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BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…

TONY KUSHNER: All of the various fields of human inquiry -- theology and philosophy and morality and psychology meet rather beautifully in politics. And sometimes I wonder if politics isn't exactly that, it's the taking of all the sort of great ineffable and trying to make them have some meaning in the actually historical moment on earth in which we live.

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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. The bells rang for the lost: Charlotte Bacon, Olivia Engel, Ana Marquez-Greene, Dylan Hockley, Madeline Hsu, Catherine Hubbard, Jesse Lewis, James Mattioli, Emilie Parker, Jack Pinto, Noah Pozner, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Avielle Richman, Benjamin Wheeler, and Allison Wyatt. All were six years old.

Daniel Barden, Josephine Gay, Chase Kowalski, and Grace McDonnell were seven.

Six adults died with them: Mary Sherlach, Anne Marie Murphy, Dawn Hochsprung, Lauren Rousseau, Rachel D’Avino, Victoria Soto.

It helps to say their names, to rescue them from the statistical anonymity that always settles over these awful events. It helps those of us distanced from the loss to imagine, even grieve, the emptiness in the homes and hearts of those who loved them. They will never forget. We mourn, move on, and too soon forget. And then it will happen again one day, and we will scratch our heads and ask ourselves, “Was the last time Newtown? Or Columbine? Was it Aurora? Or that college in Virginia?” And once again we will mourn, move on, and too soon forget.

There is an old Hassidic saying that, “In remembrance is the secret of redemption.” But America forgets quickly, and gives no lasting indication it seeks redemption from its fetish with guns, its romance with the free market of violence. With the sport of it all. The show must go on. It’s our right. At any price. What were their names again? Oh, yes, Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Dylan, Allison, Dawn. Poor things, such a tragedy. Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition.

And so we make our peace with violence. And make ourselves over in its image. A state senator in Missouri, a life-time member of the National Rifle Association, is pushing a bill to require that all first graders be enrolled in the NRA’s gun safety course. First-graders. Six and seven years old. Pledge Allegiance to the flag. Lock and Load. Our new Head Start.

A state senator in Tennessee’s Republican legislature says he will introduce a bill that would allow the state to pay for secretly armed teachers in classrooms. Saintly Miss Simpson, packing heat. Hey, Mr. Russell, it’s show and tell, can we see your Glock 9? After the Newtown killings, a sixth-grader at an elementary school near Salt Lake City brought a gun to school, saying he wanted to protect himself and his friends. Instead, allegedly, he used it to threaten some classmates. As The Good Book says, get with it, “Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Ready. Aim. Fire.

And for the child who has everything this season, how about body armor? A Utah company named Amendment II offers a new line of it for kids. Mother Jones Magazine reports sales have tripled in one week. A Massachusetts company is promoting The Bullet Blocker, a “rugged computer backpack designed for work or play.” Made of the same materials used in bullet-proof police vests, currently on sale for the holidays for $199.99. And on Facebook, an outfit called Black Dragon Tactical that sells vests and other combat gear sent this message: “Arm the teachers, in the meantime, bulletproof the kids.”

This market never closes. America’s turned violence into a profit center. And if you haven’t finished your Christmas shopping, no need to wait for Santa; his sleigh couldn’t even hold the heavy weapons. Step this way. Black Friday is every day. And we have something for everyone, from cradle to grave. From cradle to grave.

Surely this can’t go on. This spilling of innocent blood, this bleeding of democracy’s soul. We’re losing faith in ourselves, acting as subjects, not citizens, no longer believing that it is in our power to do the right thing. We Americans are not smarter than other people, and certainly no more virtuous. Our exceptionalism is our capacity for self-correction. To reach the bridge of the ship, point to the iceberg dead ahead, and demand of the captain a change of course before it’s too late. “They,” the gun industry, its profiteers, zealots and apologists, its political stooges, fabulists, and constitutional originalists, who would have us think the “well-regulated militia” of a sparsely-populated frontier nation in the 18th century really means tolerating a perpetual wild west here in the 21st century. “They” say, “don’t tread on us, get off our well-armed backs, there’s nothing you can do.”

Of course there is. Register all guns. License all gun owners. Require stringent background checks. Get tough on assault weapons of any kind. Crack down on high-capacity ammunition as the President has now proposed. And then, enforce the laws. Yes, I know, determined killers will always find a way. But we can minimize the opportunities, and scale back the scope of destruction. Why do we accept the need for driver’s licenses? Or submit to the sometimes humiliating body scans at airports? Because it’s the law, and deep down we know we’re safer for the inconvenience of the law.

Good laws are hard to come by. Civilization, just as hard. The rough and tumble of politics makes them so. But democracy aims for a moral order as just as humanly possible, which means laws that protect the weak and not just the strong. Lest we forget.

BILL MOYERS: We've seen throughout our history what happens when politics doesn’t work – when democracy breaks down. The greatest, most heartbreaking example was America’s failure to solve the moral challenge of slavery, a failure that led to civil war and as many as 750,000 dead. Even then, it took a last act of political courage and prowess to permanently abolish slavery with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. This is the story beautifully told in the motion picture “Lincoln,” directed by Stephen Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field. The film presents the 16th president as an astute, capable pragmatist struggling to extract principle from an ugly war and from the muck of day-to-day politics.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN in Lincoln trailer: Shall we stop this bleeding. Abolishing slavery settles the fate for millions now in bondage, and unborn millions to come.

WILLIAM SEWARD in Lincoln trailer: It's either the amendment or this confederate peace, you cannot have both.

MARY TODD LINCOLN in Lincoln trailer: No one's loved as much as you by the people. Don't waste that power.

ALEXANDER STEPHENS in Lincoln trailer: How many hundreds of thousands have died during your administration?

ABRAHAM LINCOLN in Lincoln trailer: We must cure ourselves of slavery. This amendment is that cure!

MARY TODD LINCOLN in Lincoln trailer: God help us for trapping you in a marriage that's only ever given you grief.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN in Lincoln trailer: The fate of human dignity is in our hands. Blood's been spilt to afford us this moment now! Now! Now!

CHARACTER in Lincoln trailer: We are guaranteed to lose the whole thing!

CHARACTER in Lincoln trailer: Leave the constitution alone!

THADDEUS STEPHENS in Lincoln trailer: You insult God.

CHARACTER in Lincoln trailer: You think they'll keep their promise?

ABRAHAM LINCOLN in Lincoln trailer: I am the President of the United States of America. Clothed in immense power.

BILL MOYERS: The movie and its performers are remarkable but much of the film’s power -- its eloquence and perception, its wit and trenchant observations on the unchanging nature of governance -- come from its screenplay, written by Tony Kushner and based in part on the book Team of Rivals by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Recently, the script received the New York Film Critics Circle award, one of what will doubtless be many honors. Tony Kushner first came to most people’s attention with the epic play Angels in America, a devastating account of the AIDS epidemic, while it was still at its rampaging worst, set against a backdrop of religious, political and social history. Tony Kushner received both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as a Primetime Emmy Award for its television adaptation on HBO. That was some twenty years ago, and in the years since, Tony Kushner’s reputation as one of our most accomplished, and sometimes controversial, modern playwrights has only grown.

Tony Kushner is with me now. Welcome.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome.

TONY KUSHNER: Thank you very much.

BILL MOYERS: You said you worked six years on this. How did you go about the research?

TONY KUSHNER: I just started reading. And we started with Doris's book because Steven had bought the rights to it and I was curious to read it anyway . And it's a great read and a great book, but it's the definition of a thing that can't turn into a two and a half hour script. I knew immediately that just from what I'd read even before I read Team of Rivals that there was going be too much material. If we tried to cover the whole thing and the Civil War as well we would be-- do one of those horrible things that's like all the high points, you know. He does this then he delivers the Gettysburg Address, then he, you know, and that's no fun to watch, it's not dramatic. It's, and the pace of it and the rhythm of it is determined by research and biography which is not dramatically constructive. It's you know, it's just what happens. And to organize the film around a series of core conflicts we'd have to pick something. So I said to Steven, I think, "Let's just do the last four months, everything." There's something in the last four months that can stand in for every single major kind of conflict that Lincoln had to contend with.

BILL MOYERS: The last four months of his life.

TONY KUSHNER: Last four months, January, February, March.

BILL MOYERS: '65? Right.

TONY KUSHNER: Yeah, of '65. So I wrote a screenplay that was 500 pages long and I gave it to Steven. And Steven is always surprising, and after he read the first 150 pages which was January he said, "I love this. I'll read the rest of it, but this is, this is the movie." And I thought, well, that's great to hear, but you can't make a movie, it's the first movie about Abraham Lincoln in 72 years except for the vampire killer thing…you can't make the first movie about Lincoln about the passage of the 13th amendment, I mean, hardly anybody knows that that happened. Steven just kept coming back to that and saying, "That's the exciting thing. We can make it...He said when he first read it he said, "I was, I knew that the amendment passed, but I sat there wondering if it was going to pass when I was watching the vote."

BILL MOYERS: He's clearly one of the most mythologized figures in all of history and here you and Steven Spielberg come trying to put flesh and blood back into this icon. Was there an eureka moment when you suddenly saw into the character, saw what you were looking at to make the man come alive?

TONY KUSHNER: Yeah, there were a couple. One was a letter that Seward wrote to his wife, Fannie.

BILL MOYERS: Secretary of State Seward who was Lincoln's chief advisor

TONY KUSHNER: Secretary of State William Seward. Right, and his chief rival for the presidency in 1860 and his mentor. I mean, Seward had advised Lincoln in the '50s, they spent the night together in a hotel room in Boston and Seward said, "You should focus on slavery, it's a really good angle," which was the difference between Lincoln and Seward. I mean, Seward was anti-slavery, but full of… his wife was constantly berating him for making too many compromises. And he was hated by the anti-slavery left because he had made too many compromises. And they could smell not a rat, he was a really great man, but they could see that he wasn't as serious as he needed to be. Lincoln was very serious about it, but Seward gave him advice that Lincoln took and then built his career as an anti-slavery centrist politician. And there's a letter that he wrote Seward to Frances about eight months, I think, into the first term. And he says our rail splitter grows daily in, I think it's strength and compassion. But he uses these two words that we usually think of as being antithetical to one another. And those two, that was a big thing. It's getting that impossible combination. And part of what Lincoln shows us is that you can be both. You can hang onto your humanity and be a great war leader. You cannot sacrifice the ability to suffer with those that you see suffer and at the same time, you know, retain the name of action. You can keep doing things and be decisive. Being thoughtful is not antithetical to being decisive.

