By Jeff Greenfield
It’s no wonder audiences are flocking to “Lincoln,” the new film about the 16th president. It’s a clear-eyed, dramatic, and ultimately inspiring tale that portrays Lincoln not as a saint, but as a hard-nosed, determined political leader who uses all the tools of politics, high and low, to push a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery through a reluctant House of Representatives. From uplifting rhetoric to political threats to temporizing on the issue of equality to patronage to bribery, Lincoln and his allies deploy every weapon at their command to win the battle.
But as the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural still echoed in the theater, I found myself thinking that in one sense, Lincoln was lucky. All he had to contend with was ingrained racism, a war-weary nation and daunting political arithmetic. What he didn’t have to deal with was…modern media.
He didn’t have to wage this fight in a time when every backroom deal, every casual remark, every public assertion or private behavior of an ally was the focus of constant, intense scrutiny--when the often messy sausage-making at the heart of political progress was on 24-hour display.
Suppose the tools of modern political communication were around back in Lincoln’s day. What would he have been up against? Well, consider:
“Tonight! New scandals as a desperate President Lincoln finds himself accused of moral degeneracy as his attempt to rewrite the Constitution is on life support—AND new details about the public and private hypocrisy of his radical allies. THIS….is the Vallandigham Report!
“We begin tonight with a shocking revelation of President Lincoln’s true moral character. In a just-obtained video shot during what he thought was a private conversation among cronies, the president was captured telling a joke involving a portrait of our beloved Founding Father George Washington hanging in the bathroom of a British aristocrat. We can’t broadcast the full audio, but in this coarse attempt at humor, the president of the United States employs a common barnyard obscenity—and then laughs at his own crudity! Bernie, as our media analyst what’s your reaction?”
“Clement, like every decent American, I’m appalled. I’m outraged. For our Head of State to resort to such language—well, it’s just unthinkable that such language could emerge from a president.”
“Thank you, Bernard. This latest stain on the president’s moral standing comes as we learn that the president has employed what can only be called blatantly dishonest language to conceal the fact that he is willing to prolong this Civil War in pursuit of his political goals. As we’ve been reporting, Francis Preston Blair, founder of Lincoln’s own Republican Party, has reached out to Confederate officials in search of a negotiated peace. When he was asked if such a group was in Washington—which would doom the 13th Amendment’s passage, the president said there is no such group in the capital and 'is not likely' to be here. What he didn’t say is that’s because he’s forbidden them to come here, according to our sources. Mary, your reaction?”
“That’s what we’ve come to call ‘typically Lincolnian language’, Clement. Just what you’d expect from a political narcissistic sociopath.”
“Fair and balanced as always, Mary. And Lincoln’s own dishonesty applies to his closest cronies. We’ve also learned that Secretary of State William Seward has employed the services of disreputable but highly efficient fixers to win the votes of lame-duck Democrats by offering patronage jobs and in at least one depicted case, handfuls of cash. Congressman Fernando Wood—your reaction?”
“Apparently the only way the president and his Radical Republican buddies can win is with ‘Postmaster Payoffs’ and other cheap tricks. To think his media team calls him ‘Honest Abe.’ “
“And speaking of his allies, the president’s been telling some of those Radicals, like Pennsylvania’s Thaddeus Stevens, to soft-pedal their outrageous beliefs about full voting rights for blacks. Well, later tonight, we’re going to air a special hour broadcast featuring years of speeches where Stevens actually argues that blacks and whites…are equal! And as if that’s not enough,--Ann, tell us the shocking news you’ve learned about Stevens’ private life.”
“Well, Clement, it turns out that for years, Congressman Stevens has been living in sin with his so-called ‘housekeeper’ who happens to be…a mulatto! His neighbors actually call her, ‘Mrs. Stevens!'"
“In other words, Ann, the real goal of these radicals may in fact be —"
"— Exactly: not one nation, but miscegenation."
“Truly shocking, Ann. When we come back, a look behind the real purpose of The Homestead Act. It gives 160 acres of land to anyone who wants it! Was it a scheme to buy votes with gifts to slackers? We report—you decide.”
By Jeff Greenfield