November 15, 2012

"What lessons could today's leaders learn from [Lincoln]?"

A question posed to University of Wisconsin history prof Stephen Kantrowitz (on the occasion of the release of the Spielberg movie "Lincoln"):
Lincoln learned from experience and grew while in office. Born and raised in a white supremacist society, he believed as late as the fall of 1862 that whites and blacks could not live together as equals and that, if freed en masse, blacks would have to depart the United States. But by the end of his life he came to understand the wartime struggles of slaves and free blacks as morally equivalent to those of the American Revolution, and to imagine a place for African-Americans as equal citizens of the republic. He did not confuse clarity of purpose with rigidity of outlook.
Also at the link, UW film prof Jeff Smith talks about movies about Presidents. What other films about Presidents should there be?
The big surprise is that there has been no biopic about George Washington. If Lincoln does well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jon Meacham’s book, “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” get optioned. Jackson’s persona lends itself to screen treatment.  And I have no doubt that Barack Obama will someday be profiled — he has made history, after all.
What's the best portrayal of a President in the movies? Smith says Henry Fonda in "Young Mr. Lincoln," but, as Smith notes, that film doesn't depict Lincoln as President.
The old film, directed by John Ford, has a murder trial at its center: Lincoln’s first real case as a lawyer in Springfield, Ill.
So you can put that film on your list of best depictions of lawyers. Smith notes that like "Young Mr. Lincoln," the new Lincoln movie concentrates on a brief slice of Lincoln's life. But the slice in Spielberg's movie is a grand achievement: the 13th Amendment. The choice of a grand or a little-know incident is going to make a big difference in the type of movie it is, and also Spielberg isn't John Ford. Nevertheless, both Henry Fonda and Daniel Day-Lewis are dreamy.

63 comments:

Mitchell the Bat said...

It's safe to say that President Lincoln would have eventually come around on same-sex marriage, too.

ricpic said...

Lincoln learned from experience and grew while in office.

Totally irrelevant to the new normal where "Get whitey!" has been the entirely sufficient alpha and omega of King Barry's career path.

EDH said...

Born and raised in a white supremacist society, he believed... that whites and blacks could not live together as equals and that, if freed en masse, blacks would have to depart the United States. But by the end of his life he came to understand the wartime struggles of slaves and free blacks as morally equivalent to those of the American Revolution, and to imagine a place for African-Americans as equal citizens of the republic.

Wasn't that the story arc of Archie Bunker in "All in the Family"?

MisterBuddwing said...

"The big surprise is that there has been no biopic about George Washington."

When Aaron Copland was asked by Andre Kostelanetz to write a musical portrait of an American statesman, he considered Washington, but found him "too stiff and formal." So he opted for Lincoln, a president who was rich with memorable quotations.

But maybe the Father of Our Country has gotten short shrift. Perhaps he could be brought to life on the screen in a way that shows us he was much more than that aging, dour-looking figure on our $1 bill.

Tank said...

I'm waiting for the movie about that slice of Lincoln's life where he represented the big railroads, and he and they crushed any and all little people who got in their way.

AllenS said...

Bill Clinton, the movie --

A President, a Cigar, and an Intern

campy said...

I'm waiting for the movie about that slice of Lincoln's life where he represented the big railroads, and he and they crushed any and all little people who got in their way.

Coming in 2016. Working title: Rethuglican.

Pogo said...

""What lessons could today's leaders learn from [Lincoln]?"

Lock the theater box door.

McTriumph said...

What we learned from Lincoln is that the Constitution is inconvenient. He was the original Wilsonian and the Constitution has been meaningless, er I mean malleable ever since. It's made of Silly Putty. The rule of law only matters if they want you.

Pogo said...

"What lessons could today's leaders learn from [Lincoln]?"

Don't marry a high maintenance princess.

X said...

Obama? he couldn't learn a thing. he's uncoachable. he knows everything already.

Pogo said...

"What lessons could today's leaders learn from [Lincoln]?"

