Contrasting 'Lincoln' and Bonusgate
HARRISBURG -- What makes the movie "Lincoln" such a treat and wonder for political pros and lobbyists is that it asserts that the ends, freeing slaves via the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, justifies the means. And the means are felonies, then and now.
Basically it says if state Sen. Vince Fumo and state Rep. John Perzel had had a noble enough cause, they would get a Steven Spielberg movie about them, not a jail sentence.
Because Lincoln, the film, is basically split into three parts:
n One-fourth is about the importance of freeing the slaves.
n One-sixth is about how rotten it was to be Lincoln, between a tough war, a crazy annoying wife, a cabinet and House and Senate full of difficult prima donnas and his mission, after much equivocating, to finally free the slaves.
n The rest is a caper movie about bribing, cajoling and strong-arming members of the U.S. House of Representatives into passing the 13th Amendment.
And it is a wonderful caper movie. They offer jobs, cash and everything else they can think of to get votes, and all of that is depicted so we are rooting for the bribers working for Lincoln, not for people to be honest and vote their conscience.
Lincoln conspires with the governor of Pennsylvania, Andrew Curtin, to ignore the voters who elected a Somerset County Republican and instead certify as elected a Democrat who Lincoln also trades local offices by the dozen or more to get the votes he wants.
The pro-amendment forces even get Thaddeus Stevens, the famously honest and forthright House GOP powerhouse, to equivocate and pretend to change his stance on what the amendment means, to squeeze out a few more votes.
Before I saw it, I was stunned by how many lobbyists, consultants and other hard-nosed political types have not only gone to the movie, but loved it.
Once I saw the film, that reaction made perfect sense to me. Because the movie is a glorification of the triumph of ends over means: Lincoln plays hardball to get what he wants and Spielberg glorifies a process that Perzel or Fumo or Boss Tweed wouldn't go near.
Basically this movie shows President Lincoln is famous for an achievement he achieved by the same means that damned President Ulysses S. Grant in the view of historians: lots of graft and shady deals.
The difference, in the minds of historians and Spielberg, and most of us, is that Lincoln did those things to win a great moral victory, where the rest did things like that, for their personal or political benefit.
But to say that is one thing. To show it in a movie is to celebrate the means as well as the ends. The thing is that in this movie, the felonies are all the fun.
Remember, 45 percent of voters in the North voted against Lincoln in the 1864 election. So at least a big chunk of voters would have been fine if someone had gone all Bonusgate on Honest Abe, and certainly the South and the Northern Democrats, who almost defeated the amendment, would have.
So with 45 percent of voters casting ballots for a swift peace and letting the South keep slavery, and all of the South likely favoring that, Lincoln cannot claim most Americans at the time supported him.
Also remember, when friends and allies sought to lessen the prison sentences of Perzel and Fumo and many others, the brunt of most of their letters was: Look at what they did for their hometown and region, which would be much worse off if not for them.
This was one of the big reasons former Gov. Ed Rendell was also slow to enact much in the way of government reform. He understood that to get big things done, some of the people and procedures wouldn't look good on PCN. I bet he loved Lincoln.
I wonder what prosecutors watching Lincoln think? After all, much of their argument in corruption cases is that the good a corrupt official did does not undo their felonies.
Now, we have a great movie about a great president which essentially argues that for a great end, felonies are permissible and we should give Lincoln a pass because he won a war and freed the slaves.
I wonder what the folks who argued for the imprisonment of Bill DeWeese and John Perzel and Vince Fumo and Mike Veon and Bob Mellow think of Spielberg's Lincoln?
Obviously they will say those four and other Pennsylvania power-politicos who ran afoul of the law didn't free the slaves or accomplish some other historic purpose?
But what if they had? Are historians and Spielberg right and Lincoln's ends justified his means? And if they did, where is that line drawn? At Lincoln and FDR?
Because I can tell you, if Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama did even a tiddly bit of what Lincoln did, they would have been marched to prison.
Would that have been right?