BILL MOYERS: There was a scene that I knew immediately when we saw the movie I had to ask you about. Lincoln walks from the White House to it to the telegraph center where he went regularly to receive messages from his generals and his reports from the battlefield. And he's sitting there almost as if he's talking to the two telegraph operators, but it's really a soliloquy in which he talks about Euclid.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN in Lincoln: Euclid's first common notion is this: 'Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.' That's a rule of mathematical reasoning. It's true because it works. Has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is self-evident. You see, there it is. Even in that 2,000 year old book of mechanical law, it is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other."

BILL MOYERS: What led you to include that scene?

TONY KUSHNER: I was fascinated to read that when he was already grown, Lincoln, you know, we have a list of books that we know he read when he was a kid and that when he was in his 30s I think after he was defeated for Congress he decided to read Euclid to improve his reasoning.

BILL MOYERS: Father of geometry.

TONY KUSHNER: Right. And I thought, "That's weird. Why wouldn't you read a book of traditional rhetoric or of logic. Why would you read geometry?" And then I thought but of course because Lincoln wasn't just a linear thinker. Lincoln thought volumetrically. And I got the book, and even though I'm essentially innumerate, and didn't do well in geometry at all, I decided to try and read it and see is there anything interesting here. And this is the very first, one of the very first things you read is this a self, this is a self-evident truth about equality that Euclid starts his introduction into how the physical universe in a sense is constructed and can be comprehended by talking about equality. And I thought, well you know, Lincoln, nothing escapes him, and this is an interesting thing. And so when I was: this is a moment. This is the moment of great decision where he has to decide whether he's going to try and actually push the amendment through to end slavery or seize at an opportunity to end the war with slavery still very much on the table. And this was the big dramatic moment of decision.

BILL MOYERS: There's a scene early on in the movie, Lincoln is riding through the streets of Washington in his carriage with Secretary of State Seward, his chief advisor and enforcer. And Seward is apparently trying to convince him that this is not the time to push the amendment.

WILLIAM SEWARD in Lincoln: We’ll win the war sir, it’s inevitable isn’t it?

ABRAHAM LINCOLN in Lincoln: Well, it ain’t won yet.

WILLIAM SEWARD in Lincoln: You’ll begin your second term a semi-divine stature. Imagine the possibilities peace will bring. Why tarnish your invaluable luster with a battle in the House. It’s a rat’s nest in there, the same gang of talentless hicks and hacks who rejected the amendment ten months ago, we’ll lose.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN in Lincoln: I like our chances now.

BILL MOYERS: I like our chances now, Lincoln's actual words or Tony Kushner's dramatic license?

TONY KUSHNER: You know, I can't remember with that line.

BILL MOYERS: You don't know where you start and Lincoln stops?

TONY KUSHNER: There are a few places that I know are me and a few places that I know are him. I didn't write the second inaugural address, I wish I had. I can’t remember that. It’s definitely in the spirit.

BILL MOYERS: You say you chose to focus on this fight to pass the constitutional amendment in the House. It had already passed in the--

TONY KUSHNER: Senate.

BILL MOYERS: --in January of 1865, just a few weeks there. Frame for us the significance of that fight. What is actually going on that we should have cared about?

TONY KUSHNER: The Senate had passed the amendment to abolish slavery the year, the spring before. And the House had defeated it, the Republicans had a majority but not a supermajority. And you need two-thirds of the house and the Senate to pass a constitutional amendment. So Lincoln made this decision. He didn't do it hugely, publicly, although he let it be known that the administration was behind this surprising introduction of this failed bill to amend the constitution back into the House. And he and Seward concocted a campaign of offering jobs to convince 20 lame duck Democrats to vote. And it passed by two votes. I think the importance for Lincoln was the sense that he had, you know, and he said it in 1858, a house divided against, you know, we can't exist half slave and half free. I think that Lincoln felt that the war literally could not come to an end with slavery on the table, that even if that-- Civil War stopped the country would eventually fall apart again over the issue of slavery. And the issue of slavery expanding in the West was an enormous concern for everyone. And Lincoln felt that slavery was antithetical to the democratic experiment. And he what he says in the Gettysburg Address, "This is a proposition, we're testing a proposition," he meant it literally. Democracy was a radical idea in the middle of the 19th century still. All of Europe in 1848 was in flames about whether or not they were going to have democracies or monarchies. And the world didn't know yet whether or not democracy was simply another name for chaos. And the coherence of a people's government which is what he saying in the Gettysburg Address was an important thing to prove, not just that we could create a government of the people, but that it could endure a terrible test. And I think that he felt that to have the war end without slavery being eliminated--

BILL MOYERS: Once and for all, not just with the Emancipation Proclamation--

TONY KUSHNER: --had once and for all, right.

BILL MOYERS: --but by the constitution.

TONY KUSHNER: Right, and I think that you see how important that was to him and that he tried to and succeeded in getting the house to pass it, at the same to keep his party which was enormously, it's the like Democratic party today, it's blue dog Democrats, there were sort of blue dog Republicans. Half the Republican Party was conservative and weren't sure that they liked, they were anti-slavery but they believed in sort of gradual emancipation over they, thought that by 1900 it can sort of just wither out on its own. And to keep those guys from jumping the fence and voting with the Democrats against the amendment which would have made it impossible. So he had to do this balancing act between apparently pursuing a peace plan and pushing the amendment through at the same time. That seemed to me emblematic of the most remarkable moments of his administration, and there were several such where the North really exhausted by war, I mean, this horrible, bloody war, the North began to lose its will to fight. So he had to balance all the way through.

BILL MOYERS: There's a scene in the movie that is without words, it's one of the most moving scenes when Lincoln is riding his horse through the battlefield of Petersburg, the bodies piled up like cordwood and the blood still in the mud. Do you think he might have changed his mind about pushing forward if he had anticipated the death and the blood?

TONY KUSHNER: I don't think so. I think that he believed so profoundly in democracy as an idea and so deeply that his oath to protect and preserve the constitution of the United States meant that secession was not to be allowed. He didn't believe the states had seceded. He believed that the states were still there and that these criminals who were in rebellion against the United States had taken over the apparatuses of the states. So it was a fight over who was going to control reconstruction as well as I think a philosophical ,no, the constitution doesn't mention slavery and it doesn't mention secession. So whether or not it's permissible, you know, the way that you get out of the Union once you're in is not something I think wisely that the founding fathers decided to, you know, address. And it left the question open, and Lincoln's interpretation which I agree with is, you know, you can't opt out of civilization; you can't opt out of the social contract. And secession is another name for the beginnings of a kind of social disintegration. I mean, by the end of the Civil War Alabama was threatening to secede from the Confederacy. Just a couple of weeks ago when the Texans said, "We're going to secede from the United States," Austin said, "Well, good, then we're seceding from Texas." And that's the way it tends to go, it will disintegrate. And the idea of preserving a union, the mystical idea of a union, I think he got how essential that was for the whole thing to work. So the cost was horrendous, I mean, we now think maybe as many as 800,000, not the 600,000. And this is, I think a very gentle man who suffered terribly at the thought of this kind of dying and death and, you know, was devoted to his soldiers. When he won in '64 reelection, that he won a majority of the soldiers' vote, which I think is incredibly moving 'cause these guys knew that if they voted for McClellan the war would be over and they could all go home. So they voted for the man who was going to keep them in the field and risk their lives in these terrible deaths that soldiers were dying because they believed in this thing so strongly. And he said, "I'd rather have lost the entire election and won the soldiers' vote than won the election and lost the soldiers."

BILL MOYERS: What about the scene where you, where the amendment is in doubt, Lincoln himself seems skeptical that they're going to make it, and Seward has been pushing him to be careful, not to let it be known that he's around town trying to rouse up votes. And they're in the theater and Mary Lincoln turns-- well, let's look at it.

MARY TODD LINCOLN in Lincoln: You think I'm ignorant of what you're up to because you haven't discussed this scheme with me as you ought to have done. When have I ever been so easily bamboozled? I believe you when you insist that amending the Constitution and abolishing slavery will end this war and since you are sending our son into the war, woe into you if you fail to pass the amendment.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN in Lincoln: Seward doesn’t want me leaving big muddy footprints all over town.

MARY TODD LINCOLN in Lincoln: No one has ever lived who knows better than you the proper placement of footfalls on treacherous paths. Seward can’t do it. You must. Because if you fail to acquire the necessary votes, woe unto you sir, you will answer to me.

BILL MOYERS: "You will answer to me." Why did you put that scene in? For what reason?

TONY KUSHNER: Well, you know, I mean, partly because I think it spoke a provable truth about their relationship which is that she, you know, he left her at the altar famously and went into what we think of as a great depression. My feeling was that he knew that if you married Mary Todd you weren't going to stay a circuit lawyer in Illinois and that she was going to make him step into his role. I don't think it's the thing Pascal says, anyone who's a genius and doesn't know it probably isn't one, I think Lincoln knew from the time he was a boy that he was able to do things intellectually that most people couldn't do. And I think he knew that his particular genius weirdly was not so much as a writer because I don't think he could have written just essays he wasn't Emerson. I think he knew that his genius was in politics which is a strange amalgam field. And I think he knew as everyone knew in the middle of the 19th century the main issue was going to be what was going to happen to slavery and could the country cohere. We knew this from the really from the constitutional era on. And I think he was terrified. It's a Garden of Gethsemane moment, it's like do I have to take up this cup of poison? He knew what would become of the person who stepped into the center of that crucible. And he also knew that it was probably his destiny that he had to that he alone of all people in the United States, I believe, really saw how to do this. Certainly no one else gave us any evidence of having been able to do the whole thing. And I think he ran from her because he was running from that terrible destiny. I think that you want to see a marriage that had that degree of importance. And I absolutely think it's plausible whether she's that particular formulation or not, that she went and listened to those debates, we know that, and that she, you know, if for no other reason than he wanted it and so she was determined that he was going to get it. A month later when Sumner rejected the delegates for to be seated as Congress people from Louisiana which Lincoln really wanted Sumner got up and filibustered and destroyed their chances of being seated, Mary wanted to, she literally wanted him murdered because he had defied her husband.

BILL MOYERS: In that same vein later in the movie Mary tells her husband, "All anyone will remember is that I was crazy and I ruined your happiness." Do we know if she really said that?

TONY KUSHNER: I'm almost certain she probably never did, although I think she thought it. And I think she was afraid of that. I think that she was very self-aware and very self-punishing and didn't know how to fix that image problem except to get angry at the people who were assailing her and then make the image problem worse until at some point she finally sort of gave up on the idea that anybody was ever going to really like her. But she didn't really see her job in life to be liked. Her job in life was to protect him. She adored him. She made his life difficult. He also made her life difficult. I think she's gotten a terrible bum rap. I think she was--

BILL MOYERS: How so?

