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'Lincoln' is leadership at the highest level

It's convenient timing that Americans are crowding theaters to watch Steven Spielberg's movie "Lincoln."

Today's news is dominated by discussion of the meaning of the 2012 election, a divided nation and the ongoing fight to avoid the fiscal cliff.

The deep philosophical disagreement over tax increases versus spending cuts may not rise to the same level of import as the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, but it is a defining moment of our time.

And that makes this remarkable movie meaningful, not only as history, but also as contemporary political science.

As a practical matter, we are reminded that politicians have always fought, schemed, derided the opposition, and switched allegiance when necessary.

In Lincoln's day we find bombastic ideologues and politicians for sale, with Lincoln willing to do the buying, through patronage positions when necessary, to get enough votes in the House to pass the amendment.

Politics, whether in 1865 or 2012, is about the exercise of power. Perhaps we should not be so self-righteous about the inevitable horse trading that goes on in politics today.

While watching "Lincoln," you root for the president, and even his three shady vote-buying operatives, as he tries to cobble together enough support for his cause.

Lincoln, though certainly not a rabid abolitionist, understands that equality under the law is a moral imperative.

"Abolishing slavery settles the fate for all coming time," Lincoln tells his cabinet, "not only of the millions in bondage, but of the unborn millions to come. Shall we stop this bleeding?"

We see Lincoln as a man for the times, certain in his convictions, but also deeply contemplative as he listens to the "team of rivals" in his cabinet. (The movie is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book of the same name.)

His opponents underestimate his intellect at their own peril, as Lincoln, with his practiced legal mind, outthinks and outmaneuvers them as he leads the Congress to passage of the amendment and the North to victory in the Civil War.

But we're also witness to a deeply personal side of Lincoln, as he struggles under the weight of the war; the fight over the amendment; the death of his young son, Willie; and the debilitating grief of his wife, Mary.

Lincoln, portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, grows increasingly worn and weary before our eyes.

Ultimately, however, "Lincoln" is about leadership at the highest level, the lonely path open to only a few who have the courage, strength and political acumen to succeed at causes that define a nation.

"Lincoln was both a really good man and a great politician," says Goodwin, "and at a time when people are so cynical about politics, that's a great lesson to learn."  

Perhaps they should have a showing of "Lincoln" on Capitol Hill for members of Congress and the president. They could see what the country is learning about effective government just by going to the movies.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.


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