Bill Moyers
December 21, 2012
Tony Kushner on Abraham Lincoln and Modern Politics

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.


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--


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--


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--


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.


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--


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?


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.


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.


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.

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