But the decision was made to wait one beat past the confetti and falling balloons, and I think the decision was a good and purposeful one, because from what I've read —I haven't seen it yet— the film isn't exactly a simplistic homage. The character and the history at study are complex, deserving of sober consideration more than campaign spin. While Andrew O'Hehir, writing a review for slate.com, allows that the film is "an inspiring story of American greatness" —in the next breath he cautions "...if you say that, also say that it’s a cautionary tale of American mendacity and hypocrisy, the unfinished story of a cancerous evil that poisoned and divided America from its birth and does so still."
Some might have worried that Spielberg's picture would be simply more cultish adulation for Abraham Lincoln, The Great Emancipator posed against obvious evil, yet from what I've read the character depicted is a very human, very political man with some share his own of that mendacity and hypocrisy, mixed in with the admirable principle and courage. Lincoln the bold and noble statesman and Lincoln the careful and conniving politician stand in the same shoes, and upon no pedestal. In another earlier essay written during the heat of the campaign, O'Hehir noted the parallel between Lincoln's time and our own: "Indeed, the startling conclusion forced upon you by 'Lincoln' is that the more things change in American politics the more they stay the same." Just days before the election he observed "whichever man is elected on Tuesday faces a political landscape nearly as divided and poisonous as the one confronted by the 16th president."
It is in that context that we are now given to reflect, "Barack Obama won!"
Is there lesson in Abraham Lincoln's story for all of us as we gather ourselves just past the election? I'll admit I've enjoyed the last few days on the most base level, as one who identifies with the winner of a contest. I've learned a new word —schadenfreude— I'd heard it before but never bothered to look it up —and I must confess I have partaken of that "pleasure in the pain of others" —in the bitter tears of folks like Karl Rove, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck. I do have the sense, though, that this is ultimately an empty pleasure and it is with this realization that I'm drawn to the historical example of Lincoln. It's not the victor over slavery and the champion of the union, for me though, so much as the humble and flawed —yet wise— man who advised his countrymen 'malice towards none' even in the moment of victory he addressed in his second inaugural. The charity of hope and healing towards all who had borne the fight —this was Lincoln's advice as war drew to a close.
Should we heed something of the same as an election is now behind us?
The other night President Obama gave his victory speech and, with perhaps some sense of symmetry —or irony, he harkened back to the themes of his first presidential campaign and the rhetoric of the first major speech of his career in national politics. Hope, he said, he had never been more hopeful about our country.
"And I ask you to sustain that hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the road blocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight." He closed alluding to that appeal to a larger and deeper unity that first placed him on the national stage. "I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America."
I know there are some who argue that President Obama has practiced the divisive politics he complains about, just as there are some who argue it was Lincoln whose politics tried our union in a terrible war. Both contentions are arguable. I know I've argued with them. Me, I'm put in mind of that moment back during his first term when President Obama turned specifically to Lincoln for example. Recall that on the eve of the House vote to pass the Affordable Care Act into law he quoted from Lincoln's journal. “I am not bound to win, but I’m bound to be true,” he said. “I’m not bound to succeed, but I’m bound to live up to what light I have.”
"What light I have" —that light poses the complexity to us, doesn't it? On the one hand we are to regard it as profound and true, an absolute indication of what is right and moral and just as we are given the grace to see it. It illuminates exactly what we must do. On the other we are challenged to see by that same light that our enemies —those who would question or challenge what we've seen— those we would fight and hope to defeat to achieve our purpose— are not different from ourselves. They are, in fact, ourselves.
Naturally, we wonder about the result of this election, whether we are in for the status quo or out to find some better path. "Fondly we hope, fervently do we pray," as Lincoln said, back in the day. And maybe it was with some sense of symmetry —or irony that he noted, at the ending war "the prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."