TONY KUSHNER: Well, because we think of her as a lunatic. She wasn't. What Mary Lincoln endured in the White House is beyond telling. I mean, the death of her son, Willie, in '62, this carriage accident on the eve of the Gettysburg battle where her head was literally split open and she had brain damage clearly that lasted for the rest of her life, these horrendous headaches.

She really almost died, it was an assassination attempt probably. Somebody loosened the pins on the carriage that she and Lincoln were riding in and it smashed into a tree and she cracked her head open. And you know, she'd already lost a son many years before and he was a very difficult husband. He was as everyone says incredibly dear and warm and available and a great listener and sympathetic and funny.

And at the same time the people who loved him the most said he was cold as ice and removed and could be completely ruthless when he needed to be in terms of his political maneuverings and a strange character. And he really was that. And I think, you know, he would go to her room many nights, and she believed in ghosts and the afterlife as a lot of people did back then, and he would tell her these terrifying dreams that he had.

And he would go to her many nights and says, "By the way, I had a dream last night that the White House burned down and you and Tad were in it and you were burning up and I couldn't get in to save you and you burned to the--" and then he said then, "So have a good night," and walked out. So he wasn't easy. I think, she came from one of the great political families in Kentucky. She was proposed marriage to by all three men who ran for president in 1860. She danced with Lincoln and ten minutes after meeting him for the first time turned to her cousin, said, "I've just danced with the greatest man of our era. He's going to be president of the United States." She got it completely. And you know, everybody goes on about how much money she spent and the dresses and everything.

But what they overlook is she had no budget. Buchanan and the presidents before him had let the White House disintegrate. She understood political theater because she was a great political wife. There was no federal government when they arrived in Washington and she had to build a backdrop that would convince ambassadors from Great Britain and France for instance that the federal government was coherent and enormously powerful. So she made the White House into a showplace. And it became that. It was the emblem of the authority of the president. And she knew he had to have that--

BILL MOYERS: And typically Congress was constantly prosecuting them, or at least--

TONY KUSHNER: Her.

BILL MOYERS: --indicting them-- her for her extravagance--

TONY KUSHNER: Well, and not without cause. She did sell his annual address to Congress to a newspaper to raise money. It wasn't a good thing to do. But--

BILL MOYERS: But I loved the scene that you have with her and--

TONY KUSHNER: And Thaddeus--

BILL MOYERS: Thaddeus Stevens, the Republican radical congressman from--

TONY KUSHNER: Pennsylvania.

BILL MOYERS: Pennsylvania played by Tommy Lee Jones. Here it is.

THADDEUS STEVENS in Lincoln: Mrs. Lincoln.

MARY TODD LINCOLN in Lincoln: Madame President if you please. Oh, don’t convene another subcommittee to investigate me. Sir! I’m teasing. Smile Senator Wade.

SENATOR WADE in Lincoln: I believe I am smiling Mrs. Lincoln.

THADDEUS STEVENS in Lincoln: As long as your household accounts are in order Madam we’ll have no need to investigate them.

MARY TODD LINCOLN in Lincoln: You have always taken such a lively even prosecutorial interest in my household accounts.

THADDEUS STEVENS in Lincoln: Your household accounts have always been so interesting.

MARY TODD LINCOLN in Lincoln: Yes thank you, it’s true. The miracles I have wrought out of fertilizer bills and cutlery invoices, but I had to…

BILL MOYERS: Such character.

TONY KUSHNER: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, shines through.

TONY KUSHNER: She was a brilliant, brilliant woman. And she hated the radicals' guts because they tried to actually indict her. Lincoln stepped in and stopped them from doing it, but--

BILL MOYERS: Because?

TONY KUSHNER: Well, he didn't want a scandal--

BILL MOYERS: But why did they want to indict her?

TONY KUSHNER: She was doing some fishy things. She had no budget. Lincoln's entire staff was two secretaries and an old footmen who were inherited from, you know, the Monroe administration. She knew that she had to make an impression in Washington, and she was determined to do that. So I think that the expenses are understandable. And as is the heartbreaking story of her life after he died. People are so uncharitable about it and say, "See, it's proof." I mean, Robert had to put her in a mental hospital at one point. And she was this homeless woman trying to sell her dresses. And she had money but she was convinced that she didn't have it.

BILL MOYERS: I thought you were superbly sensitive to the grief that bound them even though it also separated them, each grieved differently. But in their grief they seemed to find something in each other.

TONY KUSHNER: Well, I think that's exactly right. And I think he found something in her inability to control it. I mean, I think that, you know, I've certainly known marriages like this where not only the domestic labor but the intellectual and the moral and the emotional labor gets divided. And frequently in traditional marriages the wife becomes the carrier, the worker in the fields of emotional labor.

And in some way I believe, that's why I think he told her-- she was like his shrink. You deposit these terrible feelings with somebody and then you can stay contained. I mean, Stanton in at the private funeral for Lincoln said he was the most perfect governor of men because he was the most perfect governor of himself. And there was this terrifying internal discipline that always comes at a cost. And I think she helped carry the emotional baggage for the two of them. She had a very vivid sense that the blood that had been spilled would come back to haunt them at some point. So they shared a lot of an ability to grief, I think.

BILL MOYERS: As you wrote were you haunted by the anticipation of the assassination to come?

TONY KUSHNER: Well, you know, there are ways in which he seemed to have anticipated it, and because everything that happened in Lincoln's life is unbelievable, I mean, she ordered the entire cannon of Shakespeare printed volume by volume-- following the order in the first folio from this fancy place in New York. They would send a play a month, I think. And on I believe the day before the assassination, on April 14th, one of the volumes arrived, and of course it's Julius Caesar which she of course thought was an omen. And it turned out she was right. But you know, watching him die, I don't know how anybody survived it.

The people who loved him like John Hay woke up at 89 from a dream about seeing him in the White House again weeping, 89 years old. I mean, people didn't survive that loss. It must have been, I mean, it's hard to if you've just studied Lincoln it's hard to think about that night. To have known him and to have been through that, of course, and her more than anyone else except maybe Tad it's just an unbearable loss.

BILL MOYERS: I loved the way the film gives us some vivid scenes of real politics in the 19th century, you know, the vituperation, the personal attacks, the picturesque language. And I think almost everyone's favorite scene is when the radical Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones, demolishes one of his pro slavery opponents. Here it is.

THADDEUS STEVENS in Lincoln: How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of the gentlemen from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their maker with dim wits impermeable to reason, with cold, pallid slime in their veins instead of hot, red blood. You are more reptile than man George. So low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.

GEORGE PENDLETON in Lincoln: How dare you!

BILL MOYERS: His words or yours?

TONY KUSHNER: Oh God it's that speech is an amalgam of me, Thaddeus Stevens and, Bluff Wade from the Senate. I think the reptile thing is actually Wade's, but Stevens was capable of that kind of invective when he got angry.

BILL MOYERS: Were you surprised to discover that the author of the Gettysburg Address and the second inaugural was as good as the rest of them in twisting arms and in understanding that politics often had to use underhanded tactics to achieve a great purpose?

TONY KUSHNER: No--

BILL MOYERS: You weren't?

TONY KUSHNER: I mean, it's surprising how much better than the rest of them he was. I mean, you just see these-- letters of advice from all of his various secretaries. I mean, "You should do this and you shouldn't do that," they're almost always wrong. What he did works so often in this incredibly complicated and terrifying situation that he was in. But you know, politics is not an expression of personal purity. I mean, first of all I'm a writer and I know writers, so I know that some really, really magnificent writer has been done by some, you know, deeply flawed human beings.

BILL MOYERS: No.

TONY KUSHNER: And so I don't think that beauty comes necessarily from beautiful people. I think he was a very beautiful man in every way, but-- and a very beautiful soul. But politics is-- Emerson says it's the-- movement of the soul illustrated in power. I mean, but power is about-- and especially the power in a democracy is about negotiation and compromise and manipulation and maneuvering. And Barack Obama who I admire immensely had to give the public option up and hand certain concessions to people like Bart Stupak in order to get the Affordable Care Act through. And I thought that was Lincolnian. He had to say for four years, "I'm evolving towards same sex marriage," before he could say, "I believe in same sex marriage." But you knew of course Barack Obama in 2007 understood the difference between secular marriage and religious marriage. And of course he believed that gay men and lesbians should marry on the same equal legal footing. He couldn't say it then. And he took four years. And when he picked the moment to say it, it was the exact perfect moment to say it. And it worked and it happened. And it's a history changing thing.

BILL MOYERS: I was going to ask you about that, I’m glad you brought it up, I was going to ask you because you and your partner, your husband, were the first gay married couple to appear in the New York Times Vows column. Yet here was Obama whom you were supporting cautious, holding back, letting others take the lead, not saying anything to publicly reinforce the commitment you had made.

TONY KUSHNER: I understand that politics in a democracy, and we didn't elect a king in 2008, we elected a president. And you know, that doesn't mean that and it's also so infuriating to me when people go on about how Obama really believes that the only way to do this is so bipartisan and that he's still waiting for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to become decent.

Of course he doesn't think that. But he knows that he's not Mitt Romney saying 47 percent of the country are people that I have nothing to do with and I don't care about. He knows that he's the president of the people of the United States which includes 47 percent ironically who voted for Mitt Romney. And so you know, you have to be able to say, well, why is the first African American man to run for the office of president not willing to say as he's running for president, "Oh, and by the way I believe in gay marriage in 2008." I get it. It's easy to understand that.

And if what that means is that I have to wait for the day that a president says, "I believe in same sex marriage," I'm willing to wait. And I waited and he said it. This man believes what we believe and I actually got a chance to say this to him.

BILL MOYERS: To Obama?

TONY KUSHNER: That, you know, Lincoln at one point in the Lincoln-Douglas was disappointed when Douglas made a particularly racist speech. He said, "Stephen knows better than this. He's blown the moral lights out." And that moved me enormously when I read that. The job of the president is both to make the compromises necessary to actually have things happen in a democracy which means compromising and at a slower pace than anybody would necessarily like, people who understand what needs to be changed.

At the same time he has to keep telling us where we're going, what we're trying to arrive at. And I think that Obama has done an astonishing job of doing that over and over and over again, of reminding us that government is a good thing, of reminding us that we're a country where people have to work together, that we're not a group of insanely isolated individuals who happen to live on the same, you know, piece of land and you know, that we share responsibility for one another because without that shared responsibility our own lives are destroyed. I mean, I think he's articulated beautifully what the far horizon needs to be. And he's asking people to join him in building a movement that will help get us there. And we've lost a lot of ground in the last 40 years.

BILL MOYERS: I've been critical of Obama for being too cautious and not fighting hard enough in his first term. But I was also conscious in watching the film that like Lincoln he seems aware of the process of democracy.

