Don’t Mess With The Lincoln Memorial

In a world of senseless violence, ethnic wars, random kidnappings, and suicide bombings, why get angry about some green paint splashed on a statue — particularly when the paint can be cleaned and the statue returned to its former glory?

But the vandalism at the Lincoln Memorial does make me angry.  I hope they catch the twisted person who did this, and I hope they make him pay.

The Lincoln Memorial, like the rest of the National Mall, says a lot about America.  Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents, and one of our greatest Americans, period.  His story tells a lot about this country, and his perseverance through the awful bloodshed of the Civil War does, too.  Most Americans have seen the Lincoln Memorial, on fifth grade trips to the Nation’s Capital or on family visits there, and it is an awesome temple to the American Idea — noble and grand, humbling and moving, with Lincoln’s careful words carved on the walls and his craggy, wise head looking down upon us.  We leave the Lincoln Memorial, and we feel good.

So why in the world would some idiot splash paint on Lincoln’s statue?

And while we are figuring out the answer to that question, let’s also answer this question:  how could the vandal do this and get away?  I hate to suggest even more surveillance cameras in this country, but the Lincoln Memorial needs to be protected.  Now that this pointless act has occurred, we don’t want to give terrorists any ideas.

Gettysburg, July 1, 1863

One hundred and fifty years ago, in a small town in southern Pennsylvania, two armies began the battle that became a defining moment of the Civil War.

The Confederate forces were led by General Robert E. Lee.  Flush with a crushing victory at Chancellorsville, Lee decided to lead his Army of Northern Virginia in an invasion of the North.  Lee knew that the situation in the Confederacy was growing increasingly desperate.  Hundreds of miles to the west, General Ulysses Grant and his Army of the Tennessee were continuing a methodical siege of Vicksburg, hoping to win the surrender of the starving Confederate Army encamped there — and, with its surrender, achieve control of the mighty Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two.  Union blockades of Confederate ports were choking off trade and supplies.  Politically, the Confederacy was splintering.  Lee concluded that an invasion of the North, if successful, might bring the Union to the negotiating table and save the Confederacy from the inexorable forces that were strangling it.

The Army of the Potomac was led by a new commander — the goggle-eyed, waspish George Meade.  President Lincoln picked Meade to be the latest in a long line of Union Army generals to lead the North’s principal army.  All of Meade’s predecessors had had been outfought, outmaneuvered, whipped and humiliated by Lee and his supremely confident army.  Only a few days before the battle of Gettysburg began, Meade replaced General Joseph Hooker, who had lost the battle of Chancellorsville.  As Lee marched north, Meade pursued him, always striving to keep his army between Lee’s forces and Washington, D.C.  Meade feared that, if Lee somehow took the Nation’s Capital, a Union tired of years of bloody war might decide to sue for peace.

On June 30, as the two enormous armies moved through the quiet Pennsylvania countryside, ill-clad Confederate troops heard that shoes might be found in Gettysburg.  Rebels skirmishers visited the town, found some Union troops there, and told their commanders — who decided to press the issue.  On July 1, lead elements of the Army of Northern Virginia moved into Gettysburg. clashing with Union cavalry.  The Confederates drove the Union Army through town, leaving the Army of the Potomac clinging desperately to two hills south of town — Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill.  In the meantime, the main armies were wheeling slowly into position, and Meade decided that Gettysburg might be the ideal place for a pitched battle.

Most of the soldiers in the two armies were farm boys who hailed from towns much like Gettysburg, which at that time was home to about two thousand people.  They had seen their fellow soldiers killed by the score in battles that were appallingly bloody by modern standards, with brave men ordered into ill-fated charges in which they would be torn to shreds by minie balls and cannon shot — but they were determined to do their duty, no matter what the cost.

As night fell, the Union forces dug in, hoping to hold the high ground, and the Confederate generals planned their attack.  As the armies gathered around their crackling campfires, both sides suspected, correctly, that the big battle lay ahead.

I’m Not Going To Vote For “Fighters” Anymore

I’ve got friends who occupy just about every niche along the political spectrum.  For once, almost everyone seems to be united in one thought:  we all agree that the recent “fiscal cliff” scenario, and the hash house legislation that “resolved” it, are an infuriating embarrassment for our country.  Everyone seems to recognize that the hastily brokered bill, with its special deals for well-heeled special interests, just illustrates how bad things have gotten in Washington, D.C.

Why has this happened?  There are a lot of reasons, of course, but I think one significant cause is that we’ve changed how we think about our political leaders and what they should be doing.  What attributes are featured in political ads these days?  Democrat or Republican, the candidate is always portrayed as a “fighter” who will “fight” for his constituents in opposing unnamed forces of evil.  Important qualities like thoughtfulness, cool deliberation, and attention to detail are ignored.  When was the last time you saw a candidate in a political ad sitting and reading something?  Instead, they’re always out, talking, talking, talking to groups, and vigorously gesturing as they are doing so.

