See “Lincoln.” See it, if only to learn how compelling a history lesson can be. See it, to learn how dedication to art and craft can produce a film that not only is reasonably true to history, but turns the muck and grime of politics into genuine, entertaining drama. See it, to see how our people now in Washington see themselves.
This is a lot to pack into a movie, but as they say, this one is “timely.” I sat in the half-empty Liberty Theater upper room the other night with great expectations. I had read that Steven Spielberg had gone to extraordinary lengths to recreate 1860s Washington City, down to exact copies of White House wallpaper and the ticking of Abraham Lincoln’s watch. The great actor Daniel Day-Lewis had so painstakingly mimicked Lincoln, the reviewers and historians said, that you could imagine yourself peeking back time and hearing the great man himself. For history buffs like me, this is exciting stuff. Most historical films end up compromised for modern sensibilities and thus turn into inaccurate rubbish. This was very different, and very good.
What I should have realized was that everyone in today’s Washington would be in the theater last weekend, seeing a semi-fictionalized depiction of a great national crisis, and imagine they are looking in a mirror. Politicians are the heroes and the villains of 1865. So it is today, they say. We are the heroes, they are the villains. The papers and airwaves Monday were filled with lessons learned, parallels observed, conclusions drawn. The temptation is hard to resist. In the film, President Lincoln is pushing historic legislation — the 13th amendment to the Constitution, banning slavery — through a reluctant lame duck Congress. President Obama is deep in negotiations to avoid falling off the “fiscal cliff,” requiring cooperation and give-and-take with a reluctant lame duck Congress. “Lincoln” the film is not a Civil War epic filled with desperate battles and mass carnage and the clash of great armies. It is mostly politicians, sitting and plotting strategy. There is much wheeling and much dealing and many principles compromised for the greater good. Success requires luring defectors from the obstinate, irrational and mean-spirited opposition. It was inevitable that people would see Obama as Lincoln and the House Republicans as the doomed old Democrats, clinging to slavery, to the past and their indefensible standards.
This soon gets to be too much. As an issue, tax policy is not the modern equivalent of the slavery. Raising income tax rates on the rich by 4 percentage points is not nearly close in weight. Raising enough revenue to cut a trillion-dollar annual deficit by a small fraction does not have the same implications as freeing a race from bondage. To look at Lincoln and see yourself is narcissistic and delusional. Elevating our petty issues to great heights will be useful mostly for masking contemporary incompetence.
Then again, watch “Lincoln” and learn what little our representatives accomplish when they make use of the very same tools of influence and persuasion at hand in 1865. Lincoln put politics to work and ended slavery. We put politics to work and get, well, not much. Not yet.
I left the theater and wanted to face east and shout, get on with it. It cannot be so difficult. Raising taxes on the wealthy and near-wealthy is not so principled a stand that we should risk plunging a suffering nation into economic chaos. Resisting increases in tax rates that probably should not have been lowered to begin with, is not so noble that we should flirt with disaster. People in Washington should put down the popcorn and get to work.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.