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A still from Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg. (Photo: David James, SMPSP © 2012 DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved)

Mr. Lincoln Goes to Hollywood

Steven Spielberg, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Tony Kushner talk about what it takes to wrestle an epic presidency into a feature film

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When Goodwin saw the movie, she says, “I felt like I was watching Lincoln!” She speaks with authority, because for eight years, “I awakened with Lincoln every morning and thought about him every night,” while working on Team of Rivals. “I still miss him,” she adds. “He’s the most interesting person I know.”

Goodwin points to a whole 20-foot-long wall of books about Lincoln, in one of the four book-lined libraries in her home in Concord, Massachusetts, which she shares with husband Richard Goodwin, and his mementos from his days as speechwriter and adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson—he wrote the “We Shall Overcome” speech that Johnson delivered on national television, in 1965, in heartfelt support of the Voting Rights Act. She worked with Johnson, too, and wrote a book about him. “Lincoln’s ethical and human side still outranks all the other presidents,” she says. “I had always thought of him as a statesman—but I came to realize he was our greatest politician.”

The movie project began with Goodwin’s book, before she had written much of it. When she and Spielberg met, in 1999, he asked her what she was working on, and she said Lincoln. “At that moment,” says Spielberg, “I was impulsively seized with the chutzpah to ask her to let me reserve the motion-picture rights.” To which effrontery she responded, in so many words: Cool. Her original plan had been to write about Mary and Abe Lincoln, as she had about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. “But I realized that he spent more time with members of his cabinet,” she says.

And so Goodwin’s book became an infectiously loving portrait of Lincoln’s empathy, his magnanimity and his shrewdness, as shown in his bringing together a cabinet of political enemies, some more conservative than he, others more radical, and maneuvering them into doing what needed to be done.

Prominent among those worthies was Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase. Goodwin notes that when that august-looking widower and his daughter Kate, the willowy belle of Washington society, “made an entrance, a hush invariably fell over the room, as if a king and his queen stood in the doorway.” And yet, wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Chase was “destitute of wit.” He could be funny inadvertently. Goodwin cites his confiding to a friend that he “was tormented by his own name. He fervently wished to change its ‘awkward, fishy’ sound to something more elegant. ‘How wd. this name do (Spencer de Cheyce or Spencer Payne Cheyce,)’ he inquired.”

Not only was Chase fatuous, but like Stevens he regarded Lincoln as too conservative, too sympathetic to the South, too cautious about pressing abolition. But Chase was capable, so Lincoln gave him the dead-serious job of keeping the Union and its war effort financially afloat. Chase did so, earnestly and admirably. He also put his own picture on the upper left-hand corner of the first federally issued paper money. Chase was so sure he should have been president, he kept trying—even though Lincoln bypassed loyal supporters to appoint him chief justice of the United States—to undermine Lincoln politically so he could succeed him after one term.

Lincoln was aware of Chase’s treachery, but he didn’t take it personally, because the country needed Chase where he was.

Lincoln’s lack of self-importance extended even further with that pluperfect horse’s ass Gen. George B. McClellan. In 1861, McClellan was using his command of the Army of the Potomac to enhance his self-esteem (“You have no idea how the men brighten up now, when I go among them”) rather than to engage the enemy. In letters home he was mocking Lincoln as “the original gorilla.” Lincoln kept urging McClellan to fight. In reading Goodwin’s book, I tried to identify which of its many lively scenes would be in the movie. Of a night when Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward and Lincoln’s secretary John Hay went to McClellan’s house, she writes:

Told that the general was at a wedding, the three waited in the parlor for an hour. When McClellan arrived home, the porter told him the president was waiting, but McClellan passed by the parlor room and climbed the stairs to his private quarters. After another half hour, Lincoln again sent word that he was waiting, only to be informed that the general had gone to sleep. Young John Hay was enraged....To Hay’s surprise, Lincoln “seemed not to have noticed it specially, saying it was better at this time not to be making points of etiquette & personal dignity.” He would hold McClellan’s horse, he once said, if a victory could be achieved.

Finally relieved of his command in November 1862, McClellan ran against Lincoln in the 1864 election, on a platform of ending the war on terms congenial to the Confederacy, and lost handily.

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