‘Lincoln,’ And the Quietness Of The President

The thing that strikes me most about the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is how quiet the President is for much of it. There’s a kindness, almost, to the delivery of the Gettysburg Address, a tentativeness to the question, “Shall we stop this blood?”

In a way, watching this reminded me of Michael Lewis’s profile of President Obama in Vanity Fair, which emphasizes both the essential aloneness of the presidency even as the person who occupies it faces constant emotional demands. Obama told Lewis:

“You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” The self-discipline he believes is required to do the job well comes at a high price. “You can’t wander around,” he said. “It’s much harder to be surprised. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it—at least I don’t.”

In the profile, as in the trailer, the president is surrounded by competing voices, but ultimately required to decide alone. The wars are different. The job—and the federal government—have gotten bigger, in part because of what the war Lincoln oversaw taught the country about what it needed, particularly in a time of conflict. But the essential nature of the role remains very much the same.