TONY KUSHNER: Listen, I mean, you know, I think that the left at this point and progressive people have a complicated job which is to figure out how we do our jobs as citizens of saying, you know, the drone strikes are terrifying-- the drones are a terrifying new weapon, and how is this to be used responsibly? And Guantanamo still being in operation is a horrifying thing and why is this-- you know, there's a lot-- why are we still leasing deep water offshore oil wells and nuclear power plants and so on.

But at the same time that level of criticism has to allow for the possibility that during election cycles people who have maybe not done everything we wanted them to do can get reelected so that we can build a power base so that we can actually do things. And I think we have a balancing act. And I think we've gotten unused to that balance we've spent the entire years of the Reagan counterrevolution out of power. And so we've become critics.

But it's nonsense. You can't pretend that Wall Street doesn't have horrendously strong and undue influence on the country. But if you want to get regulation of the financial sector you're going to have to unfortunately to some extent work with Wall Street. Because if you go in naively, you'll find out very quickly how much of what happens in this country Wall Street controls. And one thing I love about Obama is that he is absolutely not naive. And you know, you don't get elected president, when you're a black guy if you're naive. This man-- you know, I couldn't get elected, you know, dogcatcher in my building. He's managed this miracle, he's reelected American president.

BILL MOYERS: And yet in some of your recent speeches, you keep telling young people to agitate, agitate, agitate.

TONY KUSHNER: No, that's--

BILL MOYERS: I think you said to them if you don't commit and get active the world's going to end.

TONY KUSHNER: Absolutely, well, and I believe that. I believe that literally. I used to say that hyperbolically, but now with climate change I believe that absolutely literally. But being active as a citizen doesn't mean being, you know, sort of mindlessly in opposition. And you know, anarchism's much more romantic than, you know, electoral politics.

You get to wear sexier clothing and hang out in parks and, you know, really scream about the revolution, and that's thrilling. But if you don't actually believe that we're in a revolutionary moment and if you've read the history of revolution you might have some questions to ask about what comes often out of violent revolution. I'm not saying that I don't believe in revolution, but I think that there's some questions to be asked. Apart from the sort of romance of revolution and the glamour of it and the hope that it brings because it gives us the sense that evil can be done away with instantaneously, what is, you know, what Lincoln said, "The last best hope of mankind is democracy, is electoral politics." And that means licking-- oh well, nobody licks envelopes anymore, but figuring out emails chains and so on. And it's boring and it's tedious and it's harder to do than I think when you're young than when you're an old person like me.

But the abandonment by the left of the possibility of radical change through democracy which ironically because, I think, of the Vietnam War happened at the apogee of the democratic process as an engine for change, at the moment of the civil rights-- African American civil rights movement culminating in the voting rights act, Civil Rights Act, the beginning of the great society.

And then the left said, "You know what? Democracy doesn't work. Let's take to the streets." Well, always take to the streets, but always make sure that there are people in the halls of power who can listen to what you're saying on the streets and say, "Okay, I get it. I'm going to do something about this."

Which means surrendering to some degree the romance of revolution. I hope that I'm not less radical in terms of what I'd like to see transformed. I believe that we can live in a more economically and socially just world than we live in. I think we have to save the planet and I think that's going to call for enormous sacrifice and a transformation of society where we really come to terms with what has to happen in order to stop global warming or reverse it.

BILL MOYERS: And can that happen without a mass movement? What Lincoln did he did because before him and behind him were the abolitionists, the radicals, the feminists, the women who were beginning their own longing and agitation--

TONY KUSHNER: And millions of slaves--

BILL MOYERS: Millions of slaves as well. In fact there's been some criticism that the film presents blacks simply as faithful servants waiting for white males to liberate them when in fact one historian wrote, "Lincoln had to encounter some of those swarms of fugitive slaves who had come into Washington to agitate for abolition. And yet the only blacks who show up in the film … are the two servants in the White House who by the way were active in the agitation in town for further and more radical action."

TONY KUSHNER: There was outside of the White House-- about a block away on 15th Street-- a contraband camp called Murder Bay where people who had formerly been slaves, who had fled slavery had come to Washington looking for shelter really. And they were living out in the open in terrible conditions.

There's absolutely no way of knowing, Lincoln never mentions the contraband camp. It's basically not known. And I didn't know what to make of that, if I tried scenes of him going in and having long conversations. But the truth of the matter is-- and I think that film is very honest about this, and many of these critics overlook this, Lincoln didn't know any black people, he really didn't.

You know, we decided to make a movie about amending the constitution to prohibit slavery before the end of the war. It's a decision that Lincoln made that he clearly felt was an important decision. When the when the amendment passed he signed it even though presidents don't sign the amendment because he was so proud of it. And he called it a king's cure for all the evils.

And I think more than the Emancipation Proclamation as Thaddeus Stevens said is the greatest measure of the 19th century. So we wanted to celebrate the fact that that happened. We wanted to celebrate the fact that it happened in the House of Representatives, one of the least popular organs of government ever in human history but which can do amazing things.

And we wanted to tell the story truthfully which meant that we were dealing with a bunch of white guys in this ugly little town, muddy, crummy little southern town surrounded by the Civil War -- none of them had slaves, none of them had ever owned slaves, or almost none of them. They had no direct experience with slavery which is true of so many of the northerners who fought the Civil War. They didn't like black people, they didn't really have strong feelings maybe about slavery.

But they knew enough to know that slavery had to go. And they somehow or other, both by hook and by crook, rose to their historical purpose and got rid of it. And I think that's a story worth telling. Is it less important the House of Representatives in January of 1865 abolished-- helped abolish slavery? I don't know that it is. I don't accept the idea that the only thing to tell about emancipation is that the victims of oppression are always the authors of their own emancipation because it's not the case. Frequently people that are severely put upon and severely oppressed don't have the means. They're ordinary people and they don't have the means to rise up and destroy it on their own which is why we have things like the 14th amendment and democracy and a democracy that protects minorities against majoritarian tyranny. We've refined society to the point where you don't have to die in order to have your rights. And that's an important story, too.

BILL MOYERS: You are more than a political junkie. Your heart seems always in politics in one way or the other. Is that right?

TONY KUSHNER: Because I feel that, you know, I'm a Jew, I'm a gay man. Maybe because I'm a southerner, because I'm an American, I think that, you know, all of the various fields of human inquiry -- theology and philosophy and morality and psychology meet rather beautifully in politics. And sometimes I wonder if politics isn't exactly that, it's the taking of all the sort of great ineffable and trying to make them have some meaning in the actually historical moment on earth in which we live. And so I find politics deeply fascinating for that reason. And I also know, you know, I think it's a mistake to think about the Holocaust and not to think of its place in a political history, not to think of it as this kind of horrible realization of the worst dreams of the German right-- and to think of it as being something removed from history. It wasn't, it wasn't a magical event. It was a historical event.

Had the socialists and the communists, the social democrats and communists in Germany made common cause in '32, Hitler came, the Nazis began to lose power and Hindenburg wouldn't have made him chancellor had he not, you know, had a strong showing. Had they made common cause they could have possibly prevented the Reich from happening. So there's a lot at stake in politics.

The fate of the world now hangs I mean, literally hangs in the balance. That's not just hyperbole if we don't fix the planetary catastrophe we're doomed as a species. And the solution to that is not going to be mystical. The solution to it I believe is going to be political, so we have to get political.

BILL MOYERS: Tony Kushner, this has been a wonderful conversation.

TONY KUSHNER: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: I appreciate very much your being with me.

TONY KUSHNER: I love speaking with you, so.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: Around this time four years ago, shortly before Barack Obama entered the White House, we asked you to send us your book list for the new president, what you thought he should read as he prepared for the highest office. Now President Obama’s getting ready for his second term. Time for a new list. What one book should be on his desk or bedside table? Share your thoughts at our website, BillMoyers.com.

Coming up on Moyers & Company, another Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Junot Díaz, on the old and new America.

JUNOT DÍAZ: The biggest megaphones want to talk about the person on top. They want to talk about the hero, the winner. But the little megaphones, you're in a library with your librarian, you're working at the church in the basement, helping folks out, you're coming in to a home and reading to elderly. There are all these other little megaphones that are telling you and whispering that "This is beauty, this is humanity, this is America."

BILL MOYERS: That's it for this week. I'll see you next time.

Watch By Segment

  • Tony Kushner on Abraham Lincoln and Modern Politics

    Lincoln Screenwriter Tony Kushner talks about what we can learn from the life and decisions of America’s 16th president.

    Air Date: December 21, 2012
    Tony-Kushner_0103_SG1Tony Kushner on Abraham Lincoln and Modern Politics
  • Bill Moyers Essay: Remember the Victims, Reject the Violence

    As the Senate debates a new assault weapons ban, it might be wise to watch Bill’s essay, urging us to remember the victims, to reject doubling down on guns, and to work toward moral solutions.

    Air Date: December 21, 2012
    Bill MoyersBill Moyers Essay: Remember the Victims, Reject the Violence

Full Show: What We Can Learn from Lincoln

December 21, 2012

One reason so many people are disillusioned by the state of things in America — even more so after the terror in Newtown — is that our political system hasn’t produced consistently good results in a long time. We’ve forgotten that democracy is supposed to be about addressing our problems through a political system that encourages bargaining, compromise, and progress. Except for taking us to war, showering largesse on the privileged and powerful, and courting donors instead of representing voters, Washington politics promotes gridlock, paralysis, and stalemate.

But Bill Moyers finds hope in the movie Lincoln. Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner, who wrote the film’s screenplay, joins Bill to talk about finding the man inside the monument, and what Abraham Lincoln — 147 years after his death — can still teach us all about politics, compromise, and the survival of American democracy.

“The job of the president is both to make the compromises necessary to actually have things happen in a democracy, which means compromising at a slower pace than anybody would necessarily like,” Kushner tells Bill. “At the same time he has to keep telling us where we’re going, what we’re trying to arrive at. And I think that Obama has done an astonishing job of doing that over and over, of reminding us that government is a good thing, and that we share responsibility for one another because without that shared responsibility our own lives are destroyed.”

Also on the show, Bill urges us to remember the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre by name. He also rejects the notion of doubling down on guns and body armor as a response, and encourages all of us to work hard on realistic and moral solutions.

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  • Inlitend

    Exceptional interview. Mr. Kushner is articulate, thoughtful, and insightful. What an treat to see this.

  • Steve King

    Tony Kusher was technically correct in his statement about how long it’s been since a realistic movie about Lincoln has been made. However, I think he might have mentioned a very fine 1988 television mini-series based on Gore Vidal’s book starring Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore as the Lincolns. I’ve always thought Waterston’s reading of the Gettysburg Address was probably the most realistic and certainly the most moving.

