Why Washington Can’t Stop Talking about "Lincoln"

Advent, as anyone who grew up with the seasonal fire hazard of a dry pine wreath affixed with lit candles or a calendar filled with sub-par chocolates can explain, is a season of preparation. In the month leading up to Christmas in the city of bad suits and broken dreams, behind all the noise of political ticker updates and the staccato click of thousands of Blackberry keyboards being ravished by eager thumbs, there lurks an uncharacteristic, reflective—dare I say existential—murmur. In Washington, this holiday season coincides with the lead-up to the “fiscal cliff” (which is really more of a fiscal infinity pool than anything else, given that the consequences are far from clear, and may indeed not be dire, according to Warren Buffet), and it seems that the Federal city is experiencing a collective reckoning with its humanity, brought on, by all things, an overhyped Hollywood production. 

Lincoln, the Steven Spielberg film documenting the 16th president’s legislative struggle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, has given Washington pause on the heels of a mad election, and provided it with a bipartisan point of reflection.  Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, analogized the movie this week as he talked about the necessity for cooperation by the two parties, so as to prove that democracy is not total chaos, as the amendment-passing 1865 Congress had. President Obama screened the film at the White House and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus suggested that he do a merry-go-round of screenings for members of Congress as inspiration for fiscal-cliff talks. “Progress is never made through pure means,” said former Bush advisor Matthew Dowd of the movie on This  Week, while the Thanksgiving Sunday edition of Meet the Press devoted an entire segment of its roundtable discussion to the film, during which host David Gregory—noted tall person and enthusiastic dancer—waxed poetic about the political truths laid bare in Spielberg’s film and noted Lincoln’s emphasis on not allowing “righteousness” to drive the legislative process. Guest David Brooks, who wrote a widely cited column about Lincoln, urged the American people to see it, his endorsement beginning with a summation of the putrefying effects of politics on individuals, regardless of their good nature—“You really do have to deceive. You really do have to do bad things to your soul, and if you’re a leader, you have to acknowledge that,” he said.  

One could almost see the bald heads inclined towards the marbled floors of hallowed government halls in quiet reflection, the gnawed rims of cardboard coffee cups as the city’s big thinkers thought deep thoughts about sinister Machiavellian truths. 

The willingness of the chattering and flattering classes to talk openly about the corrosive effects of power has everything to do with the sympathetic portrait of politicians painted by Spielberg’s film, about the good that can be accomplished when claws-out, scruples-free practices are employed to further a worthy cause. Over the past two years, the American people have seen the bloody guts of congressional politics spilled on the side of the highway—the in-fighting, the personal attacks—all without much to show for it.  In Lincoln, Spielberg has provided a historic version of the humanizing celebrity tell-all interview for Congress; in the wake of scandal and disrepute, and through the gauzy lens of Hollywood, the nation’s lawmakers and politicians finally feel that the American people are coming to understand, in some small way, their good intentions, the ones they formed as earnest youngsters, whether they were toking-up in Berkeley or shooting deer outside of Dallas, before the worries of Washington had creased their faces and the temptations of power had crossed their thresholds. 

The film has provided an odd comfort to the creatures of Washington—it humanizes, but also brings into sharp relief the banal moral evils of everyday life in the city. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington it is not—Lincoln fleshes out the shadowy, shades-of-gray-world of political backrooms and honors the wheeling and dealing where Capra’s iconic ode to earnestness depicted only a black mass of graft and corruption machinated by a WASP-y version of Tammany Hall. Though rhetorically saccharine at points and one-dimensional in its portrayal of blacks, Lincoln provides an honest examination of the political process that is only fitting for our cynical age. In an odd way, Washington’s collective confessional reaction to the film calls to mind another Capra classic. 

There’s a scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where protagonist George Bailey sits at a bar on Christmas Eve, shaking and drunk, contemplating his impending financial ruin and the unfulfilled promise of his youth. “Dear father in heaven,” he rasps, crying in the way men sometimes do that not even Maureen Dowd could sneer at—ragged and hopeless. “I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way.” 

One can almost imagine a member of Congress, drinking a solitary drink at the bar of Johnny’s Half Shell after yet another fundraiser in the late evening hours of some December evening, having a similar thought, toasting to the long and lonely Washington winter. 

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