, Salem, MA


February 23, 2013

Column: Compromise and the purest man in America


In an early scene, Mary Lincoln self-deprecatingly asks, “Who wants to listen to a woman grouse?” and in her mirror we see a husband’s hand rise sweetly. “I do,” he volunteers. Lincoln works with his hands in a tense cabinet meeting, sharpening a pencil with a knife; he puts his hands on colleagues’ shoulders, to make a point, lend emotional support or sometimes, it seems, just to be in touch. He takes the hand of the secretary of war as they receive battle news; he ruffles his personal secretary’s hair and later holds his hand to keep him from delaying a controversial note. Lincoln pounds his fist on a table as he demands his fellow politicians see his vision through. There’s even a running bit with a pair of gloves that Mrs. Lincoln and the president’s valet are always urging him to wear, but he wants to leave off.

Not just Lincoln’s hands humanize. Comforting his wife in their shared lingering grief, he takes her hands and kisses them. When their son Robert sees the horrors of war — severed limbs in an open grave — his hands shake so badly he can’t roll a cigarette. Shortly afterward, Bob provokes his father, and Lincoln slaps his son, then remorsefully takes Bob’s face in his hands.

It’s a lonely thing to be the imperfect, mythologized man whose leadership and consequences have such great and terrible weight. Spielberg’s Lincoln is, he confesses, “very keenly aware of my aloneness.” No one is loved as much as he is, Mary says. She begs him not to waste that power on an amendment that is sure to be defeated.

Therein lies the bind. The fate of human dignity, Lincoln says, is in our hands, but the enactment of that dignity depends on bending and appeasement from beginning to the continuing end in which we now live. The very act of war came out of a rhetorical and legal conundrum. Lincoln called fellow humans property in order to maneuver their ultimate freedom. Stevens laments that the inner moral compass of the American people ossified through participation in slavery, and Lincoln notes that a compass is little help in a swampland. Politically, to change so deeply human perception and relations looks like holding hands with falsehood and selfish impulse.

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