One of the lines of argument about Lincoln that has intrigued me most is this one, which Will Boisvert states over at Crooked Timber:
But the movie’s focus is on…snakey retail politics. That’s what makes the movie interesting, in part because it cuts against the grain of Lincoln hagiography by making him a shrewd, somewhat dirty pol.
Will isn’t alone in this. I’ve seen David Denby, Anthony Lane, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Chris Hayes offer eloquent statements of the same thesis: that what makes Lincoln great is that it shows how his greatness consists in so many acts of smallness. Politicking, horse-trading, compromise, log-rolling, and the like.
What’s interesting to me about this line of argument is, first, that it hardly cuts against the standard historiography of Lincoln. Ever since David Donald’s Lincoln Reconsidered, which came out in 1947, and Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay in The American Political Tradition (1948), we’ve known about this Lincoln. When it comes to Lincoln, we lost our virtue a long time ago, yet somehow, in 2012, we’re all still virgins. (Pace Pauline Kael.)
But beyond the historiography, there’s a larger cultural question: What is it about this country that makes any description of the moral cesspool of politics seem like the revelation of a brave new truth? Particularly among otherwise sophisticated cultural brokers like Lane et al? I mean these are men steeped in the Western canon; David Denby even wrote a book about that. Yet somehow they’ve never absorbed the lessons of Henry V? Or The Prince? Or Max Weber?
I think it was D.H. Lawrence, in his Studies in Classic American Literature (though my copy is in storage so I can’t know for sure), who first cottoned on to this peculiarly American dynamic whereby innocence gives way to cynicism, without ever achieving anything like a mature and stable or permanent sense of realism. So that every time we stumble across some banal item of reality—Lincoln was a politician! Politicians politick!—we draw back in shock and awe at the haunting truth of it all, as if we had just been handed the tablets at Mt. Sinai. (O’Brien speaks of our “authentic wonderment” at Spielberg/Kushner’s decision to set the saintly Lincoln against “a more detached and analytical surveying of circumstances.”)
Understood in this light, the realism of Lincoln is just the flip side of the hagiography of Lincoln. Only a country steeped in myths of innocence would find the most conventional and boring kind of realism about politics to be the trumpet blast of Truth, Brave Truth.
We see these quicksilver shifts, from innocence to cynicism or realism, in the culture all the time—though sometimes they go in the reverse direction. Think of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, how the wise-cracking cynic Jean Arthur becomes a true believer. Or Dave, where the Sigourney Weaver character makes the same pilgrimage. (Interestingly, in both cases it’s a woman who loses her cynicism and discovers her innocence via falling in love with a man.)
But whether it’s the cynic discovering or recovering her innocence, or the innocent losing his innocence, the story of politics in this country is always the same, toggling back and forth between two positions that are little more than the competing wisdom of juveniles.
It’s basically the truth of the 5 year old set against the truth of the 15 year old. And any time the 15 year old speaks, we’re expected to murmur, in hushed wonder: brave, bold, true, wow. If you’re a 5 year old, I can see why that would be the case. If you’re a 45-year-old, as I am, it’s a bit tougher. Or at least it should be.