By Cobb, Jelani
The Washington Monthly , Vol. 45, No. 1-2
The opening scene of Steven Spielberg's cinemythic portrait of the sixteenth president features President Abraham Lincoln seated on a stage, half cloaked in darkness, and observing the Union forces he is sending into battle. It's an apt metaphor for the man himself--both visible and obscure, inside the tempest yet somehow above the fray. Lincoln was released in early November, just in time to shape our discussions of January 1, 2013, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet with its themes of redemption and sacrifice, Spielberg's film could seem less suited for an anniversary celebration than an annual one. Here is a vision of a lone man, tested by betrayal, besieged by enemies whom he regards without malice, a man who is killed for his convictions only to be resurrected as a moral exemplar. Spielberg's Lincoln is perhaps less fitted to January 1st than it is to the holiday that precedes it by a week.
In fairness, this narrative of Lincoln's Civil War, equal parts cavalry and Calvary, did not originate with Spielberg. The legend of the Great Emancipator began even as Lincoln lay dying in a boardinghouse across from Ford's Theater that night in April 1865. (In the same way that JFK's mythic standing as a civil rights stalwart was born at Dealey Plaza in November 1963.) In the wake of his assassination, Lincoln the controversial and beleaguered president was remade into Lincoln the Savior, an American Christ-figure who carried the nation's sins. Pulling off this transformation, this historical alchemy, has required that we as a nation redact the messier parts of Lincoln's story in favor of an untainted, morally unconflicted commander in chief who was untouched by the biases of the day and unyielding in his opposition to slavery. We have little use for tainted Christs. Through Lincoln the Union was "saved" in more than one sense of the word.
History is malleable. There is always the temptation to remake the past in the contours that are most comforting to us. In a nation tasked with reconciling its democratic ideals with the reality of slavery, Lincoln has become a Rorschach test of sorts. What we see when we look at him says as much about ourselves as it does about him. And what we see, or choose to see, most often is a figure of unimpeachable moral standing who allows Americans to gaze at ourselves in the mirror of history and smile. If the half-life for this kind of unblemished heroism is limited--we've grown more cynical across the board--it has remained resonant enough for our politicians today to profit from their association with it. The signal achievement of Spielberg's Lincoln is the renovation of that vision of Lincoln, a makeover for a nation that had elected its first black president to a second term just three days before the film hit theaters.
In 2007 Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, deliberately conjuring comparisons to that other lanky lawyer who spent time in the state legislature there. There is no shortage of politicians claiming an affinity with Lincoln--George W. Bush saw himself as a Lincolnesque figure when he was prosecuting the war on terror--but rarely have the parallels been as apparent as they are with Obama. The candidate played up that angle, visiting the Lincoln Memorial just before his inauguration, carrying a well-thumbed copy of Team of Rivals on the campaign trail, slipping sly riffs on Lincoln's second inaugural address into his own first one, and taking the oath of office on the Lincoln Bible.
Beyond the obvious, though, lies a deeper theme between Obama and Lincoln: the identities of both men are inextricably bound to questions of both disunity and progress in this country. It's worth recalling that Obama's rise to prominence was a product of his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, in which he offered a compelling, if Photoshopped, vision of a United States where there are no red states or blue states, where neither race nor religion nor ideology can undermine national unity. …