Never get involved in a land war in Asia.

shiloh said...

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

wyo sis said...

"Lincoln learned from experience and grew while in office."

Lincoln was a flip-flopper.

edutcher said...

He made America safe for Capitalism by killing all the Democrats.

I can get behind that.

NorthOfTheOneOhOne said...

AllenS said...
Bill Clinton, the movie --

A President, a Cigar, and an Intern


Crouching Intern, Hidden Cigar

wyo sis said...

"The big surprise is that there has been no biopic about George Washington."

George Washington and his posterity can be grateful for that.

William said...

If they ever made a movie version of the Old Testament Abraham, I would cast Lincoln in the part. He would enliven the role with humanity and humor, and, if you let him write his own lines, he would elevate the language......There are only two men I can think of whose rhetoric, actions, and physical presence so defined their moment. Lincoln during the Civil War and Churchill in 1940.

Mark O said...

In this sort of exercise, one is always invited to imagine that Lincoln learned something he likely never considered and that is, at the same time, something the professor wants a student to "learn" today.

The past was not at all like today. That is something a history professor could reasonably be expected to teach.

Rusty said...

Throw the dissenters in jail and tax the shit out of the rest.

Tim said...

"But maybe the Father of Our Country has gotten short shrift. Perhaps he could be brought to life on the screen in a way that shows us he was much more than that aging, dour-looking figure on our $1 bill."

No American president mattered more than Washington did.


SteveR said...

"And I have no doubt that Barack Obama will someday be profiled — he has made history, after all."

Can you give us a break Professor Kantrowitz? Why bring that up, besides being the first (half) African president, the notable accomplishments are.....

David said...

Humility.

Paddy O said...

Presidents usually get TV movies, not film movies. John Adams and Ike come to mind as good recent examples. I seem to recall our hostess did not like Paul Giamatti's John Adams--I thought it was extremely good. It also had a great George Washington.

Jefferson should get a movie--one that is more about his life than his dalliances.

Honestly, I think a good project would be to have a movie made for all the Presidents. A huge undertaking--a fifty year film project!--but if it had a decent enough budget it would be immensely interesting. If I knew a wealthy Hollywood producer and they cared what I thought about stuff I'd propose that project to them. It could have recognizable stars as main players. Sort of the American history version of the TNT Bible heroes series.

I agree Jackson would be a great movie, but I would suggest staying as far away from Jon Meacham's contributions as possible.

David said...

"George Washington and his posterity can be grateful for that."

George did not have any posterity. No children.

Wait. That's it. Was George gay? Impotent? Infertile? Incredibly shy? Imagine the film you could make.

Vince said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vince said...

"But by the end of his life he came to understand the wartime struggles of slaves and free blacks as morally equivalent to those of the American Revolution, and to imagine a place for African-Americans as equal citizens of the republic."

Lincoln started to see the Negroes in a new light when he needed more men for the army. That hey were motivated due to the fact that they had a dog in the fight was icing on the cake. An interesting area of speculation is what might have been their future had Lincoln lived. Would theri lives have been better, or would he have turned his back on them due to political expediency.

LarsPorsena said...

"Lincoln learned from experience and grew while in office. Born and raised in a white supremacist society.."

If it was true that the US was a white supremacist country there would have been no Civil War. Does he really believe that white supremacists kept filling the Union ranks to fight Confederate white supremacists?

William said...

Remember Daniel Day Lewis's portrayal of the ruthless oil baron in There Will Be Blood. It was a fine take down of the demiurges behind such a man. I had no problem with it, but it seems to me that the benefits men such as Rockefeller provided by supplying lots of oil at a cheap price far outweighed their vices and greed.....Liberal politicians and their hubristic ambitions are never portrayed in such a way. I would like to see a There Will Be Blood depiction of Woodrow Wilson. Show him re-segregating the city of Washington and the US Army. Show him negotiating the boundaries of the world while undergoing a cerebral vascular event. For comic relief, show him flat out drooling and vegetative while his high school drop out wife runs the federal government. (Great comeback role for Lindsay Lohan.) For tragic shadings, show how brown nosing progressives had their heads shoved so far up his ass that for two generations they were blind to his many failings. It's a movie that begs to be made.

