Sometimes movies reflect the times in which they are made, but sometimes the times come to reflect them. When Steven Spielberg was making Lincoln there’s no way he could have known about the tragedy that would happen this past week in Connecticut, yet his film can teach our leaders valuable lessons about how to proceed in the aftermath.
Lincoln is interested only in one part of the 16th presidency: the fight for passage of the XIIIth Amendment. In the film Lincoln sees he has one, brief moment to guarantee slavery is ended in the United States of America. With the Civil War winding down he understands that any Reconstruction will likely include human bondage remaining in the slave states, and more than that he’s not certain his Emancipation Proclamation will hold up to post-war legal scrutiny. The men and women he ostensibly freed could find themselves back in chains as the rest of the country heals itself.
He knows that the time to constitutionally ban slavery is upon him, and so he must fight and work to build the political will to pass such an amendment, even with staunch opposition from not only conservatives but also moderates. He has to make tough choices, possibly extending the war and continuing bloodshed, to give himself the time needed to muster up that political will and jam the amendment through the House of Representatives.
It’s that understanding of the right moment in time as well as an ability to compromise while keeping his eyes on the prize that allowed Lincoln to make history, to ensure that the only time our Constitution mentions slavery is to outlaw it. Standing with the perspective of history it’s obvious that Lincoln did the right thing, but it took immense political courage for him to step out and put the full force of his presidency behind the XIIIth Amendment.
Barack Obama is a president who looks to Lincoln for guidance, and like Lincoln Obama has made choices in his presidency that alienated his base while still enraging his enemies. There are drone strikes likely happening in the Middle East as you read this, strikes that Obama surely rationalizes in the same way that Lincoln rationalized suspending habeas corpus and ignoring the rulings of the court during his own war. But if ever there was a cue Obama should take from Lincoln, it should be the cue of standing strong behind a divisive, difficult ideal when the time is right.
Today the time is right. In the hours after the massacre in Newtown there was a sense of outrage that swept across the nation, a sense that it’s insane we should still be suffering catastrophes like this. Coming months after the shooting in Aurora, days after a shooting in Portland, the national zeitgeist suddenly became about finding a solution - and a real one, not a wild west solution that would lead to pitched gun battles in our elementary schools. A solution that will address not only the way our health system fails the mentally ill but also the way our society holds the right to own an assault rifle above a child's right to live.
There are those who say that this isn’t the time to look at our gun ownership laws. They say the time is too raw, too ugly, that this is a moment for mourning. These are the same people who, in 1865, would have said the end of the war wasn’t the time to outlaw slavery, that rejoining the states and healing was the first priority. They were wrong then, and they’re wrong today.
Like Lincoln, Obama is a president about to enter his second term. The eyes of history are upon him. Like Lincoln he has a choice to play it politically safe or to take bold action that will forever change the face of this nation.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is an ode to creating political will, by any means necessary. It’s a film that shows a leader leading, not waiting for everybody else to catch up... but also being aware of when it’s the right time to lead. Today that message rings especially true - change will not come to this country if we wait for everyone to agree. Change will come when those in charge are brave enough to create that change.
Abraham Lincoln couldn’t bear the idea of humans being put back in chains during his lifetime. Can Barack Obama bear the idea of more innocents being gunned down by assault weapons? Does he have the political courage to make sure that never happens again? Maybe he should pop in an awards season screener of Lincoln to get some.