Reader’s Corner: Abraham Lincoln in His Day

Lincoln giving his address at Gettysburg -- he's the one in the tall black hat.

Lincoln giving his address at Gettysburg — he’s the one in the tall black hat.

Given the lionization and demonization that certain political figures attain after their death, it’s hard to remember that in their time, very few leaders are seen in such black-and-white terms. In England, Neville Chamberlain was not universally reviled, and Winston Churchill had enough detractors that he was quickly escorted from office after the war ended.

lincolnalife1In America, our most sainted president after George Washington is likely Abraham Lincoln. There is good reason for this, of course, but it’s always healthy to keep in mind that in his time there were more than a few who thought the man little more than an idiot.

Mark Bowden’s recent piece on Lincoln in the Atlantic points this out. Quoting heavily from Michael Burlingame’s 2008 biography Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Bowden highlights the criticism that Lincoln received while in office, the likes of which makes modern-day cable-news shouters seem tame by comparison:

His ancestry was routinely impugned, his lack of formal learning ridiculed, his appearance maligned, and his morality assailed…. No matter what Lincoln did, it was never enough for one political faction, and too much for another. Yes, his sure-footed leadership during this country’s most-difficult days was accompanied by a fair amount of praise, but also by a steady stream of abuse—in editorials, speeches, journals, and private letters—from those on his own side, those dedicated to the very causes he so ably championed. George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York lawyer and diarist, wrote that Lincoln was “a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla.” … Other Northern newspapers openly called for his assassination long before John Wilkes Booth pulled the trigger. He was called a coward, “an idiot,” and “the original gorilla” by none other than the commanding general of his armies, George McClellan.

This doesn’t prove that today’s climate of commentary has advanced any from the mid-19th century; far from it. But Bowden’s article is worth thinking of when trying to assess exactly how a sitting president will be judged by history. This applies to Barack Obama, both Bushes, Clinton, and possibly even back to Reagan and Carter; their true reckoning may still need decades of perspective and multiple historical tomes to truly emerge. Remember what Zhou Enlai (1898–1976) supposedly said when asked about the French Revolution of 1789: “It is too soon to tell.”

Bowden again:

Imagine all those critical voices from the 19th century as talking heads on cable television. Imagine the snap judgments, the slurs and put-downs that beset Lincoln magnified a million times over on social media. How many of us, in that din, would hear him clearly? His story illustrates that even greatness—let alone humbler qualities like skill, decency, good judgment, and courage—rarely goes unpunished.

 

New on DVD: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty

zerodarkthirtydvdBetween the various Navy SEAL books and films flooding the market, Mark Bowden’s riveting The Finish, and the all the video games crafted around Special Ops strike teams, you’d think commando fatigue would be setting in. That wasn’t the case with Zero Dark Thirty, which comes out on DVD and Blu-ray today.

My full review is at Film Journal International:

Zero Dark Thirty (military jargon for a half-hour after midnight) is an epic take on the Central Intelligence Agency’s hunt for the 9/11 mastermind. Working on a dusty Afghanistan forward operating base, Maya (Jessica Chastain) then shifts to analyzing the intelligence from the American embassy in Islamabad… As the casualties mount and the years tick by, the shell-shocked Maya’s worldview narrows down to a millimeter-wide slit that recognizes only her quarry. The film recounts the agonizingly particular step-by-step analysis of baffling and contradictory information. It just as convincingly relays the sickening sense of urgency in the hunt, a fear that after all the bombings and rhetoric and fear and war, their quarry may simply get away. “We are failing… Bring me people to kill,” seethes Maya’s CIA superior…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

zero-dark-thirty1Between the various Navy SEAL books and films flooding the market, Mark Bowden’s riveting The Finish, and the all the video games crafted around Special Ops strike teams, you’d think commando fatigue would be setting in. Hopefully that won’t be the case once Zero Dark Thirty hits theaters:

Zero Dark Thirty (military jargon for a half-hour after midnight) is an epic take on the Central Intelligence Agency’s hunt for the 9/11 mastermind. Working on a dusty Afghanistan forward operating base, Maya (Jessica Chastain) then shifts to analyzing the intelligence from the American embassy in Islamabad… As the casualties mount and the years tick by, the shell-shocked Maya’s worldview narrows down to a millimeter-wide slit that recognizes only her quarry. The film recounts the agonizingly particular step-by-step analysis of baffling and contradictory information. It just as convincingly relays the sickening sense of urgency in the hunt, a fear that after all the bombings and rhetoric and fear and war, their quarry may simply get away. “We are failing… Bring me people to kill,” seethes Maya’s CIA superior…

Zero Dark Thirty opens in limited release on Wednesday, expanding wider over the several weeks to follow. It’s already been racking up awards from critics’ groups and attracting controversy over its depiction of CIA torture of prisoners; watch for it when the Oscars are announced.

My full review is at Film Journal International.

You can see the trailer here: