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When the stakes are small, the politics don't look heroic

Saturday, December 29, 2012 - 12:01 am

I went to see “Lincoln” this week and found it to be a compelling, fascinating depiction of the political process. It was quite a contrast to the whiny finger-pointing we’ve been subjected to for months as the fiscal cliff stalemate crawled along an inch at a time.

The movie got a lot of things wrong. The dispute between conservative and radical Republicans, for example, didn’t really exist – they were unanimous in support of the 13th Amendment. And Abraham Lincoln was not quite the heroic emancipator that our national myth depicts and this film reinforces. Slavery was crumbling from pressures from many quarters, and Lincoln’s role was just one part of a much bigger story.

We could fill volumes with the inaccuracies and distortions of the film. But how could a 21/2-hour snapshot of one of the most complex periods in American history be anything but flawed?

What the movie got right was how high the stakes were and how crucial the political process was for a nation going through such a traumatic upheaval. Momentous issues were being decided – our leaders were juggling the end of the war and the end of slavery, and getting the timing just right was crucial. They knew the country was at a turning point and that what they did would determine the fate of generations to come .

So they fought and called each other horrible names and bribed wavering supporters and made the kind of under-the-table deals we’re all supposed to loathe today. But politics is “the art of the possible” – it’s about getting things done, not just espousing a philosophy. That requires human interaction, which is seldom pristine; in fact, it’s often downright ugly. Somehow, the conniving tactics don’t seem so bad when we consider the goal a noble one.

That’s what is so disheartening about the current stalemate. We are told the stakes are high – we’re going over the cliff, after all. But in reality, it seems our politicians are just putting off the decision that’s now required because of the earlier decision they put off.

In the end, they’ll make a small compromise that will get us through the next few months, then they’ll have another deadline to put off. Does anybody really think any of this nonsense will lead to Washington taming its own growth or get the American people to stop expecting more government than they’re willing to pay for?

When the stakes are so small, the politics just look petty. Nothing heroic to see here, move along, move along.

Leo Morris is editorial page editor of The News-Sentinel.