William said...

Remember Daniel Day Lewis's portrayal of the ruthless oil baron in There Will Be Blood. It was a fine take down of the demiurges behind such a man. I had no problem with it, but it seems to me that the benefits men such as Rockefeller provided by supplying lots of oil at a cheap price far outweighed their vices and greed.....Liberal politicians and their hubristic ambitions are never portrayed in such a way. I would like to see a There Will Be Blood depiction of Woodrow Wilson. Show him re-segregating the city of Washington and the US Army. Show him negotiating the boundaries of the world while undergoing a cerebral vascular event. For comic relief, show him flat out drooling and vegetative while his high school drop out wife runs the federal government. (Great comeback role for Lindsay Lohan.) For tragic shadings, show how brown nosing progressives had their heads shoved so far up his ass that for two generations they were blind to his many failings. It's a movie that begs to be made.

Rusty said...

David said...
"George Washington and his posterity can be grateful for that."

George did not have any posterity. No children.

Wait. That's it. Was George gay? Impotent? Infertile? Incredibly shy? Imagine the film you could make

He was sterile. It is thought it was caused by the small pox he contracted.
He was adamant that all his family and slaves, and during the revolutionary war all his soldiers, were inoculated.
He adored children.

furious_a said...

What's the best portrayal of a President in the movies?

Bill Pullman as President Thomas J. Whitmore, duh. Dude kicked *SS!

Pragmatist said...

Lincoln would not recognize the modern Republicans...they have switched ideas with the Democrats starting in 1933-1964. Lincoln era Republicans beleived in the supremacy of Federal authority over state (hence the war), minority rights, activist government and higher taxes. What modern "Republican" believes in that? Of course the Democratic losers in 1865 beleived in States Rights, white supremacy and voter suppression. Who does that sound like?

YoungHegelian said...

@lars,

If it was true that the US was a white supremacist country there would have been no Civil War. Does he really believe that white supremacists kept filling the Union ranks to fight Confederate white supremacists?

It seems to be a la mode now to portray the period of post 1812 to the Civil War through the lens of white supremacy. For a high-falutin' example of this trend see this magisterial tome.

I guess lefty historians discovered that writing history as class struggle just somehow wasn't explaining the phenomena like they thought it would. So, now it's on to the next heuristic lens.

YoungHegelian said...

@Pragmatist,

Lincoln era Republicans beleived in the supremacy of Federal authority over state (hence the war), minority rights, activist government and higher taxes

That interpretation is so tendentious as to border on parody. He wasn't against states rights. He was against secession. Federalism & secession are not the same thing. As for activist government & higher taxes, uhmm, he was fighting a Civil War. Lincoln was a war time president for 100% of his tenure. We have no idea of how he would have governed outside of war time, which always necessitates a stronger than normal Executive.

As for minority rights, once one moves outside of the South, the same ethnic groups that were Democratic ethnic racists before 1964 are still Democratic ethnic racists today. Just because one will vote for a black president doesn't mean one wants them in the neighborhood or marrying one's sister.

RecChief said...

was the Kantrowitz answer an allusion to obama's 'evolution' on gay marriage or his inexperience entering office? seems to me he is fully experienced in Newspeak.

Jim in St Louis said...

Can anyone find me a link to a picture of Lincoln smiling?

There are lots of quotes where he is funny or witty-seems like he was a great story teller- of the tall tale variety, but no portraits of him laughing. And practical jokes too.
I know photos were primitive, but surely with all the artists in the world someone somewhere made a smiling Lincoln?

This would be my answer to the assignment: today's leaders need to have a well developed sense of humor.

Rusty said...

What's the best portrayal of a President in the movies?

