Michael Gerson: Politics with a purpose

Published: November 27, 2012
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This is consistent with the realism of the Constitution's framers, who assumed the general pursuit of interest and attempted to channel it toward public purposes. But the channeling is helped by good leaders.

Two moral leaders in “Lincoln” vie for our sympathy: the radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and Lincoln himself. It is a measure of the film's ambition and complexity that the purer, more satisfying moral position — Stevens' admirable (and personal) embrace of social equality between black and white — would have led to the 13th Amendment's defeat. Stevens ensures passage by publicly tempering his deepest convictions — ultimately a disturbing cinematic moment. But by dividing our moral sympathies from our pragmatic judgments, Spielberg coveys something of Lincoln's burden. While justice is not defined by the majority, it can't be pursued without support from the majority. So Lincoln tacks back and forth, willing to compromise on almost everything — except his destination. When asked by members of his Cabinet to abandon that, his response is a sudden, savage whirlwind of certainty. For Lincoln, all politics is barter — but done in service to a purpose beyond barter.

The union would be well served today by herding all 535 of its legislators into a darkened theater for a screening of “Lincoln.” The issues they face — from public debt to immigration — are less momentous than slavery, but momentous enough for discomfort. They might take away a greater appreciation for flexibility and compromise. They should also note that the dramatic culmination of the movie is a roll call — a list of forgotten legislators whose hesitant, conflicted choices were as important as the outcome of battle. Their shared profession may lack in dignity but not in consequence.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

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