  • Lynn

    This film, Lincoln, should be shown to everyone around the world…free. How did Lincoln finance the Civil War? Please read the book, ‘Web of Debt’ by Ellen Brown. Please listen to the twelve year old, Victoria Grant, give a speech on You Tube explaining the value of the Bank of Canada. She was influenced by watching ‘The Secret of Oz’ on You Tube. War and poverty can be prevented by separating government from private banks.

  • Nila Haug

    Two books for the President to read:
    Choosing Gratitude: Learning to Love the Life You Have
    James Autry
    My Utmost for His Highest
    Oswald Chambers

  • Kevin Iega Jeff

    Dear Mr. Moyers,

    While I love your show and have deep respect for your career achievements, I must share that I am deeply disappointed by your “Lincoln” interview with Tony Kushner.

    Undoubtedly, the film is an outstanding artistic achievement, however it’s also a gross misrepresentation of the force behind the emancipation of Africans enslaved in America. One has to wonder about Spielberg’s and Kushner’s intent. As men of European Jewish decent who’ve given powerful examples of Jewish courage and authority in their interviews and works, they certainly could have chosen to be more responsible.

    Lincoln is yet another film destined to become a Hollywood classic, that miseducates billions by ignoring the courage of brilliant Africans who provided the powerful and critical impetus to free themselves.

  • Not so young anymore either

    Not all of us on the left were demonstrating in parks (although I admire those with the courage to risk getting busted heads & blood on their “sexy costumes” by a bashing from a cop). Most of us were, in fact, working our butts off (with unions, Move-On, etc.) getting Obama re-elected.

    Obama doesn’t demonstrate conviction/belief in good government or commitment to the good of the American people. His first act (violating a campaign pledge of both candidates) is to voluntarily give Republicans a first knife stab at Social Security, which they decline, knowing that he’ll voluntarily sacrifice up even more. “Compromise” doesn’t begin by throwing a vital, highly successful, popular “good government” program on the table first thing.

    We have very few in the “halls of power” listening. Support doesn’t appear to engender any loyalty
    (not toward the American people at any rate); Comment appears to be ignored.

    Either all the talk of believing in “good government” is a dupe (and he is, at heart, a Republican) or he just doesn’t care very much one way or the other.

    Understanding the democratic process (and compromise) produces little good if you’re empty of conviction.

    I haven’t seen the film yet but I’ll be surprised if I see anything of Mr. Lincoln’s conviction in Mr. Obama. It’s a sad thing because our time presents as great and even greater threats than did Lincoln’s.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joy.dantine Joy Dantine

    Mr Toney Kushner is an eloquent speaker; I am very excited to see his work in motion. I look forward to see LINCOLN. I am floored by his comparison of Lincoln and Obama; SPOT ON!

  • http://www.facebook.com/joy.dantine Joy Dantine

    I have accepted the fact life is not a free ride – even with entitlements of today “we the people” scripted for ourself. I am a worker bee for the sake of Heaven’s nest until I die. Pure and true hierarchy has another plan; roll with it.

  • Davideros

    You either did not watch the complete interview or failed to notice that toward the end this very thing was discussed.

  • Kevin Iega Jeff

    Dear Sir – I did watch the entire interview and my view remains the same. The film is a beautiful work of art that does enormous historical damage.

  • patricia White

    I like the movie and the interview. I hope to see the movie again . I think it one of the best movies every made. I would like for teachers to encourage their student to see this movie.

  • Hank Gehman

    I just saw “Lincoln” and heard Kushner on your show. I loved the movie and I think Kushner is great but watching the movie I don’t understand how Kushner and so many commentators can say the movie is about the power of political compromise. Lincoln didn’t compromise with anybody. That mission to the Confederates was a delaying ruse. Most of his cabinet believed in the amendment; they disagreed with how and when (in some cases maybe to mask their real opposition). He brow beat, charmed and led his cabinet by the example of his conviction. He ignored the advice of the naysayers. His compromises were always in the eyes of the beholders and, in the end, they were just a variety of manipulation. It was Lincoln’s utter unwillingness to compromise that won the day.

    There’s the old saw that ‘politics is the art of compromise’. But I think that’s what the losers say. The winners say that the ‘ real art of politics is getting what you want’.

  • http://twitter.com/jamenta John Amenta

    Great interview. Fascinating, intelligent – engaging. I agree with Tony that a good deal of politics is in the art of compromise, but just as important, it is to know when not to compromise. Lincoln did not compromise when the South attempted to seceed – on what arguably seemed like a most abstract principle at the time: democracy. Neville Chamberlain on the otherhand, did compromise in 1938 and declared his compromise meant peace for his time.

    One can sense at certain moments in Obama’s presidency – signs of greatness and true leadership. And yet as a president, I feel one of his greatest weaknesses has been this blind faith in compromise no matter what. As if compromise itself is the one and only best end of politics and in leading a country. When in truth, leadership is more about bringing light where there is darkness, showing truth where only lies prevail – and willing to take a stand and fight in battles that must be fought if true human progress is to be made.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=510809481 Heather Mash

    When special interests or Corporations take over individuals rights in governance we as citizens suffer. Thanks for this insight and information now what can we do to take back our government from special interests? H.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=510809481 Heather Mash

    I respectfully disagree with you about President Obama. President Obama has the greater good of the nation and it’s people in everything he has done and everything tries to do. I suspect no one is like someone else totally, different experiences, enviornment and times but both men show men of conviction, purpose, intelligence creating an world that offers opportunity for the greater good. H.

  • Toni B.

    Douglass met with Lincoln on several occasions as the discussion surrounding the 13th amendment escalated.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lauren-Steiner/1138104490 Lauren Steiner

    I enjoyed the interview and appreciated learning about what went into the film I just saw. But I have to say that I do not share Mr. Kushner’s benevolent view of Obama.

    If climate change is his main concern, as it is mine, did he miss the debate where Obama bragged about laying more pipeline than any other president? Kushner decries off-shore oil drilling and nuclear power, both of which Obama still supports even after the BP oil spill and Fukishima. Further, Obama made a big show of saying no to the northern half of the Keystone pipeline after many protests by the people. But shortly thereafter, he fast tracked the southern half, indicating that the northern half would be approved after it is re-routed. Obama also permitted drilling in the Arctic, and the Democrats barely said boo, even though they stopped it when Bush tried. And I predict that Obama will embrace fracking as a way to make the U.S energy independent and improve the economy, no matter how bad it is for the health of people and the environment.

    As far Obamacare, Kushner gives Obama an unwarranted pass for sacrificing the public option to get it passed. The fact was Obama never intended to support it even though he said he did during the campaign and the majority of Americans supported it. As a result, he sacrificed cost for coverage. Obamacare just forces 31 million more Americans to buy an expensive product. It will do nothing for the vast majority of Americans who have health insurance and are still going bankrupt because they can’t afford the cost of their medical care. And you will soon see the trend towards part time employment increase since employers do not have to provide health insurance for people who work less than 30 hours.

    With the exception of mentioning drone attacks and Guantanamo, Kushner did not get into the ways in which Obama is far worse than Bush when it comes to civil liberties. Bush just tortured suspected terrorists. Obama actually assassinates them extra-judiciously. And what about signing the NDAA which for the first time allows him to indefinitely detain Americans on American soil with no trial if they are merely suspected of being a terrorist? What about the fact that he prosecuted more whistleblowers in four years than in the hundred years since the whistleblower law was enacted? And what about the atrocious treatment of Bradley Manning who is the Daniel Ellsberg of today?

    As for Wall Street, Kushner seems to perpetuate the lie that Wall Street needs to be involved in their own policing because it is all so damn complicated and confusing. I’m sorry. After the S and L debacle of the 80s, thousands of bankers were prosecuted and 1000 went to jail for crimes far tamer than what the banksters did to cause the crash of ’08. Not one banker has been charged much less gone to jail. However, over 7000 Occupiers have been arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights protesting this.

    Obama could have put different people in charge of his economic team than he did. He chose the ones that favored the banks over the people. Barney Frank pointed out that Henry Paulson had gotten the banks to agree to lower principal payments to get the TARP money faster, and Obama wouldn’t agree to it. The Dodd-Frank Act was weak to begin with, and has been totally watered down to the point of being ineffective.

    Obama is not a progressive at heart just waiting for the time to be right to introduce things. He is a moderate Republican who is actually to the right of Richard Nixon. You can see this by his first act after being re-elected. He has thrown Social Security under the bus. This was what he intended to do all along as evidenced by his appointment of the Simpson-Bowles Commission funded by Pete Peterson who has made it his life’s mission to destroy Social Security. This is Obama’s second term. He doesn’t have to think about re-election. He is doing this because he is not a progressive at all.

    There were progressive presidents that led the country like FDR and LBJ, except for the war. They didn’t try to compromise with their opposition. And just like the first commenter said, Lincoln didn’t compromise either. He led. And that’s what Obama is incapable of doing, because he has no ideology or guiding principles other than to compromise and be post-partisan.

    Finally, Kushner makes the mistake of thinking that we still live in a democracy when it is evident to anyone with a brain that we live in a plutocracy or corporate oligarchy. The elections that we hold every four years are mere shams. The people who finance the campaigns run this country, and they run it for their own benefit to the detriment of everybody else. The brief period we had between the end of WWII and 1980 was an anomaly in American history. The vast inequality that we have now is more typical of what our country has endured since it was founded. As a student of history, Kushner should be able to recognize this.

    I’m glad he thinks that people should be agitating in the streets, because quite frankly, that is the only thing that is going to turn this situation around. We had a revolution to free us from the tyranny of England. It is obvious that we need one to free us from the tyranny of oligarchs. And it doesn’t have to be violent. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” We need more of it.

  • Francoise Arouete

    The universal problem with such fact/fiction popularized ‘histories’ is that we will now hear many people littering the intellectual landscape by quoting both the Lincolns verbatim for what they did not say but which their ‘authority’ purports to report. Compare, for instance, the ‘quote’ of Voltaire re: “I do not agree with what you say but will defend to the death….” Voltaire never said it as far as any scholar has yet to find. It was made up whole cloth by Evelyn Beatrice Hall who wrote under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre, in the immensely popular The Friends of Voltaire which Clarence Darrow much admired and wrote about. Fortunately it’s a book you will not find cited by any reputable scholar.

    More fortunately Kushner’s integrity demands he make so such pretense. I only hope the educators who assign this movie as deservedly seminal do so with that caveat. Kudos to Kushner and may the new year bring several deserved Oscars.

    But in this interview I particularly liked Kushner’s comments on Obama’s “evolution” re: marriage equality a.k.a. ‘same-sex marriage.’ It was savvy (if somewhat patronizing and jaded though still good-natured) commentary on political hypocrisy; but what is missing is what has always been missing in this ‘debate’ carried on by propagandists who, with a wink and a nod, appeal to the incredulous as they exploit ignorance for our own advantage. ‘My hypocrisy is better than your hypocrisy because my motives are more noble and egalitarian than yours’?

