Today we remember Lincoln as a great redeemer – and that should give Obama hope

Time for the 44th president to prove he can be the heir to the 16th.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a spectacular movie – “less a biopic than a political thriller, a civics lesson . . . alive with moral energy”, in the words of the New York Times review. Sitting in a preview screening in Soho Square, I cried. I couldn’t help it: the story of how Lincoln pushed the Thirteenth Amendment through a divided House of Representatives in the space of just four months, thereby abolishing the institution of slavery for ever, only to be assassinated, was too moving and melodramatic for even this cynical writer to bear.

The film presents Lincoln as an eloquent and noble commander-in-chief, an intensely moral man and a champion of black America. In this sense, there is nothing new in Spielberg’s depiction of “Honest Abe”. Lincoln has long been considered the greatest ever leader of the United States; he is the Great Emancipator, Preserver of the Union, Redeemer President.

Spielberg joins a long line of Lincoln sanctifiers such as Leo Tolstoy, who breathlessly declared that “the greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln”. His film is based in part on the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography (or hagiography?) Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

But is the Hollywood take on Lincoln – emancipator of the slaves, assuager of America’s racist past – the whole story? In a scathing letter to the Daily Telegraph on 12 January, the LSE historian Alan Sked wrote: “Abraham Lincoln was a racist who . . . had no intention of freeing slaves who freed themselves by fleeing to Unionist lines . . . Until the day he died, Lincoln’s ideal solution to the problem of blacks was to ‘colonise’ them back to Africa or the tropics.”

Back in 1978, the late left-wing historian Howard Zinn published his bestselling People’s History of the United States, which claimed that Lincoln “set out to fight the slave states in 1861, not to end slavery, but to retain [their] enormous national territory and market and resources”. Zinn quotes Lincoln at a debate in 1858, before he became president: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races . . . nor ever have been in favour of making voters or jurors of Negroes.” In the same year, Lincoln referred to “the superior position assigned to the white race”. (Zinn, incidentally, was building on the work of the African-American writer Lerone Bennet, who wrote a seminal article for Ebony magazine in 1968 entitled: “Was Abraham Lincoln a white supremacist?”.)

To be fair, the film makes clear that Lincoln was not an abolitionist; that role goes to the radical Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens – played beautifully by a bombastic and bewigged Tommy Lee Jones. (Dear 20th Century Fox, please can we have a sequel to Lincoln called Thaddeus?)

Spielberg, however, glosses over Lincoln’s earlier, more odious views; the moist-eyed viewer comes away with an image of him as only a lifelong foe of racists and bigots.

So how do you square these two Lincolns, the Great Racist v the Great Emancipator? First, to hold Lincoln to the standards of the 20th or 21st centuries is absurd and unjust; indeed, the slave-turned-statesman Frederick Douglass, speaking only a decade after Lincoln’s death, conceded that the president may have “seemed tardy, cold, dull and indifferent” on abolishing slavery but, “measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical”.

Second, as the progressive Columbia University historian Eric Foner has argued, over the course of the civil war Lincoln “displayed a remarkable capacity for moral and political growth”. He may not have begun the conflict as an abolitionist but he ended it as one.

Indeed, as Lincoln wrote in April 1864, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” And in his last public speech, in April 1865, he called publicly for (limited) black suffrage – the first time, in Foner’s words, “an American president had endorsed any political rights for blacks”.

On the subject of “moral and political growth”, it is difficult in this, the week of Barack Obama’s inauguration, to avoid comparisons between these two presidents. Obama, like Lincoln, is a tall, skinny lawyer who served in the Illinois state legislature and ended up in the White House in part thanks to his awe-inspiring oratory. The 44th president of the United States sees himself as the heir to the 16th: Obama kicked off his first presidential campaign in 2007 in Lincoln’s home town of Springfield, Illinois, on the weekend of Lincoln’s birthday.

Last November, Obama held a screening of Lincoln at the White House and told Time: “Part of what Lincoln teaches us is that to pursue the highest ideals and a deeply moral cause requires you . . . get your hands dirty.”

The problem with Obama has been that, on a host of first-term issues, ranging from the deficit and financial reform to climate change and gun control, he didn’t merely fail to fight dirty – he didn’t put up a fight at all. Yet the president has kicked off his second term with a much more aggressive stance on gun control after the Newtown massacre, and refusing, on the economy, to be blackmailed by Republicans over the “fiscal cliff”. Obama has also nominated the arch-realist and Iran dove Chuck Hagel to be his defence secretary in the teeth of strong opposition from the pro-Israel lobby.

