Twice in a year, the arts have given us rare insight into the use of political power that is both grand and dispiriting — grand in its purpose and dispiriting in its exercise.
In the spring came "The Passage of Power," the fourth book in what eventually will be Robert Caro's five-volume biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson, this one dealing with his political marriage to the Kennedy clan in 1960 and his ascension to the presidency three years later upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It recounts in stunning detail the most fertile few months in U.S. government history when, in a desperate impulse to stabilize a shaken nation and show Americans and the world that he was in charge, Johnson forced — yes, forced — a reluctant Congress to pass the whole languishing Kennedy program, including the first serious civil rights law in nearly a century and, soon afterward, the beginnings of a universal health-care system, which had escaped presidents since Teddy Roosevelt.
Next was the release last month of "Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's film about the last days before Abraham Lincoln's assassination when, against all odds, the president maneuvered Congress into referring to the states the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery. He forced the amendment through Congress before General Lee could surrender and Dixie could be restored to the union. (For Arkansans who see the movie, the Arkansas legislature — or a bunch of unionists assembled for the purpose — ratified the 13th Amendment on the day that John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in Ford's Theater, April 14, 1865.)
We don't often yoke Lincoln and Johnson in our minds — the likable, thoughtful, sometimes sublime man who saved the union and the crude, self-pitying, bullying man who would leave office despised by a good part of the country, mainly for the Vietnam War. But they are linked in history, mainly by Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves and Johnson's efforts a full century later to bring fulfillment to the promise of abolition, but also, we now see, by a shared trait — the rare cunning and sheer will to use the awesome potential of the presidency to achieve ends they believed were noble and the nation's destiny.
In the book and the film, each exhaustively researched, we see the fleshy details, the underside of government, the things that make people say they are sick of politicians and that they just don't trust government. That is the deal making, the compromising, the bullying, the hypocrisy, the logrolling, the self-indulgence, and, yes, the bribery, if you want to call it that. All of that is the currency of democracy, and it always has been, from the Greeks forward, and here it is laid at the feet of great national leaders at their finest moments.
No one will be surprised to learn from the tapes and notes Caro unearthed that Lyndon Johnson cajoled, bullied and lied to keep the Kennedy team on board after their leader's death, to trap the chief justice and a right-wing Southern Democrat into leading the national investigation of the assassination when both told him no, to maneuver Southern Democratic chairmen who were inimical to civil rights and the whole Kennedy program into letting all that legislation go through, and to massage the egos of Republican leaders so that they went along reluctantly, too.
Caro, whose books reflect his personal dislike of Johnson, is filled with transparent admiration for a man who used the baser skills he had learned in roiling Texas politics to fulfill the American promise for its dispossessed — the descendants of Lincoln's freed slaves, the disabled, the destitute farmers of the Dust Bowl, Texas hills and the Deep South, the low-paid workers and their families, the uneducated, the masses of aged poor. Rejecting counsel that he should not squander his sudden power and popularity on hopeless causes that parts of the nation would condemn ("then what the hell's the presidency for?" he is supposed to have snapped), Johnson gave the country three civil rights laws, a tax cut, Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, broad federal aid to education, food stamps and an array of anti-poverty programs — all those things that drive the Tea Party bonkers. The poverty rate fell by half during his five years in office. Caro's final book, the Vietnam years, will restore his scoundrel veneer.
But who, besides the historians and the Confederate sympathizers among us, knew that Abe Lincoln, he of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, was on occasion a knave and a deceiver who could buy off or bully weak lawmakers (they had a swag of $75,000 for that purpose supposedly) and cleverly deceive Congress into believing that there was not an official delegation from the Confederacy at the city's gates beseeching instant peace?
Lincoln knew that his emancipation proclamation did not carry the majesty of law and that if slavery was to be abolished, totally and forever, it needed to be done constitutionally and that it needed to be adopted by Congress and referred to the states before the war ended and the Southern states were restored to the union and to Congress. So he wanted it done in a lame-duck session rather than with a new, more favorable Congress that would take office in the spring, perhaps after Confederate surrender. If Congress thought that peace could be had instantly, many would not have voted for the amendment, so at a critical moment before the vote Lincoln kept the emissaries cooling their heels and sent a note to Congress that was technically true but misleading. Regardless, a triumphal moment in American history, most of us agree.
Perhaps there is a divine purpose in all things, and here it was for Caro and Spielberg to light the path for another president, who needs at another critical juncture for the nation to temper his idealism with a little of the toughness and stealth of Lyndon and Abe.