    While I fully agree with Kushner’s incisive analysis of the cross-fingered Obama, what is missing here can be seen in even the liberal critics of the progressive left. Indeed, I think even Mr. Moyers has failed to point to it in his past criticisms of Obama Admin – but do correct me if I am mistaken.

    Thus far, up to my eyeballs in spin and propaganda, I have seen no writer who best expressed the dynamic more succinctly than retired San Francisco attorney John P. Mortimer in his 2006 op. ed. published in the Bay Area Reporter and aptly titled “Untangling Barack Obama’s audacious mumbo jumbo”! (See http://ebar.com/common/inc/article_print.php?sec=guest_op&article=73 or just google it.) It is as fresh and relevant today as it was in 2006.

    What Mortimer was talking about is exactly what’s been missing in this debate: the exploitation of legal ignorance. Like him I feel that education is the higher road to an electorate capable of thinking for ourselves rather than parroting slogans. That is: a trust in basic intelligence, that educated thinking voters are entirely capable of coming to the right conclusion. Is that not the essence of good faith in Democracy? Like Kushner I understand why Obama says what he has said; but on this civil rights issue the word ‘evolution’ is nothing more than a euphemism for holding one’s finger to the wind to see which way it blows and then passing out civil rights piecemeal. This is not leading but following the prejudice of the mob.

    Where journalist and writers have failed is by agreeing they understand that the official position of Obama, the ‘the civil rights lawyer’!, is legal claptrap any L1 should see.

    Have better faith in us. Where ignorant most reasonable people wish and deserve to be disabused of it – it can only make us all better advocates. Please do not patronize us.

    Of course, the only way Obama has gotten away with it is because liberal left ‘journalists’ not only let him but have colluded with him while rudimentary education of the electorate is abjured. In other words they all make the same mistake left and right: they presume we voters are largely dumb sheep to be led and, that given the education necessary to think for ourselves, we might not be herded to a fleecing.

    If, instead of colluding in the cynical exploitation of ignorance, more writers with the privilege of better education had taken Mr. Mortimer’s lead and called Obama out on legal claptrap, I suspect Obama’s (and America’s) ‘evolution’ might have occurred much sooner. If the last election has proved anything it’s that we are not the stupid sheep we are presumed to be.

    Like Kushner I agree it’s not Obama’s job to impeach his own credibility as a civil rights lawyer. However that IS the job of writers and journalists who should have more good faith in We The People; but instead the propagandists write Upton Sinclair’s infamous Brass Check?

    The problem, even on the left, is that contrarians, who do not march in lockstep, to even so-called ‘different drummers, are not just lacking in number but are kicked to the curb. I have better faith in my fellow-Americans who, despite our nurtured ignorance, remain reasonable irrespective of the well-fed prejudices of which ignorance we beg to be relieved. We are starved for education but swim in propaganda. In short I can not subscribe to the exploitation of legal ignorance even where it is to my advantage for I live in better faith – the shortest distant between two points is a straight line. Mortimer’s contrarian plea was (and remains) to please not insult our intelligence or exploit our ignorance even for our own advantage. The road to the top of the mountain need not be so crooked where we lack the faith in others’ humanity. We must be enabled to spread our winds to fly. The last thing the Angles in America need is to collaborate in having our feathers trimmed after we have know flight. Mr. Kushner:! You have shown us our wings now show them how to fly. Is it not time to stop trimming feathers? I see your wings sir, now show us how you can soar!

  • Francoise Arouete

    Wrong, wrong, wrong! Lincoln never met Douglas!

  • Francoise Arouete

    Too true. Too true! KETMAN?

  • Francoise Arouete

    Actually true though they met only a couple times.

  • Francoise Arouete

    What We Can Learn from Lincoln? Asked but not answered! What Lincoln taught us about compromise is that there is line in the historical sand, drawn by human dignity, over which democracy may not cross lest it commit suicide.

    What he taught us about compromise is never capitulate, never collaborate, but draw the line and stand firm! Never, not ever, capitulate to or collaborate with the forces of darkness that demand we compromise others’ humanity to our convenience. Is that not why the solders’ vote gave him a second term to their own determent?

  • Kathy

    I enjoyed the movie more as theater than history and am relieved to read so many comments critical of Kushner’s strained parallel between Lincoln and Obama. However, this quote from the interview particularly bothered me:

    “…progressive people have a complicated job which is to figure out how we do our jobs as citizens of saying, you know, the drone strikes are terrifying– the drones are a terrifying new weapon, and how is this to be used responsibly?”

    The progressives I read are more interested in figuring out how to demilitarize our foreign policy, than how to assassinate people in a responsible way. Kushner has an odd concept of our job as citizens.

  • Ellison Horne

    Yes
    indeed, please post a bibliography. It’s helpful to those who are reading this
    thread as well.

    I’m concerned that Moyers’ interview with Kushner is so flimsy. There is not
    one word about Lincoln’s deeply held racism. There is nothing about the wealth
    of Mary Todd’s family as slave owners and traders. Lincoln was firm about his
    racist view about Negroes: they should not vote, hold office, serve on juries,
    marry Whites, and worst of all, he stated publicly that Whites should be
    considered superior to Negroes. And he
    was nearly 50 years old when he made that statement.

    I find the stretching of truth about Lincoln’s intent to “free the
    slaves” was in any way humanitarian to be sickening. It most certainly was
    not. His motives were political and financial. The huge problem I have with
    Spielberg’s LINCOLN is that it supports the lore of Lincoln…as does the
    Moyers interview with Kushner.

    A key problem with all this discussion is there is no separation between
    slavery and racism. Slavery exploits while racism kills. This could have been a
    very important and useful interview by delving into the fundamental issue. And it would have made for a powerful screenplay
    as well. Spielberg and Kushner did not
    have it in them to pull it off so that fell back to recounting the lore of
    Lincoln: the result is the public’s opportunity lost while Spielberg and Kushner’s
    opportunity gained.

  • Ellison Horne

    If this film is to ever be shown to everyone, free, around the world, it should also include material that supports conversation about racism.
    I’m concerned that Moyers’ interview with Kushner is so flimsy. There is not one word about Lincoln’s deeply held racism. There is nothing about the wealth of Mary Todd’s family as slave owners and traders. Lincoln was firm about his racist view about Negroes: they should not vote, hold office, serve on juries, marry Whites, and worst of all, he stated publicly that Whites should be considered superior to Negroes. And he was nearly 50 years old when he made that statement.

    I find the stretching of truth about Lincoln’s intent to “free the slaves” was in any way humanitarian to be sickening. It most certainly was not. His motives were political and financial. The huge problem I have with Spielberg’s LINCOLN is that it supports the lore of Lincoln…as does the
    Moyers interview with Kushner.

    A key problem with all this discussion is there is no separation between slavery and racism. Slavery exploits while racism kills. This could have been a very important and useful interview by delving into the fundamental issue. And it would have made for a powerful screenplay
    as well. Spielberg and Kushner did not
    have it in them to pull it off so that fell back to recounting the lore of Lincoln: the result is the public’s opportunity lost while Spielberg and Kushner’s opportunity gained.

  • Ellison Horne

    Indeed, Kevin, I agree fully with your comments. Thank you! ~ e

  • Zephyr Johnson

    I agree

  • Zephyr Johnson

    Yes they did meet. Do you know a Donna Koontz that worked as a mammography tech?

  • Zephyr Johnson

    We all must read books and not depend on the movies to get the story right.

  • VicP

    The movie was so good that I found it challenging to find the “worst” scene in the movie. It’s amazing how much of FDR is Lincoln since both faced an immense war that redefined the world.

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Moyers politely called that fellow “out on carpet” and grinned at that fellow’s (Mr. Kushner) stupid answers. Yes, racism has many levels and layers within each level. How about that black gorilla running through the room?!

  • Kevin Iega Jeff

    As one who reads extensively, I should also point out that while I share your belief in reading, what’s written and confirmed as historically accurate often isn’t so. Many celebrated authors have written history as fact, when it is actually fiction.

  • http://www.facebook.com/keith.pritsker Keith Pritsker

    Dear Mr. Kushner:

    Last month PBS broadcast an episode of Moyers and Co. in which Bill
    Moyers interviewed you regarding the work you have done as screenwriter for the
    movie, “Lincoln.” In your colloquy with
    Mr. Moyers he asked why you included in the script a reference to Lincoln’s use
    of Euclid. Below is a transcript of the
    relevant exchange:

    ABRAHAM LINCOLN in Lincoln: Euclid’s first
    common notion is this: ‘Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to
    each other.’ That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning. It’s true because it
    works. Has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is
    self-evident. You see, there it is. Even in that 2,000 year old book of
    mechanical law, it is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the
    same thing are equal to each other.”

    BILL MOYERS: What led you to include that scene?

    TONY KUSHNER: I was fascinated to read that when he was
    already grown, Lincoln, you know, we have a list of books that we know he read
    when he was a kid and that when he was in his 30s I think after he was defeated
    for Congress he decided to read Euclid to improve his reasoning.

    BILL MOYERS: Father of geometry.

    TONY KUSHNER: Right. And I thought, “That’s weird. Why
    wouldn’t you read a book of traditional rhetoric or of logic. Why would you
    read geometry?” And then I thought but of course because Lincoln wasn’t
    just a linear thinker. Lincoln thought volumetrically. And I got the book, and
    even though I’m essentially innumerate, and didn’t do well in geometry at all,
    I decided to try and read it and see is there anything interesting here. And
    this is the very first, one of the very first things you read is this a self,
    this is a self-evident truth about equality that Euclid starts his introduction
    into how the physical universe in a sense is constructed and can be
    comprehended by talking about equality. And I thought, well you know, Lincoln,
    nothing escapes him, and this is an interesting thing. And so when I was: this
    is a moment. This is the moment of great decision where he has to decide
    whether he’s going to try and actually push the amendment through to end
    slavery or seize at an opportunity to end the war with slavery still very much
    on the table. And this was the big dramatic moment of decision.

    This
    letter seeks to provide clarification as to why Lincoln read Euclid. The explanation is found within an article by
    Reverend J.P. Gulliver published in the New York Independent on September 1, 1864.
    Herein is a lengthy excerpt from that article that provides additional
    background that you may find of interest:

    It was just after his
    controversy with Douglas, and some months before the meeting of the Chicago Convention
    of 1860, that Mr. Lincoln came to Norwich [Connecticut] to make a political
    speech…

    The next morning I met him at the railroad station, where
    he was conversing with our Mayor, every few minutes looking up the track and
    inquiring, half impatiently and half quizzically, “Where’s that ‘wagon’ of yours? Why don’t the ‘wagon’ come along?” On being introduced to him, he fixed his eyes
    upon me, and said: “I have seen you before, Sir!” “I think not,” I replied; “you mistake me for
    some other person.” “No, I don’t; I saw
    you at the Town Hall, last evening.” “Is
    it possible, Mr. Lincoln, that you could observe individuals so closely in such
    a crowd?” “Oh yes!” he replied, laughing;
    “that is my way, I don’t forget faces.
    Were you not there?” “I was sir,
    and I was well paid for going”; adding, somewhat in the vein of pleasantry he
    had started, “I consider it one of the most extraordinary speeches I ever
    heard.”

