Lincoln, Spielberg, Sandburg, Kennedy, and Compromise
Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is "An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces" (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, go here: http://people.emich.edu/wmoss/pub.htm.
To say that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a “hot topic” among historians and politicians is an understatement. As of 22 December, The History News Network (HNN) had links to 23 articles on it. President Obama hosted a White House screening of it on 15 November. And on 19 December, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell invited the entire Senate to a screening of it at which Spielberg and leading cast members also appeared.
In a Washington Post article after the White House showing, Ruth Marcus wrote that Obama “should do it again—and again and again. For the subsequent showings, though, the president ought to invite every member of Congress. Have them settle into the plush red seats of the White House theater and mull the possibilities, for landmark greatness or epic failure, available to a second-term president and lame-duck Congress.” Marcus went on to write that the film “is exquisitely crafted and even more exquisitely timed. Focused on President Abraham Lincoln’s battle to win House passage of the 13th Amendment [abolishing slavery], it presents useful lessons in the subtle arts of presidential leadership and the practice of politics, at once grimy and sublime.” She also notes the approaching “fiscal cliff,” and how the film demonstrates that members of Congress can sometimes “do the right thing for their country, even if it means bucking their party or compromising in the service of progress.”
All of this attention given to Lincoln and his relevance for politics today calls to mind poet Carl Sandburg’s multi-volume Abraham Lincoln biography (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1940) and his address to a Joint Session of the U. S. Congress on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth (February 12, 1959). Up until then, no other private citizen in the twentieth century had been given such an honor.
Although the government did not appear as dysfunctional in 1959 as it does today, Sandburg still quoted some of Lincoln’s words that he thought remained relevant. He mentioned the beginning of Lincoln’s 1858 “A-house-divided-against- itself-cannot-stand” speech: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.” And he quoted from Lincoln’s December 1862 message to Congress: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. We must think anew, we must act anew, we must disenthrall ourselves.”
By 1959, Sandburg had long been pointing to Lincoln’s relevance for twentieth-century politics. Although a socialist as a young man and voting for his friend Socialist candidate Eugene Debs for president in 1920, Sandburg later became an ardent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt. In 1935 he sent an article entitled “Lincoln in the Shadows” to Roosevelt himself, and in the accompanying letter told FDR: "Having written for ten years now on 'Abraham Lincoln: the War Years,' starting this year on the fourth and final volume [earlier, in 1926, his two-volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years had appeared] I have my eyes and ears in two eras and can not help drawing parallels. One runs to the effect that you are the best light of democracy that has occupied the White House since Lincoln. . . . Your speeches like Lincoln’s will stand the test of time."
Being a strong supporter of FDR’s New Deal, in 1936 and again in 1940 Sandburg gave several speeches encouraging Roosevelt’s reelection and comparing him to Lincoln. In one of the 1940 speeches, Sandburg quoted words of Reverend Henry Fowler about Lincoln in 1863. Fowler had stated that the “explanation of his every act is this: He executes the will of the people. . . . His wisdom consists in carrying out the good sense of the nation. . . . He stands before you . . . a not perfect man and yet more precious than fine gold.” Sandburg then added “and for some of us, that goes in the main in the present hour of national fate, for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
Even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Sandburg was a strong supporter of FDR’s assisting Great Britain by such steps as his Lend-Lease program. In April 1945, Sandburg gave a wartime radio address to millions encouraging the American people to prevail and quoted Lincoln from his December 1, 1862 message to Congress. After FDR died later that month, Sandburg wrote the poem “When Death Came, April Twelve 1945.” In doing so, he followed the example of one of his favorite poets, Walt Whitman, who had written after Lincoln’s death “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain!”
Especially relevant for today was Sandburg’s emphasis on Lincoln’s pragmatism. In an essay of the early 1940s, “What would Lincoln do now?” Sandburg stressed that Lincoln often had to decide between “what was partly right and partly wrong” and how what in theory might seem “perfectly right” was unfeasible. Sandburg added that if Lincoln were living in the early 1940s he “would often be doing the expedient thing rather than the right thing." Earlier, in his last Lincoln volume, Sandburg had recounted how Lincoln said the year before he was assassinated that he was elected at a “time when a man with a policy would have been fatal to the country. I have never had a policy. I have simply tried to do what seemed best each day, as each day came.”
Sandburg’s own observations and work on Lincoln convinced him that opinions, disagreements, and debate were the lifeblood of democracy and that nobody had a monopoly on truth. In his long poem The People, Yes (1936) he wrote:
Let the argument go on.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
The people have the say-so.
Let the argument go on.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Who knows the answers, the cold inviolable truth?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And how few they are who search and hesitate and say:
"I stand in this whirlpool and tell you I don't know and if I did know I
would tell you and all I am doing now is to guess and I give you
my guess for what it is worth as one man's guess.
A good friend and supporter of Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 and 1956 elections, Sandburg later came to admire John Kennedy, and the feeling was mutual. The president asked the poet to write the Forward to the Kennedy speeches gathered together in To Turn the Tide (1962). And in it, Sandburg compared Kennedy to Lincoln. After quoting Lincoln’s words--"If we could first know where we are and whither we are trending we could better judge what to do and how to do it”—Sandburg pointed out that Kennedy in this collection presented “the known facts as to where we are and whither we are tending and offers his counsel on what to do and how to do it.” Sandburg ended the Foreword with the following paragraph about Kennedy:
Plainly he has had humility, scruples, care and anxiety about what he thinks, writes and says, hoping to mislead no one, hoping his words will stand up and make sense and perhaps wisdom for his own time and later times. When our generation has passed away, when the tongues of praise and comment now speaking have turned to a cold dumb dust, it will be written that John F. Kennedy walked with the American people in their vast diversity and gave them all he had toward their moving into new phases of their great human adventure.
In January 1963, when Sandburg celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday among many friends, including Adlai Stevenson and Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, Kennedy sent a congratulatory telegram saying that Sandburg “as a poet, story-teller, minstrel and biographer, has expressed the many-sided American genius.”
What Sandburg and Kennedy had in common was an appreciation for a non-ideological, but principled pragmatic approach to politics, one that necessitated political compromises. In his Profiles in Courage, written while still a senator, Kennedy wrote:
We should not be too hasty in condemning all compromise as bad morals. For politics and legislation are not matters for inflexible principles or unattainable ideals. . . . legislation, under the democratic way of life and the Federal system of Government, requires compromise between the desires of each individual and group and those around them. . . . Their [politician’s] consciences may direct them from time to time to take a more rigid stand for principle—but their intellects tell them that a fair or poor bill is better than no bill at all, and that only through the give-and-take of compromise will any bill receive the successive approval of the Senate, the House, the President and the nation.
With House Speaker John Boehner unable to convince uncompromising Republicans to give just a little to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” e.g. by slightly increasing taxes on millionaires, and Congress going home for the Christmas holiday, the lessons that Lincoln, Spielberg, Sandburg, and Kennedy have to offer seem more important than ever. In his last public statement before departing for a Christmas break, President Obama stated, “Nobody gets 100% of what they want.” He has long seemed open to compromise— even too much so to some of his leftist critics. But despite the wise advise and examples mentioned above (and the wishes of much of the electorate), many Republicans continue to regard compromise as a dirty ten-letter word. We can only hope that the Christmas respite will bring them new insights into how politics should operate or perhaps furnish the president with a better perception as to how to deal with, or simply outmaneuver, such a dogmatic group of recalcitrants .
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