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Leadership in Action

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If you respect the law and love sausages, you should see Lincoln, the new movie from Steven Spielberg, now playing in theaters everywhere, as the ads say.

As I told friends, it is the best movie I have ever seen about the passage of a Constitutional Amendment. In this case the 13th, the one that abolished slavery.

In addition to a mesmerizing performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, who does not act so much as inhabit Lincoln, the movie is one of the few that deals with the legislative process. I know that sounds boring. Trust me, it is not.

It is a primer on How a Bill Becomes Law, to mimic the title in social studies' textbooks.

In this case, though, it is about how a bill really becomes law -- the backroom wheedling, the massaging of massive egos, the necessary deceptions and deceits involved and, yes,  the jobs and favors handed out to congressmen to secure their votes.

The man who handles the grand strategy and the day-to-day tactics is Abraham Lincoln, who is, above all, a politician.  There, I said it.  

The movie is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, The Team of Rivals, her history of how Lincoln brought together his political enemies -- including men who ran against him for president -- and molded them into a team. Most of these rivals at first saw him as a country rube, but ended up viewing their boss as a man who combined remarkable prescience and political skills with a profound decency.

This is the Lincoln of this film. Cajoling his cabinet and congressional leaders with stories, tall tales, jokes but possessing a formidable mind that, combined with his passion to get this amendment passed, proved an irresistible force.

This is a movie that is not only about deals made in smoky rooms, it literally takes place in one smoky room after another. Smoke fills the air the way smoke fills the landscape of battlefields.  There's so much cigar smoking done in confined spaces on the screen, I found myself coughing to clear my throat.

Lincoln is a hymn of praise to an extraordinary man.  But it is also a pragmatic portrait of leadership in action. You can't help but watch it without drawing parallels to politics today. (Lincoln wasn't the only precocious Illinois lawyer to win the White House.)

And anyone who thinks politics today is dirtier today than is was in 1865 should disabuse themselves of that notion. The heat of rhetoric then is enough to singe off your eyebrows. The fear of the Negro -- the name people used when they were being polite -- was palpable.

Even though Lincoln's Cabinet agreed on the evils of slavery, they were flummoxed over what next.  If blacks were to be free, the when and the how of it were still a matter of debate, and the Cabinet vastly preferred debate to action.

Lincoln was buffeted by countervailing forces: Democrats who opposed any and all attempts to end slavery; conservative Republicans who wanted to calibrate carefully their reaction to the peculiar institution and radical Republicans for whom the 13th Amendment did not go far enough.

All of this combined to create gridlock in Washington in 1865, as the war wound down. Legislative bodies are built for inertia. Lincoln sought to defy this gravitational reality. He pushed against the G-force of opposition, not only by employing his personal and political skills, but also by sheer force of his will.

The story of the 13th Amendment is a lesson for  those who support certain ends but hold their noses at the means needed to achieve them. From our bunkers, we revile the political class for making "deals," and equate compromise with treason.

As to the political class itself, I would make attendance at this movie mandatory. It's one thing  to articulate noble goals, quite another to do what needs to be done to achieve them.  It is hard, dirty and thankless work, as Lincoln shows. What it takes is something in short supply then and now.  It is called courage.

-- Tom Ferrick

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