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:
“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.”
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