We need legislators who understand the true importance of their role and who have pride in their legislative bodies and in their offices.  We need people who recognize that laws that will govern the affairs of more than 300 million Americans have to be carefully considered and can’t be cobbled together in a back room huddle of Joe Biden and a few congressional leaders.

In reality, too, most of the “fighters” who currently hold office really are sheep.  They listen to how their party leadership tells them to vote, and then they do it, even if it means they don’t even read whatever last-minute, lobbied-up deal they are voting on.  Can you imagine the Lincolns and Clays and Websters of the past — or any legislator with an ounce of self-respect, for that matter — accepting these legislative practices, which have now become so routine?  A real fighter for our system would refuse to participate in such shenanigans.

I’m not going to vote for phony “fighters” any more.  In fact, I’ll make this pledge:  candidates whose commercials extoll their qualities as “fighters” will be automatically disqualified from further consideration.  Our country badly needs reasoned solutions, not more pointless name-calling and legislative brawls undertaken in the name of “fighting” for constituents.  We need readers and thinkers, not “fighters.”  “Fighters” look for fights; readers and thinkers look for solutions — and solutions is what we really need.

Lincoln, Revisited

Kish and I saw Lincoln yesterday.  It’s a wonderful movie, and I would highly recommend it to everyone.

https://i0.wp.com/i.i.com.com/cnwk.1d/i/tim/2012/10/20/CCSpielbergLincoln1280x960_460x329.jpgI don’t have much to add to Richard’s excellent, thoughtful review of the film.  Daniel Day-Lewis was terrific as Lincoln.  For an actor, what role could be more difficult than bringing real life touches to an iconic figure most Americans now see less as a human being, and more as a colossal marble statue?  Under the masterful direction of Steven Spielberg, and with the able assistance of some fine actors and great sets and scenery, the film creates a realistic, tobacco-spitting, bewhiskered and ball gown-wearing, deeply racist, embarrassingly eloquent, and entirely believable depiction of America during the Civil War.  Sure, Sally Field was too old to play Mary Todd Lincoln, but that casting clinker can’t take away from an otherwise exceptionally well done movie.

My only complaint is not about the acting or the production value, but about the script.  The story told by the film was not the story of Lincoln’s life, but rather the story of Lincoln’s resolve to secure passage of the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery before the Civil War ended — and his deft politicking to achieve that goal.  So why, then, couldn’t the movie end with Lincoln enjoying that success?  Why must every Lincoln movie proceed to the heartbreak of his assassination and the solemn pronouncement that “now he belongs to the ages”?

I recognize that Lincoln’s martrydom is an essential part of the Lincoln saga, but that doesn’t mean we have to be hit over the head with that fact whenever Lincoln is mentioned.  How refreshing it would have been to see the movie end with Lincoln enjoying his triumph!  We would still know that death awaited him, of course — every American knows that to their core — but seeing him relishing a satisfying and historic victory would have exposed a different facet of the man.

Review: Lincoln

Lincoln and his cabinet.

Lincoln and his cabinet.

In a scene in the middle of Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican congressman, chides Abraham Lincoln for waiting so long to make an attempt to end slavery.

Lincoln responds that if he had tried to end slavery after the war began in 1861, the border states would have joined the Confederacy, leading to the Union’s defeat and making the chances of emancipation even more remote. Stevens sits there with a defensive expression on his face, unable to offer a rebuttal.

Abraham Lincoln’s character – his blend of compassion and pragmatism – is the focus of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, as its title makes clear. Most Civil War epics focus on the great battles between the Union and Confederate armies, but Lincoln concentrates on the role the 16th president played in the great legislative battle over the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery.

Those who pay $9 to see artillery fire and bayonet charges will be disappointed by the film. The few battle scenes are short and brutal, serving only to remind viewers of one of the many pressures weighing on Lincoln’s mind as he decided the best way to end the war.

The ongoing carnage has led the Democrats and the conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives to oppose passage of the 13th amendment out of the fear it will ruin peace negotiations. They pester Lincoln for even bringing up emancipation, while the Radical Republicans pester him for not pressing emancipation hard enough.

In his portrayal of Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis plays a man aware that his role in history is to herd his hard-headed colleagues toward emancipation and peace. He does this mostly through slippery legislative techniques we would associate more with LBJ: patronage, cajoling, and even a little bit of dishonesty. Moralizing is used only as a last resort.

Two of Lincoln’s great speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, make it into the film, but they seem only rhetorical flourishes for Lincoln’s legislative masterwork. Unseemly political tactics are an essential part of Republican government, in any year; during the Civil War our country was lucky to have a brilliant president who used them to achieve great things.

I could think of no historical character more deserving of a portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis, with his well-known thoroughness, than the complicated, monumental Lincoln. Ironically, the British actor brings America’s most revered historical figure to life. Instead of the booming voice most Lincoln impersonators use, he employs a more realistic reedy twang. He demonstrates Lincoln’s penchant for funny anecdotes well enough to get my theater laughing a couple times. With saggy eyelids, a slight hunch and a sad smile, he communicates the weariness and the spiritual burdens Lincoln acquired after four years of a wartime presidency.