The guy in Idiocracy

mojavehicular said...

Jim, I believe Lincoln was smiling in his last photographic portrait. And here in a photo with Tad shortly after Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

wyo sis said...

Oops! OK George Washington's family and their posterity can be thankful for that.

Jim in St Louis said...

mojave-
Yes there does seem to be a slight smile there- charming!

It would be with Tad in the room.

Bender said...

Most photographs of people from that era do not show them smiling, not because they were all grim, but because of the long exposure time needed to take the photo. One simply cannot hold a smile for that long without either looking silly or without bluring the picture.

Bender said...

Lincoln learned from experience and grew while in office

Meanwhile, Kantrowitz became ignorant from experience and diminished in the course of half a sentence. The "Lincoln was a rabid racist" theme is especially absurd coming from those who are shills for the Party of Slavery, Secession, and Segregation.

Bender said...

There have been some very good Washington movies.

The Crossing, starring Jeff Daniels, while not a biopic and focusing solely on the Battle of Trenton, is excellent in showing Washington's greatest strength -- the will.

There was a 1980s miniseries starring Barry Bostwick that I remember as being very good.

Badger PUndit said...

As to George Washington, even better than a one-shot biopic, apparently in the next year or so we can look forward to AN ENTIRE TV SERIES on Washington, on NBC, put together by the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "The King's Speech" and the folks behind Downton Abbey:

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/george-washington-drama-nbc-barry-levinson-david-seidler-kings-speech-downton-abbey-tom-fontana-390644

Baron Zemo said...

Comparing the tripe that a comic book director like Steven Spielberg produces to the genius of John Ford is analogous to comparing Carrot Top to Leonardo Di Vinci.

Baron Zemo said...

The key attribute that John Ford endows Young Mr. Lincoln with is awkwardness. Henry Fonda is superb in establishing this with his physicality. How he was all "tangled up" when Ann Rutledge stops to talk with him. His bashful slump as he throws the branch into the river in his last heartfelt talk with Ann. His long legs brushing the ground as he rides his sorry mule into town. His awkward but determined rush to head off the lynch mob as he places his body in front of the log that they were using to batter down the jail house door. The stiff attempt at dancing with the sophisticated southern belle Mary Todd. He is just an awkward cat.

But no matter how much he gets "tangled up" he still does the right thing.

Baron Zemo said...

The court case that is at the center of this movie is very instructive if we view it in terms of the current political scene.

Two movers, outsiders, migrants, Scot-Irish poor people are arrested for a murder. The town is ready to jump to conclusions and simply lynch them. They wanted to string them up. The upstanding townies and even the town drunk want to beat down the "other." They were despised and feared and only the awkward Mr. Lincoln would step up to try to stop the mob of the self-righteous politically correct majority.

Ask yourself if "Young Mr. Obama" would of stood in front of that battering ram for the likes of a Richard Jewel or an Eric Rudolph or James Crowley or even Glen Beck for that matter. Would "Young Mr. Obama" stand against the crowd who want to lynch the "evil doer." The one who violates the dictates of what is politically correct. Regardless of what they have done.

Would Mr. Obama stood alone to defend the rights of the despised or would he be the community organizer who led the lynch mob?

Lydia said...

Would Mr. Obama stood alone to defend the rights of the despised or would he be the community organizer who led the lynch mob?

Neither.

He would have been eating his pancakes as the mob gathered and when his landlady came running in with news of the mob, would have turned to her and said:

“Why can’t I just eat my pancakes?”

Baron Zemo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Baron Zemo said...

The theme of John Ford's works often are about the outsider who must fight for the community even though he might be mocked or scorned for it. This is of course the central meme of most Westerns that has been repeated over and over again to the point of being a hackneyed trope laughed at by the elite. Ford devised the template that so many others copied.

