If Only Obama's and Chris Christie's Critics Could Watch 'Lincoln'

Spielberg's depiction of rivals working together is all the more relevant after Hurricane Sandy.

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Disney / Reuters

The November 9th limited-release date for Steven Spielberg's long-gestating Abraham Lincoln biopic Lincoln was chosen, in significant part, because of the presidential campaign. "We all made the conscious decision to come out after the election for no other reason than Lincoln has his place," the director told the Associated Press. "Lincoln is relevant to all of us today, but he had his place and he had his time, and we wanted Lincoln to have his place and his time outside or just after the election cycle." Given a few recent events, that's turning out to be a regrettable choice. What neither Spielberg nor Obama nor Romney could've predicted is how much a certain "Superstorm" would drive Lincoln's central themes home.

Spielberg's film, contrary to its title, is not an all-encompassing portrait of Lincoln's life. Screenwriter Tony Kushner (drawing from Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals) focuses squarely on the final four months of the president's life, when he took advantage of (and quite possibly delayed) the end of the Civil War to pass the 13th Amendment. In order to do so, he and Secretary of State William Seward had to bring together several diametrically opposed factions—conservative and radical Republicans, moderates, and lame-duck Democrats—and get their votes.

It was a noble cause, but it was not always nobly achieved. Though the gang of political operatives Seward brings in to wrangle up the votes is explicitly instructed not to engage in monetary bribes, jobs are offered to the outgoing Dems. Outright lies are told to opposing forces. Politics are played, without apology. And, most importantly, compromises are made in order to get something vital accomplished. "We shall oppose each other in the course of time," Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) tells Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). "For now, we're working together."

That line rang particularly true at the movie theater in uptown Manhattan where Lincoln's media screening was held, relocated from its previous location across the street from the hanging crane famously made terrifying by Sandy. Of course, one of the top political stories of the last few days has been the warmth and cooperation between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and President Barack Obama—two men who have opposed each other vociferously and certainly will again. For now, they're working together, and it's the kind of thing that should be inspiring. However, because Christie has gone out of his way to publicly thank the president and applaud his hands-on assistance, he's been called a traitor by Romney supporters. Rush Limbaugh, with total lack of self-awareness, labeled Christie "fat and a fool." (He also said he is gay, because when you get right down to it, Limbaugh is a fifth-grade bully.)

Is there some sort of ulterior motive for Christie's embrace of the president? Certainly there are plenty of theories. But it's worth marveling that the partisan political climate in this country is such a nightmare that the actual sight of a Republican and Democrat working together on something is not just noteworthy, but newsworthy. Lincoln brings into sharp focus the simple fact that it shouldn't be.

Let's be clear: The film isn't a rosy picture of snuggly bipartisanship. The House floor debates in the film are rowdy, raucous affairs; these guys would've dissed Joe Wilson as a shrinking violet. David Straithairn's Seward dismisses the House (in what will surely prove one of the film's more crowd-pleasing lines) as a "gang of talentless hicks and hacks," and hires the crew of "skulky men" to wrangle up votes in order to "spare me the indignity of actually speaking to Democrats." When Mary Todd Lincoln encounters her nemesis Stevens in a White House receiving line, she sneers "We are all getting along, so they tell me," before giving him an earful that brings the event to a standstill. For his part, when Stevens and Lincoln sit down to strategize, he tells the president, "I lead. You oughta try it."

That's the gist of the argument the more liberal wing of the Democratic party has been making throughout the Obama administration, and many of those "disappointed progressives" have turned in "I'm taking my vote and going home" think pieces in the past few months. Their ideological stubbornness is, in its way, as silly as that of Santorum, Bachmann, and the like—and just as counterproductive. This president is imperfect, yes. He's had to let things stand, some of them abhorrent. He has let down much of his base. In retrospect, he failed to take advantage of certain tactical advantages in the first two, Democratic-majority years of his administration, in a mostly doomed attempt at fostering bipartisanship.

The memory of that frustrating period—in which he appointed Republicans to his cabinet, embraced formerly Republican policies like cap-and-trade and the insurance mandate, and wasted an entire summer waiting for the three-and-three Senate Finance subcommittee to work up a bipartisan version of the healthcare reform bill—is so crystal clear for progressives that it's hard to muster up anything but stunned, down-is-up laughter at Romney's insistence that Obama is unwilling to work with Republicans.

And that's why the Christie-Obama pair-up this week could be devastating for the Romney campaign, because (as others have noted) it is a spiky refutation of Romney's partisan argument. It's not that Obama is incapable of working together with Republicans; it's that he has to find one who's willing to work with him instead of proclaiming "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

Christie sings a different tune. "My relationships with Democrats, similar to my relationships with Republicans, are about getting things done," he said at a press conference the evening of Obama's visit to his state. "[I] could give a damn about the politics of things. I could care less today about it. The president of the United States came and offered help for the people I'm sworn to represent, and I accept his help and I accept his goodwill, and I accept his great efforts that he's put forward on behalf of our state. There will be some folks who will criticize me for complimenting him. Well you know what? I speak the truth."

One of Lincoln's emotional high points comes when Stevens, a vehement abolitionist who seeks racial equality in all matters, must take to the House floor and deny the full scope of his views. By insisting that he only seeks equality under the law, he can secure moderate votes for the amendment. But it is a matter of pride for the stubborn and steadfast congressman; his fellow legislators plead with him to keep his passion in check. "I beg you, sir, compromise," one tells him, "or you risk it all." Stevens swallows hard, goes to the floor, and soft-pedals his most deeply held beliefs. It is not a proud moment, but it is treated as such by the filmmakers, and when the amendment carries, Stevens says it was "passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America." When Lincoln is pressing his advisers to make the vote happen, his language is plain: "See what is before you. See the here and now. That's all that matters." And when it is done, he notes that, against odds, they have shown the world "that democracy isn't chaos."

Those are the words that resonate most in Lincoln's two-plus hours. After a term plagued by obstructionism, gridlock, and pettiness, it certainly feels as though our broken political system is nothing but chaos. Lincoln shows that it wasn't always that way. And Christie proves that it doesn't always have to be.