Many Democrats today find Obama’s manner too timid and accommodating, a charge the radical Republicans of Lincoln’s day leveled at their president. Their leader, Thaddeus Stevens, wants full rights for slaves. Lincoln, who is being mercilessly hammered by Democrats for his anti-slavery activism, wants Stevens to tone down his rhetoric—to take a pragmatic approach to passing this controversial amendment. Full rights for blacks might be the ultimate goal, but such hot rhetoric on the floor of the House will doom the vote because it will frighten off Democrats.
Lincoln is repeatedly blamed for being too deliberate and slow. Leading from behind, you might call it. But what Lincoln knew was that he could not go any faster than the public allowed him. He didn’t have pollsters, but at one point in the film, he puts on his coat to walk the streets for a “public opinion bath,” his term for his wanderings that put him in touch with people, so that he could know the country’s mind. Lincoln spent more days outside the White House than in it during his last year. Alas for our own pragmatic president, this is another approach that’s not readily available in the 21st century.
In the end, Lincoln wins over Stevens who, while debating on the floor of the House, refuses to be pushed into declaring his more radical private beliefs. He repeats again and again that he wants nothing more than equality for blacks “under the law.” It is an act of self-denial and lawyerly weaseling that infuriates his Democratic opposition but gives the newspapermen looking down from the gallery nothing incendiary to write. As a result, the vote coalition sticks together.
Lincoln has been heralded as a great civics lesson. It is a good but not great one, and not just because there’s sadly little inspiration for our own president to draw from the movie. Stevens’ act of self-denial makes you want to cheer, but the power dynamics and motivations of various parties are confusing and unexplained at times. At one point, when one of Lincoln’s allies in the House complains that he can’t get the votes the president thunders, “I am clothed in immense power—you will procure me these votes.” In the previous two hours of the movie Lincoln has been sweating every vote, but suddenly he’s acting like he’s Gandalf—as if a bold declaration will get him what he needs.
The actual counting of votes is clear enough—we even see Mary Todd Lincoln’s tally sheet as she watches from the gallery. But we get no sense of the inner turmoil these lawmakers are going through. Why does the gentleman from Kentucky, to whom Lincoln has appealed, change his vote? In one of several comical vote-buying scenes, one of the political hacks is nearly shot by a Democratic lawmaker he’s trying to bribe. Members of the House get off some good lines as they forever yell at each other, and their play-acting and verbal sparring can feel removed from today’s debates only by the old-timey language. The film is trying to show the gap between Lincoln’s lofty ends and earthly means, but the debate over the amendment banning slavery should feel more weighty in the moment than today’s posturing about the fiscal cliff. Members wept after the amendment was passed, but there’s little in the film’s portrayal of the vote hunt that makes us want to weep, too.
By contrast, when, early in the movie, we see Lincoln lie down by the fire next to his sleeping son, you feel his weariness, and you ache for him. When his wife rages at the president for allowing their older boy to go to war, your shoulders tense with her rage. The personal dramas of a man who faced as much as Lincoln did are always going to outstrip the legislative fight, but when it comes to the vote, which consumes so much of the movie, in the end it often just feels like so much math.
Correction, Nov. 20, 2012: The article orginally and incorrectly referred to Sen. Ben Nelson as Bill Nelson.