Roland Emmerich Blows Up the White House, and History, Again

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 27 2013 2:59 PM

Roland Emmerich Blows Up the White House, and History, Again

Still from the trailer for White House Down
Roland Emmerich destroys yet another national landmark.

Still from the trailer for White House Down

At the beginning of the trailer for Roland Emmerich’s White House Down, 9/11-esque news reports showing a national catastrophe are intercut with a quote from Abraham Lincoln. Jetliners are brought down, the U.S. Capitol Building collapses into a cloud of dust, the White House is hit by an explosion, and the titles cut in to bring us the following warning from Uncle Abe:

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” – Abraham Lincoln

Except Abraham Lincoln never said that. As language historian Barry Popik pointed out on his blog last December, the quote is frequently attributed to Lincoln, but Lincoln never said those words. The quote seems to derive from a remark made by Lincoln when he was 28, in his speech on “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions”:

If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

The speech—prompted by the burning of a black freeman, named McIntosh, in St. Louis and the subsequent lynching of an abolitionist, Elijah P. Lovejoy, in Illinois—was about the danger of lawless mobs, especially those attacking abolitionists. Lincoln’s prescription for fighting these impassioned mobs was “reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason.”

What reasonable man distorted Lincoln’s quote about the dangers of out-of-control mobs? The answer is—who else?—Joseph McCarthy, who said the following to close a speech alleging that Truman’s government was crawling with Communists:

“As Lincoln said, ‘From whence then will danger come? If this nation is to be destroyed, it will be destroyed from within, if it is not destroyed from within, it will live for all time to come.’”

The often campy Emmerich, of course, is no historian, nor is he always to be taken too seriously. As often as he’s gleefully destroyed the White House—with alien lasers, with the USS John F. Kennedy—he’s taken a similar approach to the history of the Revolutionary War (in The Patriot) and of the works of William Shakespeare (in Anonymous). Perhaps the movie will turn out to be an ironic comment on McCarthyism.

But while the premise of White House Down seems quite silly (not to mention familiar), the trailer presents itself as dead serious, co-opting memories of 9/11 in the apparent hope of scaremongering its way to box office success. Surely this stupid-looking flick won’t tear us apart from within—Channing Tatum and his guns will save us from all that—but is this really anyone’s idea of entertainment?

After all, as Abraham Lincoln also said, “It’s one thing to make fun out of the Mayan apocalypse, or aliens, and another to try to make thrills out of national tragedy.”



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.