By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016, All Rights Reserved
Tony Kushner, screenwriter of Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, and Sarah Vowell, author of Assassination Vacation, appeared at the Maltz Center on November 29 as part of Case Western Reserve University’s Think Forum speaker series. CWRU Prof. Jerrold Scott acted as moderator for a lively, interesting discussion of Civil War history and pop culture.
Scott asked how Kushner and Vowell came to be interested in Lincoln, and Kushner said he never really focused on Lincoln until Spielberg asked him to write the screenplay. Even then, he was reluctant, given all that had already been written about the 16th President. Spielberg brought together a group of Lincoln scholars including Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Kushner asked them many, many questions. Goodwin encouraged Kushner to take on the job, saying, “Whether this project is a success or a failure, you will be glad to have spent a few years with Lincoln.” He finally decided to do it, and then found himself calling Goodwin several times a week with additional questions while writing the script.
Vowell, by contrast, said Lincoln’s writing grabbed her early on. Since Lincoln didn’t have the deep bass voice we associate with weighty words, she often asks her friend, the nasally-voiced humorist David Sedaris, to read Lincoln’s words whenever they appear together at public events. Kushner and Vowell both credited Lincoln with creating a new American form of prose, simple, straightforward and clear, which Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant later built upon.
The Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis, preparing for the role of Lincoln, didn’t want to speak in Lincoln’s voice for Spielberg until he’d “worked on it” for awhile, Kushner said, and even then only sent a cassette player (with the cassette still stuck in it) from Ireland, making the director promise not to let anyone else listen. Day-Lewis, who is known for becoming deeply immersed in his roles, told Kushner he wouldn’t speak to the screenwriter during filming so that he could maintain his focus. “A couple of times I had to duck down behind soldiers and things on the set so that he wouldn’t see me,” Kushner said.
Kushner’s first draft of the screenplay was 500 pages long, but Spielberg was most taken with the first 150, about the fight to pass the 13th Amendment, and that’s what became the core of the movie. Kushner and Vowell discussed the cinematic quality of Lincoln’s time in the White House, with Vowell noting that the sun dramatically came out just as the President was going to give his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. And what Shakespeare play arrived at the White House in an elegant folio from New York City, ordered by Mrs. Lincoln herself, the week of the assassination? None other than Julius Caesar, about the murder of another beloved and reviled leader. “That’s the great thing about nonfiction – it doesn’t have to be plausible,” Vowell said.
Kushner spoke about Lincoln’s many-faceted character – he could be very warm and generous, but also sometimes cold and calculating. Vowell said he would sometimes agonize over pardons, but allowed a convicted spy, John Y. Beall, to be executed (for, among other crimes, plotting to free Confederate prisoners on Johnson’s Island) after purposefully keeping those seeking a pardon from seeing him in the White House. Lincoln “was an adoring father but could be shockingly negligent,” Kushner said, as when he let his son Tad wander about the Virginia State Capitol unattended while he was speaking to state leaders, just after the fall of Richmond in what was still a very dangerous city.
During the public Q&A period afterwards, a person in the crowd asked if the scene in which the President and First Lady heatedly argued was “just Hollywood” or was based on the historical record. Kushner said there were several contemporary accounts of the Lincolns quarreling, including by Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley. Nevertheless, he said he wanted to show, despite the occasional storminess of the marriage, how close the Lincolns were, and what an important role Mrs. Lincoln played in her husband’s political success.
Another audience member asked if there had been any thought of reparations for freed slaves at the close of the Civil War. Kushner and Vowell seemed bemused by the question and said no, but discussed ambitious proposals by Thaddeus Stevens and others to dismantle the Southern slave-owning aristocracy and establish freed slaves with farms of their own on confiscated lands. These proposals went nowhere in Congress, however, even before Reconstruction ended.
When it was my turn at the microphone, I mentioned I was with the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable and gave our website address, inviting anyone interested in further discussions of Lincoln to look us up. Vowell joked that not all roundtables are big Lincoln admirers, and I said, “You’re in Union-blue Ohio now, Miss Vowell.” Then I asked what they thought of Lincoln’s decision to drop Hannibal Hamlin from the ticket in 1864, which made political sense at the time but turned out to be a very bad idea, given the many problems of Andrew Johnson’s Presidency. Kushner said he thought Lincoln was overthinking the problem – dumping Hamlin was “inarguably one of Lincoln’s worst mistakes” in office. He believed Lincoln still could’ve won with Hamlin as his running mate, and that would’ve been better for the country. There had been several assassination attempts against Lincoln already by 1864 – Vowell pointed out that he kept an “Assassination” file for all the death threats he got – and Lincoln should have understood there was a distinct risk he wouldn’t serve a full second term. And if worse came to worst, Kushner said, Lincoln should have known that Hamlin would be a better successor than Johnson.
In response to another question, the pair discussed Lincoln’s personal secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay, whom Kushner praised as “a remarkable team.” Nicolay was “imbued by German radicalism” and that had an impact on Lincoln, Kushner believes, while Hay was a “brilliant manager of people” who helped the President on Capitol Hill (and was “really, really, really cute,” Kushner said with a smile). Later, of course, the pair would write the first great account of Lincoln’s life and times. Vowell encouraged those present to visit Hay’s elegant tomb in nearby Lakeview Cemetery.
Roundtable members Pat Bray, Paul Burkholder, Buddy Doyle, Dennis Keating, Paul Siedel and Mike Wells were among those in the near-capacity crowd for the event. We warmly applauded Vowell and Kushner at the end. The huge turnout proved that Abraham Lincoln is of great and enduring interest to his countrymen even now, more than a century and a half after his death.