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I wonder what Abe Lincoln would think about all the fuss with Steven Spielberg’s epic movie, “Lincoln.”
I can hear a reporter asking the ghost of Mr. Lincoln, “Did you ever think your popularity would soar even beyond its already lofty heights? And how does this development affect your assessment of your own place in history?”
I can see Lincoln smiling wryly as he whirls a swivel chair around, straddles it and leaning over its back, says in a high pitched, piercing drawl, “Well, it reminds me of the story about the backwoods preacher in Hardin County, Kentucky, back in 1850. Seems his church voted him the most humble pastor in America, and they gave him a medal that said, ‘To the most humble pastor in America.’ Then they took it away from him on Sunday because he wore it.”
The reporter chuckles as Abe then makes his point: “I did what I believed was right in 1864 and I took the necessary steps to abolish slavery and no movie’s popularity or movie critic’s predictions of Academy Awards will change my humble assessment of my strengths and weaknesses. I did what I did.”
In reality, Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is not only endearing; it’s enduring (and I’m not referring to its length: two and a half hours). It stays with you long after you’ve left the theater.
Spielberg brings Lincoln to life like no film about the 16th president has done. But the movie is not about Lincoln’s life. Rather, Spielberg narrows the time to the beginning of Lincoln’s second term, specifically, the fall of 1864 to January 1865, when the war was coming to an end and Lincoln wanted to assure passage of the 13th Amendment, which would make slavery unconstitutional.
The movie’s drama revolves around what Lincoln does to get the necessary votes in the House of Representatives for the amendment’s passage.
Much of Lincoln’s genius, in addition to his political acumen — he could cajole, he could coerce; he could stand firm, he could be flexible; he could demure, he could demand — was his ability to make a point with a story, endearing himself to both supporters and opponents. He was a master of the anecdote.
Through it all, he was resolute in achieving his goal: Passage of the amendment.
People sometimes had trouble understanding why he used so many stories. There is a splendid scene in “Lincoln” where Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) has lost patience with Lincoln’s penchant for spinning a yarn.
“No, you’re not going to tell a story. I can’t bear to hear one,” Stanton bellows as he storms out of the room.
Lincoln slowly smiles and proceeds to tell another story.
Now let’s return to that imaginary reporter as he walks alongside Lincoln outside the cinema after a late night showing of Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”
The reporter presses the president: “Political pundits each have their ‘take-away’ from this movie. What’s yours, Mr. Lincoln?”
Lincoln stops, pauses, turns to the reporter, stares him in the eyes and, you guessed it, tells another story.
“It happened five years before my death,” he begins, “in the fall of 1860. The steamship Lady Elgin was en route from Chicago to Milwaukee when a lumber schooner rammed her, sinking the ship, accidentally killing 279 passengers and crew members. It seems a student at Northwestern University, a young man by the name of Edward Spence, made 16 trips from the shore to the sinking ship, saving 17 lives. The young man suffered from shock and as they carried him to the hospital — and by the way, as a result of his heroics he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, not one of the 17 he saved ever returning to thank him — he kept asking a question, kept asking over and over, ‘Did I do my best?’”
The puzzled, slack jawed reporter looks up to Mr. Lincoln, “Are you saying that you did your best to preserve the union or are you questioning if we the people have done our best for this nation and the cause of liberty for all — regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation?”
With a twinkle in his eye, a satisfied smile breaks across Lincoln’s wrinkled face as he stares above the reporter, gazing at the stars.
And we know the answer to the question lies in yet another story.
Dr. David B. Whitlock of Lebanon is a Baptist minister and adjunct instructor at Campbellsville University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.