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Gov. Jerry Brown could learn a lesson from 'Lincoln'

The film shows that messy deal-making is often needed to solve complex and divisive problems. And California has a raft of them.

November 28, 2012|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Abraham Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) walks through the corridors of the White House in this scene from director Steven Spielberg's movie "Lincoln."
Abraham Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) walks through the corridors… (DreamWorks )

SACRAMENTO — The movie "Lincoln" should be required viewing for all elected chief executives from president to mayor, and especially for California's governor.

Especially our governor because California has so many perplexing, polarizing problems that urgently need fixing: an outdated, inefficient tax system; a business regulatory sump; deteriorating public schools and universities; and a crumbling infrastructure, including state waterworks. For starters.

"Lincoln," directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president, shows how great public deeds can be achieved in the real world of American democracy.

In fact, make "Lincoln" required viewing for all legislators, from Congress to state capitals to city councils.

Moreover, every voter should see it — at least those idealists who cling to the misguided notion that politicians must be pure and not truly representative of the people who elect them; that they should be angelic, not human.

Politicians — even the most dedicated and well-intentioned — are torn by conflicting cross-currents of human nature. It's rare that anything momentous is achieved by an easily cobbled consensus. There are always potential winners and losers at one another's throats.

Sometimes an inducement needs to be dangled to persuade a hesitant — often scared — lawmaker to cast a difficult vote. OK, call it a payoff.

"Lincoln" is about the Great Emancipator's tenacious fight to prod Congress into passing the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery before the Civil War ends. After peace arrives, the pressure will be off, he fears. His Emancipation Proclamation had covered only rebel states and might not even hold up constitutionally after the war.

Lincoln is short 20 Democratic votes in a lame-duck session of the House of Representatives. Advisors say it's too risky to push ahead, that it could cost him his popularity.

"We can find 20 votes," the president says confidently, and notes that dozens of Democrats lost their seats in the recent election. They'll be "Democrats looking for jobs" when the current session ends, he notes. Offer them.

Finally, Lincoln gets within two votes, but his aides and hired lobbyists are losing hope. The impatient president is sitting with them and slaps the table. "I can't listen to this anymore," he yells. He wants those votes this week. "Now get the hell out of here and get 'em." Asked how, he stands, stretching his 6-foot, 4-inch frame, and lectures them about presidential politics.

Here, I'll quote from Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Lincoln." The movie was based, in part, on the book, and uses this quote from Lincoln exhorting his naysaying help:

"I am President of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by constitutional provision settles the fate, for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come — a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured.

"I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done. But remember that I am President of the United States, clothed in immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes."

Goodwin continues: "It was clear to his emissaries that his powers extended to plum assignments, pardons, campaign contributions and government jobs for relatives and friends of faithful members."

One Democrat changed his vote, Goodwin writes, and later "was given the lucrative post of Navy agent in New York."

In the movie, a couple regains ownership of a toll road, which had been confiscated by a Union commander, after they persuade their congressman to vote for the amendment.

A Democratic congressman is told he'll lose his seat unless he supports the amendment. He votes yes.

Satchels of greenbacks are passed to persuadable congressmen.

It's "shady work," notes Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn).

After the amendment passes, abolitionist Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) remarks that the measure succeeds because of "corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America."

Much of what Lincoln and his lieutenants pulled may be illegal today in California.

Hinting, winking, speaking in code are all legal. Offering a quid pro quo — something of value for a vote — is not. That's bribery.

In the 1980s, the FBI conducted a Sacramento sting that led to 14 convictions involving political payoffs. Five of those nabbed were lawmakers.

"In this day and age, you have to be careful," says political attorney Steve Merksamer, chief of staff to former Gov. George Deukmejian. "That's not to say that governors, when in the process of building Cabinets or making other appointments, don't have feelings and don't remember who were nasty to them — as well as people who have been responsive to their leadership.

"That's just human nature."

Same thing with bill signings and vetoes. Reward friends and punish enemies.

Gov. Jerry Brown's father, legendary Gov. Pat Brown, was a master of deal-making. It's how he got the state water project built.

Key jobs and judgeships were paid out. Some small recreational lakes were built to satisfy one influential assemblywoman.

Jerry Brown has been much less of a deal maker, perhaps still rebelling against his dad's old-fashioned politics.

Last year, Brown failed to cut a deal with Republicans to place a proposed tax extension on the ballot. Each side blamed the other. The end result was that the governor hit up special interests for millions of dollars to collect voter signatures for the tax increase Californians ultimately passed.

Brown did see the movie, calling it "extraordinary." He was particularly impressed with Lincoln's "preternatural skill" in working the congressmen. Let's hope the governor picked up a few pointers.

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