He also gives him flaws. In scenes of discord with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and his son, Robert Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he shows Lincoln as a man prone to indecision and anger, like the rest of us. Underneath it all, though, is the wisdom and strength of character that made Lincoln such an icon.

A great cast joins Day-Lewis in creating real people out of the historical figures known only through stodgy old photographs and dry academic writing. Sally Field plays Mary Lincoln as a woman so anxious, in large part due to the death of her son Tad shortly before the beginning of the film, that I both felt sorry for her and wanted to avoid her. Gordon-Levitt’s Robert Lincoln is a frustrated young man imprisoned at Harvard by his mother’s worries while he would rather be proving himself on the battlefield.

Thanks to the full-fledged performances and the attention to detail in the sets, costumes, accents and 19th-century lingo, the movie creates such a convincing image of 1865 that it felt like a precious window into the past. The United States of 1865 is a character itself, tired of war and uncomfortable with the great changes it is undergoing. The new capitol building is so blindingly white that it seems both inspiring and awkward amongst the dingy buildings and muddy streets of Washington, D.C. The telegraphs that bring news of the results of battles and their casualties seem to strike the characters as exciting and frightening, and the same could be said of the freed blacks who have just begun serving in the army.

At the end of the movie, when I stepped out of the theater into the parking lot, I felt like I had returned from a trip to the past. I was conscious of the fact that I and my surroundings were products of the historical currents portrayed in the movie. Some characters in the movie, including Lincoln, ask what America should be like after the war ends, how it can heal the scars of slavery. Stepping back into modern-day America, I had an opportunity to examine the way the United States chose to proceed from their eyes.

In Favor Of “Flip-Floppers”

Today President Obama announced that he has changed his mind about gay marriage and now favors it.  Opponents of the move called him a “flip-flopper.”  Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney has modified his position on certain issues over the years.  He’s been criticized as a “flip-flopper,” too.

I don’t get the “flip-flopper” criticism.  I think it’s common for people to reassess their views about issues.  I certainly don’t adhere to every belief I held when I was 20, or 30.  Life experiences have shaped my views, and circumstances have, too.  I don’t want a President who is so rigid in his thinking that he is unwilling to reexamine his position, even when events strongly suggest that his position is wrong or ill-advised.  Why wouldn’t we want a President who is flexible and open-minded enough to react to new information or new developments?

It’s worth remembering that perhaps the greatest “flip-flop” in American political history involved Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery, but also was opposed to the notion that the government could, or should, simply order that slaves be freed.  He favored voluntary emancipation by slaveowners, who would be compensated as a result.  Military and civil conditions during the Civil War, however, caused Lincoln to revisit his position, and the Emancipation Proclamation was the result.  Although some people opposed the Proclamation, I don’t remember that people reacted by shrieking that Lincoln was a “flip-flopper” or an unprincipled hack.  Now, does anyone care that Lincoln’s views on the issue changed over time?  The important point was that Lincoln’s ultimate position clearly was the right position.

The lesson of Lincoln, I think, is that we should focus on whether we agree with the politicians’ stated positions, without worrying overmuch about how they finally got to those positions.  In the case of same-sex marriage, I agree with the President.  If a gay couple wants to make the commitment of marriage, and to assume the rights and legal obligations that accompany that status, I think they should be permitted to do so.  Why should a gay couple be treated any differently from another couple simply because of their sexual orientation?

I recognize that other people will disagree with this position because of their religious or cultural beliefs.  Such disagreements are the stuff of which political campaigns are made.  The important point, for purposes of this posting, is that the issue of same-sex marriage be considered and debated on its merits.  Whether a politician’s position on the issue has changed doesn’t advance the debate, and indeed just distracts from it.

History Around Every Corner

One of the great things about New York City is that you can find interesting bits of history just about anywhere and everywhere.  Today we were walking to the Tenement Museum when we passed the historic Cooper Union building.

Anyone who enjoys American history — and particularly anyone who finds Abraham Lincoln fascinating, as I do — recognizes the Cooper Union as the site of a crucial turning point in Lincoln’s ascent to the presidency.  It was at the Cooper Union, on a snowy night on February 27, 1860, that Lincoln gave a speech about slavery that helped to catapult him to the Republican nomination.  Through his famous speech, Lincoln demonstrated that he was no awkward backwoodsman, but rather a national leader who could speak seriously, thoughtfully, and forcefully about the paramount issue of the day.  The Cooper Union speech helped to establish Lincoln as a bona fide candidate, and not some mere regional favorite son.

The Cooper Union building stands still, with its old-fashioned lettering and clock, and looks much the same as it did on that night nearly 152 years ago, when the strapping frontier lawyer came to Gotham and thrilled his sophisticated audience with his logic and the power of his arguments.