The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach. Ethan Edwards in the Searchers. Even young Mr. Lincoln. They were outsiders who came into a community and had to fight for justice against the prevailing tide of public opinion and political correctness. They were indomitable. They were strong. They would not go along with the politically correct view of the day. They would not vote" present." They had a moral compass that they steered by and did not hide what they stood for with lies and platitudes. They did not conceal their true beliefs by pretending to be something they were not.

Where is the outsider who would really stand against the establishment of both parties? Who would stand strong against the bromides and bullshit that both sides of the aisle push to keep the public quiet?

Why is that archetype no longer the preference of most Americans?

Where have we gone off track?

Baron Zemo said...

We saw a faint echo of a John Ford hero when Clint Eastwood spoke at the Republican convention. He stood proudly and told us what he thought. He was not afraid that he would lose his "job" by going against the overwhelming liberal vindictiveness of the Hollywood Elite. He brought out an empty chair to show us what we would get with a second Obama administration. He was reviled. Ridiculed. Called senile and foolish. Savaged by the flying monkeys of the politically correct. When it was all said and done.....America voted for that empty chair.

Lydia said...

And yet Eastwood personified the anti-hero in all those spaghetti westerns he made, right?

The god of irony strikes again.

Baron Zemo said...

The America of "Young Mr. Lincoln" was a young and vigorous America. Times were hard and they were in the midst of a depression doing the actual time that this movie was set in after a financial panic. The specter of the Civil War looms over everything even the dance card at a cotillion. A sense of dread that has it's echo today.
The movie was also filmed as the country was coming out of the Great Depression on the eve of the destruction of the Second World War. The troubles that were just behind them and were in front of them seem much greater than we face today. The state of the economy is indeed perilous but it pales in compression to what we faced in the Great Depression. The threat of terrorism and Militant Islam is great but nowhere near approaching that of the Nazi's and Communist Soviets. America was able to find a way to battle out of those tight spots. Because of leadership. Because of men who took a stand. Who fought for what they believed in openly and honestly.

Do you think this President is that type of leader? Do you think he is dealing openly and honestly with the American People? That he is the type of man who would compromise and work with the opposition as Abe Lincoln did when he took an anti-slavery Democrat like Andrew Johnson into his administration?

Or is he the type to say "I won."

Baron Zemo said...

The Western hero is dead than Kelsey's nuts. The strong confident man who stands for something and will fight to the bitter end is now reviled. The type of person that Clint Eastwood played in those movies would be put down like a mad dog in Barak Obama's America.

The new hero is the metro sexual feminized apologist who bows to the Gods of political correctness. Who will not even ask the tough questions that need to be asked before an election because he will be ostracized by his "journolist" pals and the wits of late night TV.

Gary Cooper is dead.

Only Anderson Cooper remains.

ampersand said...

Unsurprisingly George W Bush had one movie,"W", one tv series,"That's my Bush", and one animated series "L'il Bush" ,all during his presidency.

Meanwhile the great blockbuster based on the antics of Bill Clinton presidency awaits filming. Trey Parker and Matt Stone,where are you?

Ugh, I can't imagine the Obama biopic without a William Castle type promotion insuring the viewers against diabetic coma.

Paddy O said...

John Ford and Spielberg serve the same role for different generations. When you're young and idealist you are impressionable to art that speaks about big themes and stories. Even when you get older and more cynical, you still hold those movies close to your heart, meanwhile you deride those who went the same direction after you became old and cynical.

Baron Zemo said...

John Ford is John Steinbeck.

Spielberg is Jackie Collins.

Baron Zemo said...

John Ford is HP Lovecraft.

Spielberg is Stephen King.

Baron Zemo said...

John Ford is single malt scotch.

Spielberg is Zima.

Baron Zemo said...

John Ford is a blood red rare steak.

Spielberg is a tofu burger.

Baron Zemo said...

Spielberg is such a hack he wouldn't even be on Schindlers List of Best Directors.

leslyn said...

I guess the lesson that today's leaders are supposed to learn from Lincoln (or his imitators) is that they're supposed to be dreamy.

Oops. Big mistake.