Saturday, February 16, 2013

Thomas Frank: "Team of Rivals" is "Uninspiring to the Point of Boredom."

Writing in Harper's, Frank tells us what he really thinks about Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham LincolnHe writes:

Despite having triggered these sequential booms in Lincolniana, Team of Rivals is uninspiring to the point of boredom. It is not only a retelling of the most familiar story in American history but also a fairly dreary one. Goodwin’s account doesn’t provoke or startle with insight. Most of what she tells us has been told us before — many, many times. Indeed, the theme song from Ken Burns’s The Civil War played involuntarily in my head as I read, again, about the election of 1860, the Peninsula Campaign, the maneuvering in Washington over emancipation.

And he goes on:

It was, in other words, an unremarkable arrangement, documented here in an unremarkable book, all of it together about as startling as a Hallmark card. How did such a commonplace slice of history come to define our era?

Frank argues that the book has become so popular because it has been embraced by the corporate world as a "leadership" book, it was endorsed by Barack Obama as a book about bipartisanship, and it was made into a movie by Steven Speilberg that celebrated political compromise.

Frank then goes after Speilberg. He says that Lincoln, with its portrayals of backroom dealings and vote-buying, vindicates corruption.

Filled with populist rage, Frank concludes:

Lincoln is a movie that makes viewers feel noble at first, but on reflection the sentiment proves hollow. This is not only a hackneyed film but a mendacious one. Like other Spielberg productions, it drops you into a world where all the great moral judgments have been made for you already — Lincoln is as absolutely good as the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark are absolutely bad — and then it smuggles its tendentious political payload through amid those comfortable stereotypes.

If you really want to explore compromise, corruption, and the ideology of money-in-politics, don’t stack the deck with aces of unquestionable goodness like the Thirteenth Amendment. Give us the real deal. Look the monster in the eyes. Make a movie about the Grant Administration, in which several of the same characters who figure in Lincoln played a role in the most corrupt era in American history. Or show us the people who pushed banking deregulation through in the compromise-worshipping Clinton years. And then, after ninety minutes of that, try to sell us on the merry japes of those lovable lobbyists — that’s a task for a real auteur.