The historical movie “Lincoln” has struck a deep chord with many people, and it turns on a theme that is rarely met nowadays: the man of destiny. In one scene Lincoln is sitting in the war room from which he oversaw the very mixed fortunes of the Northern armies. There is no one with him except his two young secretaries. He asks one, “Do you think we choose to be born?” the secretary says that he doesn’t think so.
Lincoln pursues the topic. “Do you think we are fitted for the times?” The secretary can’t quite fathom the question. To the best of my recollection he replies, “I don’t know. Maybe you are.” In fact, when you look at the historical record, Lincoln was considered to be absolutely fitted to his time. He was Father Abraham and after his assassination a secular saint. The chaotic forces that tore the Civil War era apart were gathered in his hands. He and many around him saw a man of destiny who was fated to end slavery and bend the future to his will.
Heroism still appeals to us, and the saintliness of Lincoln can’t be erased, despite the film’s accurate portrayal of him as a canny, down-to-earth politician who knew how to broker a deal. But we find it hard to think in terms of destiny. Tony Kushner, the scriptwriter for “Lincoln,” chose a more modest phrase: fitted to the times. Kushner wove our present predicament into his screenplay. Chaotic forces are swirling around us; the nation has reached a turning point that feels threatening at the same time. There is a widespread yearning for leadership.
I wonder if President Obama’s re-election is a shoulder tap from destiny. Lincoln felt that way about his second term. We see him fiercely focused on abolishing slavery because the Emancipation Proclamation had been tested by the people, as he put it, when they chose to keep him in office. I have a feeling that Obama is gathering his own convictions for the same reason.
This is more than George Bush’s notion that his re-election, which was by a slimmer margin than Obama’s, both in popular vote and electoral tally, gave him political capital. What we see in Lincoln’s time are politicians, heated by partisan fury, milling about in confusion. The heel of history is hard on their necks. Their passions rise and fall with every turn of the war. Lincoln was different. He understood that he was the still point at the center, the one mind whose clarity and judgment must save the day – or it wouldn’t be saved.
History proved him right. At the end of the movie we get a flashback to the Second Inaugural Address, the greatest piece of oratory from Lincoln after the Gettysburg Address. It constitutes a heroic, compassionate attempt to shape the future according to the ideals of Christianity and democracy. The final paragraph has long been considered a masterstroke, and it is astonishingly fitted to our times:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Obama has been repeating the theme of tolerance and fairness for four years, and it has mostly fallen on deaf ears. Lincoln was beloved but also reviled; he could have gone down in history as a divisive leader more than a uniting one. The difference wasn’t up to him. As he saw it, destiny worked through him. It will be fascinating to watch and see if the same historical force is about to push America forward once more.