“We are still capable of great things, big things,” his senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told CNN on the day of the inauguration. As Lincoln showed with the Thirteenth Amendment, it takes only a matter of months to wipe the slate clean and earn a place in the pantheon of great American leaders. America – and the world – are waiting, Mr President.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and political director at the Huffington Post, where this article is crossposted.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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The polls are bad, but Jeremy Corbyn’s office has a secret weapon

How a shake-up of the leadership team has steadied nerves at the top of Labour. 

If polling had existed back in 1906, Jeremy Corbyn quipped at one recent strategy meeting, the Labour Party would never have got started.

As far as Labour’s direction is concerned, it is that meeting at four o’clock every Monday afternoon that matters. The people who attend it regularly are the Labour leader, his aides, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as the party’s election co-ordinator, and their respective aides.

In recent weeks, the meetings have been stormy affairs, and not only because the numbers from the party’s own pollsters, BMG Research, mirror the uniformly bleak picture from the public polls. There is also concern over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager. Murphy is highly rated by Corbyn for having brought increased intensity and efficiency to the leader’s office. Corbyn often struggles to deliver bad news in person and appreciates that Murphy will intervene on his behalf.

Her intensity is not uniformly welcomed. “She could start a fight with her own reflection,” in the wry words of one friend. An argument with Jon Trickett – the Hemsworth MP whose unusual career trajectory took him from being a parliamentary aide to Peter Mandelson to the inner sanctum of Ed Miliband’s leadership and finally to the role of election co-ordinator for Corbyn – led to Trickett going on a two-week strike, recusing himself from vital meetings and avoiding any contact with Murphy.

That row eventually led to Trickett being stripped of his role and banished from the Monday meeting. Murphy had a similar turf war with the campaigns director, Simon Fletcher, which culminated in Fletcher resigning on 17 February. In a letter to staffers, he called on the party to “keep the promise” of Corbyn’s first leadership bid, a period when Fletcher was central and Murphy had yet to start working for the Labour leader.

All of which, in better political weather, would simply be part of the back-and-forth of office politics. However, set against the backdrop of unease about by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, and a series of unhelpful leaks, it adds to a sense of vulnerability around the leadership. One loyalist shadow cabinet minister calls it “the most dangerous time” for Corbyn since he was first elected leader.

Why the danger? Contrary to popular myth, the backbone of Jeremy Corbyn’s successive landslide victories was not a hard-pressed twentysomething, struggling to find a fixed job or to get a foot on the housing ladder. The shock troops of Corbynism, at least as far as the internal battle in the Labour Party went, were baby boomers. Many of them were either working in, or on early retirement from, a charity or the public sector, deeply concerned about the rightward drift of British politics and worried about the next generation.

Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in support of triggering Article 50 – the process whereby Britain will begin its exit from the European Union – was, in their eyes, a double heresy. The vote signalled acceptance that the forces of the Eurosceptic right had won on 23 June, and it conceded that visa-free travel, membership of the single market and freedom of movement are over.

None of this is automatically great news for Corbyn’s internal critics – not least because the vote on Article 50 is rare in being an issue that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs. Yet it adds to the sense that his leadership has passed its best-before date.

Adding to the general malaise is a series of unhelpful leaks. There was a story in the Sunday Times on 12 February claiming that the leadership was road-testing possible replacements for Corbyn, and on 20 February the Mirror claimed that the Labour leadership had commissioned a poll to find out whether or not the leader should quit his post. These stories are hotly denied by the leader’s office. Some in Corbyn’s inner circle believe they are the work of Trickett, embittered at his demotion.

It is true that Corbyn is not enjoying the job as much as he once did. However, if the conversation shifts from the minutiae of Brexit to his natural terrain of the NHS and the continuing consequences of government cuts on education and the prisons service, he could quickly find himself relishing the role once more.

Corbyn retains two powerful cards. His newly energised office, under Karie Murphy, is one. Although her brisk approach has generated some public rows, the feeling in the leader’s office is that a chief of staff was needed, and Murphy has assumed that role. The media team has also grown sharper with the addition of David Prescott (son of John), Matt Zarb-Cousin and the former Momentum spokesman James Schneider.

Corbyn’s second asset is more unexpected. His rivals inside the party now fear rather than relish an immediate end to his leadership. A former shadow cabinet member splits his supporters into two groups: “idealists and ideologues – the first we can inspire and win over, the second have to be got rid of”. In their view, the idealists have not yet moved away from Corbyn enough to guarantee victory; the ideologues, for their part, will slink off as Corbyn puts the demands of his office above their interests, as he did over Article 50.

Although self-defeating panic has never been a rare commodity in the Labour Party, the settled view of Labour MPs is that their leader must be given time and space rather than hustled out of the door. There is an awareness, too, that MPs who are united in opposition to Corbyn are divided over many other issues.

So, while the inner circle’s Monday meetings might be fraught, and Labour’s current polling would have given Keir Hardie pause, Jeremy Corbyn is safe. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit