Of all the words a proud, ambitious man might use to describe himself, perhaps only Abraham Lincoln would choose strange. Yet there it is. In one of his earliest wisps of autobiography, Lincoln wrote that he was “a strange, friendless, uneducated, penniless boy” when he emerged from the backwoods in his early 20s to make his way in the world. Editors of Lincoln’s Collected Works found the word so perplexing that they added an r to transform him into a mere stranger. But the late David Herbert Donald, one of Lincoln’s most admired biographers, astutely recognized that the man meant what he said.
His London stage breakthrough came in 1982 at age 25 in the West End production of the hit drama Another Country. But it was a pair of polar-opposite roles—an ex–National Front gay punk in Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette and a priggish Edwardian suitor in the Merchant-Ivory production A Room with a View—that revealed Daniel Day-Lewis, Emerging Young Actor, to be Daniel Day-Lewis, Legend in the Making. The films opened on the same day in New York City in 1986, neatly encapsulating his range and resources. Within a few years he had won his first romantic lead, in the Milan Kundera adaptation The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), and his first Oscar, for My Left Foot.
Mann remembers why. “Hawkeye is pretty close to who Daniel is as a person,” he says. “Daniel is a deeply romantic man with a very strong value system. He’s kind of classic. He’s drawn to see great values in simple things. He’s somebody who eschews celebrity. He and Rebecca have a very strong family, a real literary sensibility.” Day-Lewis also eschews any semblance of workaholic brand management: he has made just six films in the past 15 years (including a rare misfire, 2009’s garish musical Nine). For part of the acting break he took between The Boxer and Gangs of New York, he apprenticed under a cobbler in Florence. “I like taking a long time over things, and I believe that it’s the time spent away from the work that allows me to do the work itself,” Day-Lewis says. “If you’re lurching from one film set or one theater to the other, I’m not sure what your resources would be as a human being.”
Does his grueling, singular process ever get lonely? “I felt tremendously alone for a good part of the last experience,” he says, referring to Lincoln. “But it was an aloneness that I needed, and was tremendously helpful to me.” Characteristically, he pivots away from himself. “I think a lot about what President Obama is going through at this moment. I look to the extent to which he has aged visibly. I feel I aged visibly just playing the President, so to actually have that responsibility is a burden that one can only explore in one’s imagination. Anyone who has that position of authority must necessarily find themselves very, very alone at certain times. I’m not in any way comparing his work to the work that I do as an actor, but it’s a common theme.”
An actor is not like a President, but can an actor be like a historian? Day-Lewis pores over primary sources and artifacts, metabolizing them in an original work that offers us a new way of understanding a familiar person, place and time. Pop-cultural images of history have a way of supplanting actual history; on the level of image, at least, the actor has been retro-actively elected President. The marble has been touched into life.
STEVEN SPIELBERG: It’s one of the big mysteries. They float so many trial balloons with Lincoln’s face every year in the form of advertising, spoofs, parodies, Saturday Night Live sketches, Presidents’ Day commercials. Lincoln has kind of become a caricature. One of the last movies, which I haven’t seen in 15 or 20 years, that was about Abraham Lincoln was in the ’30s, with Henry Fonda—Young Mr. Lincoln. I don’t understand why it’s taken so long for anybody, let alone our group, to bring Lincoln to a movie theater.
The 13th Amendment was critical to Lincoln, because he knew that if the war ended, this would never get through. The South couldn’t live without slavery. They might cease hostilities, but Lincoln always believed that unless we abolish slavery before this war ends, the end of this war will just be a momentary pause between this war and the next war. So he knew he had to get this thing done, but he didn’t have the votes. That’s at the heart of our movie, this fight to get the votes, to do the right thing.
Lincoln had the ambition. He had a beautiful vision for America. But I don’t know what kind of progress he would have made without the crisis that fell into his lap. I also don’t know what kind of a President FDR would have become without the Great Depression and World War II or what Kennedy would ultimately have been remembered for without all of us standing on the brink of nuclear holocaust during the Cuban missile crisis.
Taking all of his traits—of long, deep thought, of staring deeply into the future, taking the broad view, respecting the past, exploring deep into the cold depths of himself while his entire Cabinet sat around waiting for him to make a decision about anything—I’m not sure there’s a mayoral position that would be suitable for him in this kind of adrenaline-fueled era that we all exist in. Even then, the newspapers were going after him.
He certainly did everything that he needed to do to hold his family together, not just this country. He had lost [his 11-year-old son] Willie two years ago to typhoid fever. Mary spent years mourning the loss of Willie. In [Doris Kearns Goodwin’s] book Team of Rivals, what precedes our story is two years of Mary shunning the whole family and spending time holding séances and trying to reach out and communicate across the thin veil to Willie. Lincoln had that burden on his shoulders. He was really carrying a lot of weight during that time.
Daniel did something at first that made me sad. He wanted to wait a year. And it was a masterstroke, because he had a year to do research. He had a year to find the character in his own private process. He had a year to discover how Lincoln sounded, and he found the voice. He had Lincoln so embedded in his psyche, in his soul, in his mind, that I would come to work in the morning and Lincoln would sit behind his desk, and we would begin.
All during the picture I called him Mr. President, but that was my idea. I also wore a suit every day, which I don’t usually do when I’m directing. Everybody was dressed up in their period wardrobe. I did not wear 19th century wardrobe. I wore pretty good clothes from this era. I just wanted to blend in. We knew we were in the 21st century at all times. But once you stepped onto the stages of the White House, everybody really felt that they were making a contribution to remembering this critical moment in our shared history.
I have a handful of books to recommend to the general reader: Allen C. Guelzo's Abraham Lincoln, Redeemer President (1999) for bringing to our attention Lincoln's intellectual powers; Gabor S. Boritt's Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (1978) for its emphasis on Lincoln's economic philosophy, which should be of special interest at the present moment; and Garry Wills's exemplary Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (1992), which spawned a genre of books focusing on single speeches and remains the most intellectually exhilarating of them. David Herbert Donald's Lincoln (1995) is still the best one-volume biography. Michael Burlingame's recent, two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2008) deserves mention, if only to explain why I highly recommend his earlier book, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (1994). A Life is a 2,000-page compendium that works on the principle that nothing should be left out or condensed. Burlingame's skills as a biographer and a stylist are modest; he's right on target, though, about how terrible Mary Todd Lincoln was and about Lincoln's keen sexual interest in women. Burlingame dealt with these matters more concisely in the earlier book, which is one of my favorites.
One day, years ago, while bicycling in Forest Park in the crowded borough of Queens in New York City, I suddenly found myself in the midst of a Union encampment being set up from trailers and station wagons, as if for a movie set. That wasn't the case, nor was any real blood being shed. With all due respect to re-enactors, I consider the Civil War too tragic a subject to make a game of. I bicycled on, somewhat unsteady on my wheels and in my emotions, thinking of Matthew Brady's powerful photographs of the war and the president. For the latter, look at Lincoln, An Illustrated Biography (1992), by Philip B. Kunhardt Jr. et al., and a sequel (but disregard the text, which is simplistic), Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon (2008). And for the deepest experience of Lincoln, do what our new president does -- read the great man's words, and not just the Gettysburg Address and the two inaugural addresses. For that I recommend the handy, durable, modestly priced, two-volume Library of America edition, Speeches and Writings (1989). Or, if that's a little formidable, then get the one-volume The Portable Abraham Lincoln (1992) from Penguin; it has less, but often -- in life, as in good prose and good storytelling -- less is more.
(By Kevin Nance, Washington Post, July 6, 2012)
In “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln,” Carter finds the president encircled not by Confederates — though there are still one or two of those lurking about — but by radicals in his own Republican Party who mount a furious campaign to remove him from office by quasi-legal means, in part because they believe him to be too soft on the conquered South. Behind the scenes, power-hungry politicians and money-grubbing capitalists who want to influence White House policy on tariffs also are pulling strings. Even members of the president’s administration — possibly including the most feared man in Washington, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton — may be conspiring against him. As the Senate impeachment trial looms, one of Lincoln’s lawyers is brutally murdered (“sliced up,” in the picturesque phrase of the police) in the company of an alleged prostitute in the city’s notorious red-light district.
It falls to the sharp-eyed Abigail Canner, a young black Washingtonian who aspires to become the nation’s first female lawyer and is working as a clerk for Lincoln’s legal team, to piece together what’s really going on. Sleuthing her way through a maze of plots and counterplots — some of which may involve the president, whose backcountry accent and penchant for telling homespun stories tend to mask his skills as a master conspirator in his own right — the Oberlin-educated Abigail also provides a window onto the small but growing black middle class in the mid-19th century, which has rarely been treated in fiction. “I always knew there was a black middle class in America, but I didn’t know how significant it was, even before the Civil War,” says Phyllis Grann, Carter’s veteran editor at Knopf. “Stephen’s research is so impeccable, and he knows so much about the era, that it opens up a whole world that most readers aren’t going to know about.”
Did Lincoln conspire to place the city of Washington under military control during the war? Carter admits that of all the charges leveled against the president in the novel, this has the shakiest basis in fact. But as the author notes, there were rumors to that effect in Lincoln’s lifetime, and it was one of the charges in President Andrew Johnson’s real-life impeachment trial in 1868. (In Carter’s novel, Vice President Johnson was assassinated by an accomplice of John Wilkes Booth, leaving that office unoccupied and the president pro tempore of the Senate, Benjamin Wade, first in line of presidential succession.) Tyrant or not, Lincoln did assume extraordinary executive powers during the war and wielded them, expansively and unilaterally, in ways that presaged the wartime conduct of latter-day presidents from John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon to George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
It’s a subject of particular interest to Carter, a constitutional law expert whose most recent nonfiction book was “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” (Beast Books, 2011) and who gave a lecture last month on Obama’s much-discussed use of drone bombings against terrorist targets in Pakistan and elsewhere. “You cannot point to a war, at least not a big war, without pointing to a president who’s used the fact of that war to justify various kinds of uses or abuses of executive authority,” Carter says. “I don’t think they do it because they’re power-hungry. They don’t do it because they’re evil. They do it because they see a threat, and they’re trying to figure out to meet it. Nowadays, we tend to threaten impeachment of any president who does things we don’t like. And one of the things we can learn from the Lincoln experience is that the things presidents do today that we get so upset about pale beside things that several presidents — not Lincoln alone — did in the 19th century.” In real life as in fiction, then, one man’s villain can legitimately be someone else’s hero, even to little boys leafing through history books.