Twilight in America

By Harold Holzer
8/31/2012 • America's Civil War, Cease Fire

A good campaign needs more bark, less bite

 Running for president is easy. Being president is hard. Just ask this year’s contend­ers—or the moviemakers who came up with an alternative explanation for the mess we’re in.

Abraham Lincoln was the prototypical case in point. The Republican candidate for the nation’s highest office spent virtually the entire 1860 campaign in and around his Springfield, Ill., hometown, posing for painters and photographers, writing occasional letters and meeting informally with visitors. He never traveled in search of votes, never advocated publicly on his own behalf and never openly trashed his rivals. In fact, his only speech that season fell from his lips under protest. During a mammoth local rally, supporters hoisted him onto a platform at the local fairgrounds and demanded he address them. Even then, Lincoln would say little more than “kindly let me be silent.” In nearly 20 years as a lawyer and politician, Lincoln had never traveled nor said less for so long. (Surrogates, of course, did plenty of talking, debating, campaigning and attacking on his behalf.)

Soon enough, Lincoln took control and responsibility, navigating the most difficult interregnum, and most dangerous first year, of any president in history—confronting nothing less than secession, the organization of an alternative American government and outright revolution. And his greatest weapon during that four-year crisis became his own vocabulary. The silenced frontier speechmaker got his oratorical mojo back.

True, many opponents ignored Lincoln’s words, charging that he illegally used executive power to supersede Congress and ignored restraints by the Supreme Court (or at least the chief justice). Northerners rewarded Lincoln’s boldness by administering a severe whipping in the off-year congressional elections. Emancipation—in terms of controversy the affordable health care act of its day—did not exactly please voters 150 years ago. And 1864 brought one of the ugliest presidential campaigns ever. Lincoln won a second term only after Sherman’s success in Atlanta renewed Northern optimism.

As America emerges from yet another exasperating presidential campaign, marked, as 1860’s was, by much talk of irrepressible conflicts and divided houses (as voiced openly these days by the candidates themselves, not surrogates), it’s important to learn this much from history: The worst is yet to come. Grace periods and political honeymoons went out with the Jazz Age. Can we really expect that the next, or re-elected, president will pour oil on waters that have been roiling for so long? Probably not.

Like most recent canvasses, the current campaign has been more a profile in cartoon than a profile in courage—much less a referendum on principle. Unlike the Republican vs. the Copper­head contests of ’62 and ’64—which offered voters clear choices on such serious issues as presidential power, African-American freedom and the future of the Union itself—it is hard to deny, what­ever your political persuasion, that modern campaigns tend instead to focus “around the edges,” as the professionals put it. From birthers to Bain Capital critics, our PACs (and the candidates themselves) prefer to emphasize puerile distractions. After all, it’s easier to talk about strapping dogs to the car roof or bad behavior by the Secret Service than comprehensive plans for immigration and tax reform. A good “gotcha” can move the poll numbers a couple of fractions of a point overnight!

If this rant comes across as exasperated, no excuses. But it also comes with a sense of relief. Because these past few months saw the introduction of a concept of history that in a sense is less nightmarish than the one we’ve been living through. At last there is an alternative to reading political blogs or trying to apply the lessons of the past to the challenges of the future—the summer film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It’s the psycho CliffsNotes explanation for the centuries-old mystery: How could Americans have actually tolerated the inhuman degradation of slavery for so long, and endured some 750,000 casualties, half of them to defend it? Now we know the truth: The undead made them do it!

As the movie “reveals” (in 3-D), vampires imported slaves for the express purpose of bleeding them dry in America’s hinterlands. Cotton picking was merely a front. And all that stood between the monsters and world domination was the big guy from Springfield and the frontier weapon of his choice.

Now, in all seriousness, I’ve been asked innumerable times whether historians oughtn’t to rise up in anger to condemn author Seth Grahame-Smith and his absurdist horror story, for fear that absent our moral indignation, America’s woefully ignorant youth might actually believe that Abraham Lincoln wielded his ax to split heads, not rails. Welcome to the latest manifestation of the worldview we have created—equally absurd on the big screen or Politico. It’s difficult these days to separate fact from fiction—or even Gothic horror. In a way, it makes as much sense to explain slavery as a product of vampirism as it does to choose modern presidents based on who treats his pet dog better, or who came closer to feeling Boston’s pain after the Red Sox traded Kevin Youkilis.

Another campaign season is nearly behind us, and another movie summer has ended—neither worthy of blockbuster status. Perhaps what the body politic (and its most ghoulish screen villains) still needs is a transfusion.

Will things get better? Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is coming soon to a theater near you. Hopefully, it will make real (and reel) history come vividly to life. In terms of presidential politics, however, it’s still Twilight in America. And remember, history suggests it’s going to get worse before, we can only pray, it gets better. In truth, to restore sanity to public discourse and national memory alike, we neither have to substitute horror nor return to the sleepy back-porch strategies of 1860. We would settle, I suspect, for the gripping gravitas of 1960. Remember Kennedy-Nixon? If only.

Historian Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.