    As we entered the cars, he beckoned me to take a seat
    with him, and said, in a most agreeably frank way, “Were you sincere in what
    you said about my speech just now?” “I
    meant every word of it, Mr. Lincoln.
    Why, an old dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, who sat near me, applauded you
    repeatedly; and when rallied upon his conversion to sound principles, answered,
    ‘I don’t believe a word he says, but I can’t help clapping him, he is so pat!’
    That I call the triumph of oratory,—

    When you convince a man against his
    will,

    Though he is of the same opinion
    still.

    Indeed, sir, I learned more
    of the art of public speaking last evening than I could from a whole course of
    lectures on Rhetoric.”

    “Ah! That reminds me,” said he, “of a most extraordinary
    circumstance which occurred in New Haven the other day. They told me that the Professor of Rhetoric
    in Yale College.—a very learned man isn’t he?”

    “Yes, sir, and a fine critic too.”

    “Well I suppose so, he ought to be, at any rate,–they
    told me that he came to hear me, and took notes of my speech, and gave a
    lecture on it to his class the next day; and not satisfied with that, he
    followed me up to Meriden the next evening, and heard me again for the same
    purpose. Now, if this is so, it is to my
    mind very extraordinary. I have been
    sufficiently astonished at my success in the West. It has been most unexpected. But I had no thought of any marked success in
    the East, and least of all that I should draw out such commendations from
    literary and learned men. Now,” he
    continued, “I should like very much to know what it was in my speech you
    thought so remarkable, and what you suppose interested my friend, the
    Professor, so much.”

    “The clearness of your statements, Mr. Lincoln; the
    unanswerable style of your reasoning, and especially your illustrations, which
    were romance and pathos, and fun and logic all welded together. That story about the snakes, for example,
    which set the hands and feet of your Democratic hearers in such vigorous
    motion, was at once queer and comical, and tragic and argumentative. It broke through all the barriers of a man’s
    previous opinions and prejudices at a crash, and blew up the very citadel of
    his false theories before he could know what had hurt him.”

    “Can you remember any other illustrations,” said he, “of
    this peculiarity of my style?”

    I gave him others of the same sort, occupying some
    half-hour in the critique, when he said: “I am much obliged to you for
    this. I have been wishing for a long
    time to find someone who would make this analysis for me. It throws light on a subject which has been
    dark to me. I can understand very
    readily how such a power as you have ascribed to me will account for the effect
    which seems to be produced by my speeches.
    I hope you have not been too flattering in your estimate. Certainly, I have had a most wonderful
    success, for a man of limited education.”

    “That suggests, Mr. Lincoln, an inquiry which has several
    times been upon my lips during this conversation. I want very much to know how you got this unusual
    power of ‘putting things.’ It must have
    been a matter of education. No man has
    it by nature alone. What has your
    education been?”

    “Well, as to education, the newspapers are correct; I
    never went to school more than six months in my life. But, as you say, this must be a product of
    culture in some form. I have been
    putting the question you ask me to myself, while you have been talking. I can say this, that among my earliest
    recollections I remember how, when a mere child, I used to get irritated when
    anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand. I don’t think I ever got angry at anything
    else in my life. But that always
    disturbed my temper, and has ever since.
    I can remember going to my bedroom, after hearing the neighbors talk of
    an evening with my father, and spending no small part of the night walking up
    and down, and trying to make out what was the exact meaning of some of their,
    to me, dark sayings. I could not sleep,
    though I often tried to, when I got on such a hunt after an idea, until I had
    caught it; and when I thought I had got it, I was not satisfied until I had
    repeated it over and over, until I had put it in language plain enough, as I
    thought, for any boy I knew to comprehend.
    This was a kind of passion with me, and it has stuck by me; for I am
    never easy now, when I am handling a thought, till I have bounded it North, and
    bounded it South, and bounded it East, and bounded it West. Perhaps that accounts for the characteristic
    that you observe in my speeches, though I never put the two things together
    before.”

    “Mr. Lincoln, I thank you for this. It is the most splendid educational fact that
    I have ever happened upon. This is genius, with all its impulsive,
    inspiring, dominating power over the mind of its possessor, developed by
    education into talent, with its
    uniformity, its permanence, and its disciplined strength,–always ready, always
    available, never capricious,–the highest possession of the human
    intellect. But, let me ask, how did you prepare for your profession?”

    “Oh yes! I ‘read law,’ as the phrase
    is; that is, I became a lawyer’s clerk in Springfield, and copied tedious
    documents, and picked up what I could of law in the intervals of other
    work. But your question reminds me of a
    bit of education I had, which I am bound in honesty to mention. In the course of my law-reading, I constantly
    came upon the word demonstrate. I thought at first that I understood its
    meaning, but soon became satisfied that I did not. I said to myself, ‘What do I mean when I demonstrate more than when I reason or prove? How does demonstration differ from any other
    proof?’ I consulted Webster’s
    Dictionary. That told me of ‘certain
    proof,’ ‘proof beyond the possibility of doubt’; but I could form no idea what
    sort of proof that was. I thought a
    great many things were proved beyond a possibility of doubt, without recourse
    to any such extraordinary process of reasoning as I understood ‘demonstration’
    to be. I consulted all of the
    dictionaries and books of reference I could find, but with no better
    results. You might as well have defined blue to a blind man. At last I said, ‘Lincoln, you can never make
    a lawyer if you do not understand what demonstrate
    means’; and I left my situation in Springfield, went home to my father’s house;
    and stayed there till I could give any proposition in the six books of Euclid
    at sight. I then found out what
    ‘demonstrate’ means, and went back to my law-studies.” [Emphasis with use of bold letters
    added]

    I could not refrain from saying, in my admiration at such
    a development of character and genius combined; “Mr. Lincoln, your success is
    no longer a marvel. It is the legitimate
    result of adequate causes. You deserve
    it all, and a great deal more. If you
    will permit me, I would like to use this fact publicly. It will be most valuable in inciting our
    young men to that patient classical and mathematical culture which most minds
    absolutely require. No man can talk well
    unless he is able first of all to define to himself what he is talking
    about. Euclid, well studied, would free
    the world of half of its calamities, by banishing half the nonsense which now
    deludes and curses it. I have often
    thought that Euclid would be one of the best books to put on the catalogue of the
    Tract Society, if they could only get people to read it. It would be a means of grace.”

    “I think so,” said he laughing; “I vote for Euclid.”

    Just then a gentleman entered the car who was well known
    as a very ardent friend of Douglas.
    Being a little curious to see how Mr. Lincoln would meet him, I
    introduced him after this fashion:–“Mr. Lincoln, allow me to introduce Mr.
    L——-, a very particular friend of your particular friend, Mr.
    Douglas.” He at once took his hand in
    most cordial manner, saying: “I have no doubt that you think you are right,
    sir.” This hearty tribute to a political
    opponent, with the manner of doing it, struck me as a beautiful exhibition of a
    large-hearted charity, of which we see far too little in this debating,
    fermenting world.

    As we neared the end of our journey, Mr. Lincoln turned
    to me very pleasantly and said: “I want to thank you for this
    conversation. I have enjoyed it very
    much.” I replied, referring to some
    stalwart denunciations he had just been uttering of the demoralizing influences
    of Washington upon Northern politicians in respect to the slavery question,
    “Mr. Lincoln may I say one thing to you before we separate?”

    “Certainly anything you please.”

    “You have just spoken of the tendency of political life
    in Washington to debase the moral convictions of our representatives there by
    the admixture of considerations of mere political expediency. You have become, by the controversy with Mr.
    Douglas, one of our leaders in the great struggle with slavery, which is
    undoubtedly the struggle of the
    nation and the age. What I would like to
    say is this, and I say it with a full heart, Be true to your principles and we will be true to you, and God will be
    true to us all!” His homely face
    lighted up instantly with a beaming expression, and taking my hand warmly in
    both of his, he said: “I say Amen to
    that –A M E N to that!”

    Aside from the original source, which may be difficult to
    procure, this passage can also be found in The Face of Lincoln, Compiled
    and Edited by James Mellon, The Viking Press, 1979, pages 65-67, under the
    heading: “A Conversation with Lincoln on the Train in March 1860.”

    I understand that you have been nominated for an Academy
    Award for the screenplay of this movie.
    Congratulations on this high honor.
    Having seen this movie and several of the others nominated in this
    category, my own humble opinion is that your chances of receiving this award
    are excellent. However that may be you
    are certain to continue to receive attention for your work done on this
    film. It is for that reason that I have
    taken the time to set forth the above passage.
    You may yet have opportunities to set the record straight and, in doing
    so, share the extraordinary story of how Lincoln gave up the study of law and
    went home until, through the study of Euclid, he felt sufficiently competent to
    understand the meaning of the word—“demonstrate.”

    Moreover I hope you will pass along this information to the
    movie’s director and lead actor, who may find it of particular interest.

    Thank you for your fine work on this screenplay as well
    as the many other projects that have enriched all of us through your devotion
    to the arts.

    Sincerely,

    Keith
    Pritsker

    Cc:
    Bill Moyers

  • http://www.facebook.com/keith.pritsker Keith Pritsker

    January 25, 2013

    Tony Kushner
    c/o The Steven Barkley Agency
    12 Western Avenue
    Petaluma, CA 94952

    Re: Lincoln’s use of Euclid

    Dear Mr. Kushner:

    Last month PBS broadcast an episode of Moyers and Co. in which Bill Moyers interviewed you regarding the work you have done as screenwriter for the movie, “Lincoln.” In your colloquy with Mr. Moyers he asked why you included in the script a reference to Lincoln’s use of Euclid. Below is a transcript of the relevant exchange:

    ABRAHAM LINCOLN in Lincoln: Euclid’s first
    common notion is this: ‘Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.’ That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning. It’s true because it works. Has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is
    self-evident. You see, there it is. Even in that 2,000 year old book of mechanical law, it is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the
    same thing are equal to each other.”

    BILL MOYERS: What led you to include that scene?

    TONY KUSHNER: I was fascinated to read that when he was already grown, Lincoln, you know, we have a list of books that we know he read when he was a kid and that when he was in his 30s I think after he was defeated for Congress he decided to read Euclid to improve his reasoning.

