USC logo

Lincoln, a lesson in governance

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Donnajean Ward

Steven Spielberg’s latest film, “Lincoln” may sound like a biopic tracing the life of our 16th president from boyhood to assassination, but instead, it is a film about governance and policy implementation – specifically, the race to pass the 13th amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. Director Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (of “Angels in America” fame) dig deep into the minutiae of lawmaking, vote chasing, and diplomacy that went into the passage of the amendment and there is no lack of drama. Because the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued under the war powers act without the consent of Congress, Lincoln had serious doubt that it would survive legal challenges after the war ended –and he wanted the war to end and the union restored. Lincoln held out the 13th amendment to Congress as the straw to break the back of the Confederacy even while hiding the fact that surrender was in the works. So with the clock ticking, the race to pass the amendment was on and the film does a masterful job showing the complex, mundane, and suspect processes that get you to a 2/3 majority. Lincoln began his push for the 13th amendment soon after his re-election and you can’t help but think about President Obama’s re-election and the challenges he faces with his own recalcitrant congress. The Economist magazine sums up nicely the film and the lessons for our own newly re-elected president:

“Sometimes the mundane and messy bits of politics cannot be transcended and instead must be mastered. If Mr Obama missed this lesson during his first term in office, he can sit through it again in Steven Spielberg’s new movie “Lincoln.”

Bedrosian Center