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BROOKS: Lincoln shows the ambiguity of politics

  • FILE - This undated publicity photo released by DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox, shows Daniel Day-Lewis, center rear, as Abraham Lincoln, in a scene from the film, "Lincoln." Leaving nothing to chance, Daniel Day-Lewis' prep for his movie role as Abraham Lincoln included the two-time Academy Award winner secretly spending time in the 16th U.S. president's former Illinois turf. (AP Photo/DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox, David James, File)

We live in an anti-political moment, when many people — young people especially — think politics is a low, nasty, corrupt and usually fruitless business. It's much nobler to do community service or just avoid all that putrid noise.

I hope everybody who shares this anti-political mood will go out to see "Lincoln," directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner. The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way.

It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.

The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning. Spielberg's "Lincoln" gets this point. The hero has a high moral vision, but he also has the courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality.

To lead his country through a war, to finagle his ideas through Congress, Lincoln feels compelled to ignore court decisions, dole out patronage, play legalistic games, deceive his supporters and accept the fact that every time he addresses one problem he ends up creating others down the road.

Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good. This is a self-restrained movie that celebrates people who are prudent, self-disciplined, ambitious and tough enough to do that work.

The movie also illustrates another thing: that politics is the best place to develop the highest virtues. Politics involves such a perilous stream of character tests: how low can you stoop to conquer without destroying yourself; when should you be loyal to your team and when should you break from it; how do you wrestle with the temptations of fame — that the people who can practice it and remain intact, like Lincoln, Washington or Churchill, are incredibly impressive.

The movie shows a character-building trajectory, common among great politicians, which you might call the trajectory from the Gettysburg Address to the Second Inaugural.

In the Gettysburg phase, a leader expresses grand ideas. This, frankly, is relatively easy. Lots of people embrace grand ideals or all-explaining ideologies. But satisfied with that they become morally infantile. They refuse to compromise, insult their opponents and isolate themselves on the perch of their own solipsism.

But a politician like Lincoln takes the next step in the trajectory. He has to deal with other people. Spielberg's "Lincoln" does a nice job celebrating an underappreciated art, the art of legislating.


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