    BILL MOYERS: Father of geometry.

    TONY KUSHNER: Right. And I thought, “That’s weird. Why wouldn’t you read a book of traditional rhetoric or of logic. Why would you read geometry?” And then I thought but of course because Lincoln wasn’t just a linear thinker. Lincoln thought volumetrically. And I got the book, and even though I’m essentially innumerate, and didn’t do well in geometry at all, I decided to try and read it and see is there anything interesting here. And this is the very first, one of the very first things you read is this a self, this is a self-evident truth about equality that Euclid starts his introduction into how the physical universe in a sense is constructed and can be
    comprehended by talking about equality. And I thought, well you know, Lincoln, nothing escapes him, and this is an interesting thing. And so when I was: this is a moment. This is the moment of great decision where he has to decide whether he’s going to try and actually push the amendment through to end slavery or seize at an opportunity to end the war with slavery still very much on the table. And this was the big dramatic moment of decision.

    This letter seeks to provide clarification as to why Lincoln read Euclid. The explanation is found within an article by Reverend J.P. Gulliver published in the New York Independent on September 1, 1864. Herein is a lengthy excerpt from that article that provides additional
    background that you may find of interest:

    It was just after his controversy with Douglas, and some months before the meeting of the Chicago Convention of 1860, that Mr. Lincoln came to Norwich [Connecticut] to make a political speech…

    The next morning I met him at the railroad station, where he was conversing with our Mayor, every few minutes looking up the track and inquiring, half impatiently and half quizzically, “Where’s that ‘wagon’ of yours? Why don’t the ‘wagon’ come along?” On being introduced to him, he fixed his eyes upon me, and said: “I have seen you before, Sir!” “I think not,” I replied; “you mistake me for some other person.” “No, I don’t; I saw you at the Town Hall, last evening.” “Is
    it possible, Mr. Lincoln, that you could observe individuals so closely in such a crowd?” “Oh yes!” he replied, laughing; “that is my way, I don’t forget faces.
    Were you not there?” “I was sir, and I was well paid for going”; adding, somewhat in the vein of pleasantry he
    had started, “I consider it one of the most extraordinary speeches I ever heard.”

    As we entered the cars, he beckoned me to take a seat
    with him, and said, in a most agreeably frank way, “Were you sincere in what you said about my speech just now?” “I meant every word of it, Mr. Lincoln.
    Why, an old dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, who sat near me, applauded you repeatedly; and when rallied upon his conversion to sound principles, answered, ‘I don’t believe a word he says, but I can’t help clapping him, he is so pat!’ That I call the triumph of oratory,—

    When you convince a man against his will,

    Though he is of the same opinion still.

    Indeed, sir, I learned more of the art of public speaking last evening than I could from a whole course of lectures on Rhetoric.”

    “Ah! That reminds me,” said he, “of a most extraordinary circumstance which occurred in New Haven the other day. They told me that the Professor of Rhetoric in Yale College.—a very learned man isn’t he?”

    “Yes, sir, and a fine critic too.”

    “Well I suppose so, he ought to be, at any rate,–they
    told me that he came to hear me, and took notes of my speech, and gave a lecture on it to his class the next day; and not satisfied with that, he followed me up to Meriden the next evening, and heard me again for the same purpose. Now, if this is so, it is to my mind very extraordinary. I have been sufficiently astonished at my success in the West. It has been most unexpected. But I had no thought of any marked success in the East, and least of all that I should draw out such commendations from literary and learned men. Now,” he continued, “I should like very much to know what it was in my speech you thought so remarkable, and what you suppose interested my friend, the Professor, so much.”

    “The clearness of your statements, Mr. Lincoln; the
    unanswerable style of your reasoning, and especially your illustrations, which were romance and pathos, and fun and logic all welded together. That story about the snakes, for example, which set the hands and feet of your Democratic hearers in such vigorous motion, was at once queer and comical, and tragic and argumentative. It broke through all the barriers of a man’s previous opinions and prejudices at a crash, and blew up the very citadel of his false theories before he could know what had hurt him.”

    “Can you remember any other illustrations,” said he, “of
    this peculiarity of my style?”

    I gave him others of the same sort, occupying some
    half-hour in the critique, when he said: “I am much obliged to you for this. I have been wishing for a long
    time to find someone who would make this analysis for me. It throws light on a subject which has been dark to me. I can understand very readily how such a power as you have ascribed to me will account for the effect which seems to be produced by my speeches.
    I hope you have not been too flattering in your estimate. Certainly, I have had a most wonderful
    success, for a man of limited education.”

    “That suggests, Mr. Lincoln, an inquiry which has several times been upon my lips during this conversation. I want very much to know how you got this unusual power of ‘putting things.’ It must have
    been a matter of education. No man has it by nature alone. What has your education been?”

    “Well, as to education, the newspapers are correct; I
    never went to school more than six months in my life. But, as you say, this must be a product of culture in some form. I have been putting the question you ask me to myself, while you have been talking. I can say this, that among my earliest recollections I remember how, when a mere child, I used to get irritated when
    anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand. I don’t think I ever got angry at anything else in my life. But that always disturbed my temper, and has ever since. I can remember going to my bedroom, after hearing the neighbors talk of an evening with my father, and spending no small part of the night walking up and down, and trying to make out what was the exact meaning of some of their, to me, dark sayings. I could not sleep, though I often tried to, when I got on such a hunt after an idea, until I had caught it; and when I thought I had got it, I was not satisfied until I had repeated it over and over, until I had put it in language plain enough, as I thought, for any boy I knew to comprehend. This was a kind of passion with me, and it has stuck by me; for I am never easy now, when I am handling a thought, till I have bounded it North, and bounded it South, and bounded it East, and bounded it West. Perhaps that accounts for the characteristic that you observe in my speeches, though I never put the two things together before.”

    “Mr. Lincoln, I thank you for this. It is the most splendid educational fact that I have ever happened upon. This is genius, with all its impulsive, inspiring, dominating power over the mind of its possessor, developed by
    education into talent, with its uniformity, its permanence, and its disciplined strength,–always ready, always available, never capricious,–the highest possession of the human intellect. But, let me ask, how did you prepare for your profession?”

    “Oh yes! I ‘read law,’ as the phrase is; that is, I became a lawyer’s clerk in Springfield, and copied tedious
    documents, and picked up what I could of law in the intervals of other work. But your question reminds me of a bit of education I had, which I am bound in honesty to mention. In the course of my law-reading, I constantly came upon the word demonstrate. I thought at first that I understood its meaning, but soon became satisfied that I did not. I said to myself, ‘What do I mean when I demonstrate more than when I reason or prove? How does demonstration differ from any other
    proof?’ I consulted Webster’s Dictionary. That told me of ‘certain proof,’ ‘proof beyond the possibility of doubt’; but I could form no idea what sort of proof that was. I thought a great many things were proved beyond a possibility of doubt, without recourse to any such extraordinary process of reasoning as I understood ‘demonstration’ to be. I consulted all of the dictionaries and books of reference I could find, but with no better
    results. You might as well have defined blue to a blind man. At last I said, ‘Lincoln, you can never make a lawyer if you do not understand what demonstrate
    means’; and I left my situation in Springfield, went home to my father’s house; and stayed there till I could give any proposition in the six books of Euclid at sight. I then found out what ‘demonstrate’ means, and went back to my law-studies.”

    I could not refrain from saying, in my admiration at such
    a development of character and genius combined; “Mr. Lincoln, your success is no longer a marvel. It is the legitimate result of adequate causes. You deserve
    it all, and a great deal more. If you will permit me, I would like to use this fact publicly. It will be most valuable in inciting our young men to that patient classical and mathematical culture which most minds
    absolutely require. No man can talk well unless he is able first of all to define to himself what he is talking
    about. Euclid, well studied, would free the world of half of its calamities, by banishing half the nonsense which now deludes and curses it. I have often thought that Euclid would be one of the best books to put on the catalogue of the Tract Society, if they could only get people to read it. It would be a means of grace.”

    “I think so,” said he laughing; “I vote for Euclid.”

    Just then a gentleman entered the car who was well known as a very ardent friend of Douglas.
    Being a little curious to see how Mr. Lincoln would meet him, I introduced him after this fashion:–“Mr. Lincoln, allow me to introduce Mr. L——-, a very particular friend of your particular friend, Mr. Douglas.” He at once took his hand in most cordial manner, saying: “I have no doubt that you think you are right,
    sir.” This hearty tribute to a political opponent, with the manner of doing it, struck me as a beautiful exhibition of a large-hearted charity, of which we see far too little in this debating, fermenting world.

    As we neared the end of our journey, Mr. Lincoln turned to me very pleasantly and said: “I want to thank you for this conversation. I have enjoyed it very much.” I replied, referring to some stalwart denunciations he had just been uttering of the demoralizing influences
    of Washington upon Northern politicians in respect to the slavery question, “Mr. Lincoln may I say one thing to you before we separate?”

    “Certainly anything you please.”

    “You have just spoken of the tendency of political life
    in Washington to debase the moral convictions of our representatives there by the admixture of considerations of mere political expediency. You have become, by the controversy with Mr. Douglas, one of our leaders in the great struggle with slavery, which is
    undoubtedly the struggle of the nation and the age. What I would like to say is this, and I say it with a full heart, Be true to your principles and we will be true to you, and God will be true to us all!” His homely face
    lighted up instantly with a beaming expression, and taking my hand warmly in both of his, he said: “I say Amen to that –A M E N to that!”

    Aside from the original source, which may be difficult to
    procure, this passage can also be found in The Face of Lincoln, Compiled and Edited by James Mellon, The Viking Press, 1979, pages 65-67, under the heading: “A Conversation with Lincoln on the Train in March 1860.”

    I understand that you have been nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay of this movie.
    Congratulations on this high honor.
    Having seen this movie and several of the others nominated in this category, my own humble opinion is that your chances of receiving this award are excellent. However that may be you are certain to continue to receive attention for your work done on this film. It is for that reason that I have taken the time to set forth the above passage. You may yet have opportunities to set the record straight and, in doing so, share the extraordinary story of how Lincoln gave up the study of law and went home until, through the study of Euclid, he felt sufficiently competent to understand the meaning of the word—“demonstrate.”

    Moreover I hope you will pass along this information to the movie’s director and lead actor, who may find it of particular interest.

    Thank you for your fine work on this screenplay as well
    as the many other projects that have enriched all of us through your devotion to the arts.

    Sincerely,
    Keith Pritsker

    Cc: Bill Moyers

  • http://www.facebook.com/marilyn.jess Marilyn E. Jess

    Go to 49:30 in the interview–he explains why the film was made the way it was. The ugly, messy aspects of life in the Civil War period is what we forget, and the film brings into focus.