Five Questions With Lincoln Biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin

9:12 PM, Nov 15, 2012   |    comments
Doris Kearns Goodwin. Courtesy Getty Images.
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Written By: Julie Hinds, Detroit Free Press

The morning after the Los Angeles premiere of "Lincoln," Doris Kearns Goodwin was still basking in the glow of seeing the man she chronicled come to life.

"Oh, it was staggering, it really was. Everybody recognized that they were in the presence of something incredibly unique and special," said the historian of the movie, which is inspired by her best-selling "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln."

Like Goodwin's 2005 book, the film speaks to the need for today's fractious partisan leaders to follow Lincoln's example and work with their opponents on big issues of the day, including the upcoming fiscal cliff.

"I was thinking ... what if they screened it at a joint session of Congress?" she says playfully. "They all had to sit there and watch it and then afterward somehow (Speaker of the House John) Boehner and (Republican Senate minority leader Mitch) McConnell go over and they're talking to their counterparts. It would be great."

QUESTION: What does Daniel Day-Lewis convey that reminds you most of the Lincoln you researched?

ANSWER: Two things that mattered to me the most, and I talked to Tony (Kushner, the screenwriter) about this during the whole long process: One, to make sure that Lincoln's humor came out. Every time he would tell one of those stories, which he did endlessly in his life, his whole face would transform and that sadness would become a twinkle in the eye and he would laugh harder than everyone else. And (Day-Lewis) does that repeatedly during the movie and that's when I felt Lincoln was alive. The second thing is Lincoln's political genius, in terms of the subtitle of the book. It is as a politician that he is so extraordinary.

Q: What does the political environment portrayed in "Lincoln" have in common with today's Washington?

A: What you've got there is the need for different factions to come together and compromise in order to get something really important done for the country as a whole. In that case, it was the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery). In our case ... they need to get done some really important compromises on taxes and spending. It does make you think maybe if some of these guys see it, they'll think, "We came here for a purpose and let's see if we can rise to the occasion, as these guys did."

Q: Who's one of your favorite characters in the movie, besides Lincoln?

A: Well, Tommy Lee Jones (as anti-slavery Rep. Thaddeus Stevens). ... It's an amazing performance, the mixture of the radical temperament and the willingness on his part (to compromise) when he's giving that speech where he has to say (the 13th Amendment is) just equality under the law. ... And then coming out with that incredible speech (where he tells a "nincompoop" opponent that even he is equal under the law). You almost wish they all talked like that today. Even though it was much rowdier then than today, at least their emotions were coming out, rather than the restrained hatred that we see today.

Q: Do you think people will be surprised that politics back then could be down and dirty?

A: What you hope that people realize is somehow, with all of that mess of democracy, they were able to accomplish something that stood the test of time. I think it's important for people to remember that trading jobs was not illegal then. Sometimes people think: "What? You're giving the job for a vote?" But it was just doing everything they could. I love the speech, and it's a real speech of Lincoln's, when he says: "I'm clothed in immense power. You must get this done." Those are actually Lincoln's words, as much of the movie is.

Q: What can presidents today in the wired world learn from Lincoln's approach to governing?

A: One is he kept close to his people. He would spend a couple of hours in the morning greeting ordinary people who needed jobs. When you see those scenes where people are just lined up outside his office, he calls them "his public opinion bath."

His secretaries, Nicolay and Hay, would say to him, "Lincoln, you don't have time for these ordinary people." He said, "I must never forget the popular assemblage from which I have come." I think our modern presidents get out in sort of constrained ways, when campaign matters lead to getting back among the people. There should be more ways within the White House of figuring out ways to keep (doing) that.

More Details: 'Lincoln'
Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language

Opens Friday; review Friday on and in the Movies + Life section

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