Experts on Abe Lincoln weigh in on new movie

Abraham Lincoln could be the most talked-about political figure this week. The 16th president of the United States returns to the spotlight in Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “Lincoln,” which focuses on the leader’s effort to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery.

The Hill spoke with several Lincoln experts — a couple of whom consulted on the movie — to learn more about the historical figure and ask what he might do if he had been a politician in the modern era.

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We just finished a presidential election. What about Abraham Lincoln do you think is most applicable to today’s political climate?

Jennifer L. Weber, associate professor at the University of Kansas: He was a man who worked very much incrementally. And he was willing to take half a loaf at first and keep working on a problem until he got more, bit by bit. When I hear some of the critiques from the far left of [President] Obama, I think they don’t recognize at times that getting half a loaf is not a bad thing, and then you just keep working from there.

Frank J. Williams, former chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and founding chairman of the Lincoln Forum: He was most alive in the midst of a fray, and I think he would thrive in the doldrums we’re in and the lack of consensus that we’re in today.

If it were Lincoln who had been elected president last week, what do you think would be the first thing he’d do?

Tom Schwartz, director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum; former Illinois state historian, historical consultant to Spielberg’s movie: What he did then, essentially, was reach out. And my guess is that he would do the same thing now — he would reach out to the opposition, offer an opportunity to sit down, discuss differences, emphasize the things that unite rather than the things that divide, and look for ways to compromise and forge a policy that represents all interested.

What about Lincoln do you think will resonate most with modern-day Americans?

Michael Burlingame, chairman of Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois-Springfield, historical consultant to Spielberg’s movie: I think his character, more than anything — his remarkable ability to overcome the petty tyranny of the ego; to be humble despite being endowed with such enormous power; to have a kind of psychological maturity and rootedness that is remarkable in any situation, but especially in politics, where the tyranny of the ego is so strong.

Geoff Elliott, author of The Abraham Lincoln Blog: Lincoln appeals to millions of people for more than one reason: rising from poverty and lack of education to achieve greatness, his principles, his assassination, courage, honor. But I think what resonates most is his honesty. He was called “Honest Abe” for a reason. Truth mattered to the American people in 1860 and 1864, and it matters to us today.

Who in today’s America will be more attracted to Lincoln, Democrats or Republicans?

Schwartz: Lincoln has always been kind of a bipartisan president, especially to 20th- and 21st-century Americans. Lincoln himself was very much a partisan Republican. In fact, in one instance he indicated that a man who is of no party is of no consequence. He came of age in an era when parties were emerging.

Elliott: I think Lincoln’s appeal for us today transcends party politics. Both parties like to claim Abraham Lincoln as their own. Both are at least somewhat correct in doing so. He was by no means as conservative as today’s version of the GOP has become, [but] it wouldn’t be accurate to call Abraham Lincoln a liberal, either. He was a pragmatist or centrist, a breed almost extinct in our divisive politics of today.

What are you expecting out of the movie?

Weber: To me, interest in Lincoln is always a good thing … I think he’s our most brilliant, greatest president, and anything that gives us an opportunity to think more about that and to think more about his leadership qualities and how we might apply those today, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Burlingame: I was invited to meet with Spielberg along with several other Lincoln specialists … five years ago. My mission was to insist that Mrs. Lincoln be portrayed accurately. I had to point out that she physically abused him, that she padded payrolls and expense account, that she accepted bribes and kickbacks, and that Lincoln was constantly worried that she’d do something to humiliate him — and she did. So I’m interested to see how her portrayal came out.

Elliott: I think we’ll see a much more “accessible” or “human” Abraham Lincoln than we’re used to seeing. Much too often, the Lincoln we see on screen or stage is portrayed as a mythical hero who was almost Christ-like in perfection. The real Lincoln was down-to-earth, had a temper, didn’t mind off-color jokes and stories, and struggled with depression and a wife who was probably bipolar.