Even so, these films spin narratives that keep the audience engaged. We are taken into worlds that make us feel what the characters are feeling, which is one hallmark of great art.
I’ve met some people who found Lincoln too slow, too detailed. For me, the film was rich in its context and narrative. I’ve read several books about Lincoln, but none of them gave me the same feeling for the man and his struggles. Spielberg depicts Lincoln as the folksy wise man that every school child knows. However, he also shows the president as the pragmatic politician who will make deals to achieve his end. We see a human Lincoln who has to navigate a mess democratic system during a civil war. I believe that this film will be as influential as any biography of its subject.
Zero Dark Thirty holds the audience with its narrative, but, for me, its content and ethics are problematic. This film centers on one character Maya who resembles Ahab in her pursuit of Osama Bin Laden. She holds to her pursuit of Bin Laden even when her superiors tell her to move on. As we all know, the mission was successful. My problem with the movie, as it is for other viewers, is that torture is a “tool” used by agents to obtain information. It’s not pro-torture, but the depiction of “advanced interrogation” is problematic. Viewers are left to wonder if the ends don’t justify the means, a darker pragmatism than that practiced by Lincoln. I do believe that the CIA and other law enforcement agencies mean to keep us safe. In fulfilling this mission, their methods must never go beyond the law if we are truly to be better than those who threaten our country.
I just saw Argo last night, and, of the three films, it is the most suspenseful and best made, which is a high order. For my money (all two cents of it), it is the best film I have seen this year. Ben Affleck has taken a little known, forgotten story of the hostage crisis and brought it to life in a way that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats while challenging us to think. We see how Americans came to be trapped in the American Embassy in Tehran. Six escaped to the Canadian Embassy. Tony Mendez, a CIA agent, devises a scheme to sneak them out by creating a fake film called Argo and having the six Americans be his team for site selection. While the film shows the brutality and zealotry of revolutionary Iran, it also calls out the U.S. and the CIA for their role in installing the equally brutal Shah. It also shows Mendez as a moral man who won’t follow an order to leave the six behind. I found this film much more realistic and impressive in this regard than Zero Dark Thirty.
While these three films all have some relevance to our current political reality, they are also movies, stories that can be shaped by a writer and refined by great directors. Real politics – as Lincoln’s story demonstrates – is much messier. The press and members of Congress would frequently challenge Lincoln to state his policy. He would respond: “My policy is to have no policy.” He understood that simple answers don’t work in a complex world. At the same time, he knew how and when to be strong and make bold decisions. Would a great leader like Lincoln be able to manage today’s world of political divisions, sensational (and simplistic) media, and a disengaged citizenry? I don’t think so. Until things in Washington sort themselves out, we will need more good movies.