Sunday, February 15, 2009

Looking For Lincoln

Looking For Lincoln
PBS Special with Henry Louis Gates
Channel 13 – New York
February 11, 2009

Henry Louis Gates, Harvard professor and the head of its E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, looks for Lincoln by surveying the current opinions on Lincoln amongst mainstream professors and educators, Lincoln tour guides, Lincoln impersonators, screenwriters for Lincoln films, Lincoln memorabilia collectors, a Sons of the Confederacy convention, President Clinton and President Bush, and some others.

Professor Gates mode is to attempt to reconcile his boyhood worship of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator and savior of our nation, with his more aware adult view of Lincoln as a man of his times, not above working as a lawyer to enforce runaway slave laws, a man who hated slavery more than he cared about racial equality. A man who assumed that after 100 years of gradual emancipation, the former slaves would be colonized in Africa. A President constrained by the Constitution, and who could not, and therefore did not, exercise dictatorial powers to free all the slaves the moment he became President. A man who said, “If I could free none of the slaves and preserve the Union I would do that.”

In order to be allowed to speak to Professor Gates in this documentary, you have to concede that Lincoln was a racist but …

Even within this framework, the truth about Lincoln emerges. Lincoln understood that he could not exercise the power to end slavery, unless he had the power to end slavery. In order to have that power, he had to appeal to actual voters with actual opinions. A high school girl says if Lincoln’s opinions had been too far away from those of his constituents, they never would have voted for him President, and nothing would have ever changed. Just so. I’m sure there is tape of practically everyone telling Professor Gates the same thing. But rather than giving the view too much legitimacy, by letting Doris Kearns Goodwin or President Bush say it, they left it in the mouth of this high school girl. Maybe it means that in the future, people will be smarter.

In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln said that since the races could not be equal, he, of course, would prefer that his own race be in the dominant position. The documentary keeps coming back to this statement as proof of Lincoln’s racism. However, this does not prove Lincoln’s racism. It shows Lincoln’s world view that people of different races could not live together equally. It was this world view, and not a feeling of white supremacy, that caused Lincoln to favor colonization as the answer until very late in the war. The documentary shows you every brick along the way to Lincoln’s understanding that colonization would not be possible, that after emancipation, the freedmen would stay, and they would need to vote, and how Lincoln’s intention to seek black suffrage drove John Wilkes Booth over the edge. But the documentary never has the courage of its conviction to call all these bricks a road.

Perhaps, like Lincoln himself, the documentary is afraid to be too far ahead of its presumed audience.

And yet, of course, I will watch it, and completely enjoy it, the next time it is on.

EW refers to this special as “soft-core porn for Lincoln geeks.” It is. It touches upon virtually every current fault line in mainstream Lincoln interpretation. It talks about his marriage, his depression, his sex life and his assassination. It shows you film clips of the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, the town of New Salem, where spent a few years in his 20s, and a host of other places I’ll never visit. There are film clips of every bad Lincoln movie ever made, and one or two good ones.

SPOILER ALERT – The neatest touch, which was never commented upon openly is that the film shows Professor Gates driving all over the country in his car, Looking For Lincoln. You see him driving and thinking, driving and thinking. Then, about an hour and twenty minutes in, the Emancipation Proclamation is discussed. After that, Professor Gates stops driving, and he is chauffeured everywhere.