Artists at the top of their game can occasionally influence history. Picasso’s Guernica brought the world’s attention to the cruelties of German bombing in the Spanish Civil War. John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath forced Americans to focus on the plight of migrant farmers in the Great Depression and led to changes in labor laws. And now comes Lincoln, which I saw this week in a packed and silent theater at the mall. Screenwriter Tony Kushner and director Steven Spielberg have salted their majestic film with whispered messages for our divided times. In Abraham Lincoln’s willingness to compromise his purity for the nation’s good, there is advice not only for President Obama and the Congress, but for all of us who give politicians our votes. To secure passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, Lincoln was willing to “bamboozle, trim, compromise, and be slippery and hypocritical,” said David Brooks in The New York Times. The man we hail as our most transcendent president showed he was willing to get down and dirty to achieve the loftiest of goals.
As Congress goes to work this week, the nation faces grave challenges, first among them dealing with the fiscal cliff (see Controversy of the week). If our leaders fail to forge a deal, higher taxes and deep spending cuts will cripple our fragile recovery. Facing up to the nation’s $16 trillion debt is not ending slavery, but it ain’t beanbag either. In November voters sent the message that they want action in Washington. Lincoln is a timely reminder that sometimes we must cast off our sanctimonies and compromise—holding our noses if necessary—to get a big job done.
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