We search through the lives of a few Americans to solve the mystery of who we are and how we, as a nation, should live. This is more true of Abraham Lincoln than perhaps any other American who ever lived. The new movie “Lincoln” haunts your mind for hours and days afterward. That is the mark of a great movie. It is even more the mark of a great man.

The haunting quality of the movie is a tribute to its director Mr. Spielberg and the phenomenal actor Daniel Day-Lewis. But great directing and acting alone do not guarantee the lingering desire to know the subject of a movie. Only the subject of the story can do that. And Abraham Lincoln, as portrayed by Day-Lewis, will surely cause you to want to know Lincoln if you’ve ever spent time thinking about America and how and why we got to where we are.

Other nations have had their Washingtons, and a few even their Jeffersons. But I know of no other nation that has produced, or so needed, a Lincoln. Short essays are not the place to consider his complexities and complications. But he surely was one of the most phenomenal human beings, wrapped within such a humble frame, that the world has ever seen. You cannot come away from this movie within longing to have met him, listened to him, known him. Even so, during his public life he was reviled as an ignoramus and a gorilla.

And, of course, it is impossible to avoid the question of why there are no statesmen today, let alone no Lincolns. Leo Tolstoy wrote two long epilogues to War and Peace struggling with the question of whether the leader makes history or history and circumstance makes the leader. Who is to know. All we know is that Lincoln saved the Union, the United States of America. And he did so, as the movie so powerfully reveals, by insisting that the monstrous unfinished issue of our founding, slavery, be resolved once and for all by an amendment to our Constitution.

Like many great men and women, Lincoln was a private person. He used his wit, his command of language, and his stories as much to conceal his most inner feelings as to win, or avoid, an argument. This quality may hold a clue as to why there are no Lincolns today. For we live in an age which requires, demands, that our leaders reveal their most inner feelings, even in the case where authentic feelings may be lacking. It is impossible to recount the number of times a public figure is asked of even tragic events, “how did you feel about that?” It is all about feelings and emotions not truth and right.

And perhaps we have no Lincolns because we have lost the ability to employ the power of language to move history. In an age of speech writers (almost all of whom are younger than the speaker and none of whom have ever been elected to office), it is impossible to imagine anyone on the public scene who could compose one sentence of the Gettysburg Address or the Inaugural speeches. When the quiet inner compass is lost and language loses its meaning and power, leadership disappears.

Human history being what it is, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that, sooner or later, perhaps when we today are gone, a great moral confrontation will occur, where right must face wrong, where our unity as a nation will be tested, when our very character and soul as a people must be defined, the need for an Abraham Lincoln will urgently arise. Will he or she be there? Will we know that unique person when he or she slowly stands and says, [Many] “years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

3 Responses to “Does the Spirit of Lincoln Still Live”

  1. Kevin Worden Says:

    One salient question to which the author alludes is, could a Lincoln even rise to the White House today? Could a man whose brilliant, empathetic, principled mind lies concealed within a gangling frame, an awkward gait, and behind a tinny voice, none of which would “carry well on camera,” advance to the highest office in our land? My better angels give me hope that he could; but at times my more cynical side draws a much different conclusion.

    Lincoln’s greatest brilliance was in his nearly preternatural empathy for others, and in his selfless ability to communicate and connect with anyone through both the written and spoken word. After reading “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, one must conclude that only absolute selflessness could enable one to banish the memories of the slights and abject humiliations of his early life, and to invite some of those very same inflictors of those humiliations into his confidence in later years. In “Good to Great,” Jim Collins identified Lincoln as the prototypical example of a “Level 5” leader, paradoxically combining extreme drive for the success of one’s organization with equally extreme personal humility.

    Despite these personal qualities, we still only collectively recognized our Lincoln in hindsight. Many other men and women from humble, challenged backgrounds have served (and do serve) our country at very high levels with honor and distinction, but we too might only collectively honor this in hindsight after their days have ended. Perhaps it cannot be any other way, but may their internal compasses, vision, and desire to serve others sustain and strengthen those who dedicate their lives to a better future for all. We are in their debt!

  2. Bill Pruden Says:

    Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a haunting and powerful film, one that should be required viewing for every office holder and aspirant for public office in the United States. While there can be no denying that Abraham Lincoln was a singular individual—a man for the ages, and for our national destiny, the absolute right man at the right time–for all his individual distinctiveness, his approach and his mindset, his understanding that politics and being a politician is—or should be–about serving the people, is timeless. It is also something that we all must recognize and take to heart as we look to address the problems that we as a nation now face. For all the issues confronting us today, none are any more intractable than was slavery in Lincoln’s time and yet he found the necessary common ground to forge the coalition needed to achieve a landmark political achievement, all the while displaying the understanding that sometimes, to achieve long term gains, short term compromises—not of principle, but of programs or objectives–must be made. Lincoln as a person embodies the best of what the American way of life has to offer. Lincoln as politician offers no less compelling lessons about how this system can work in the interest of human progress. For the sake of the nation’s future they are lessons we need to heed.

  3. Phineas Says:

    Sure, Lincoln had gifts. He was an intelligent man, curious about the world around him and keenly aware of the politics of that world. It’s been a timeless question to ask whether the Civil War ‘made Lincoln great’ or whether he was great because of his wartime administration. Perhaps some of both. It’s a good mental exercise to ponder such questions.

    But I couldn’t help during certain parts of the film, harkening back to the Geo. W. Bush Administration. I remember vividly the claims for the usurpation of power: “The constitution vests me with these powers in wartime, so I may protect the citizens.” It was no less alarming hearing it from Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln. To be sure, he tempered those thoughts with some doubt, and that alone might separate the two men. But still, why not be critical of Lincoln for the same thing we criticized about Bush?

    Could it be that we are a society more Machiavellian than we care to admit, that we seek expediency with a ‘just’ end more than we care about the methods or manner in which we get there? I think I could make a strong case.

    No doubt, the man was a magnanimous presence. I can’t think of a president in my lifetime with such a sense of fairness.

    I saw the film with an Egyptian-born grad student, who admittedly wasn’t as well-versed in US history circa 1865 as he would like to be. But he followed the story rather well, picking up on many of the film’s subtleties. During the ensuing conversation, he asked: could the power that current Egyptian President Morsi seeks be for the same reasons as Lincoln? I thought it a shrewd question. I remembered reading that during the Civil War, Jefferson Davis lamented not having the executive power Lincoln bestowed upon himself. Of course, we have 100 and more years of history to judge Lincoln, whereas Morsi can only be judged in the now. We both agreed it was impossible to answer at this point. But I thought the question was an excellent answer to the question: why do we study history?

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