Political Horizons for Dec. 2, 2012

Louisiana politics has always been about who you know, and that’s why I’m jealous of Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach.

The bio-pic “Lincoln” is to history nerds, a fraternity to which I belong, as “Star Trek” is to science geeks. And Roach, whose name is in the credits, had a front-row seat to the making of the movie.

His friend Tony Kushner invited Roach to Richmond the week after Thanksgiving 2011 to watch part of the filming. A Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who wrote the script for the movie, Kushner grew up in Lake Charles. His father, the late William Kushner, was conductor of the Lake Charles Symphony.

Roach said Kushner knew he was “a shade-tree historian” with a passion for President Abraham Lincoln.

“You can study the character of Lincoln on so many different levels — the spiritual level, a leadership level, a political level, a human level — I mean, there are so many dimensions to his character,” Roach said in an interview last week. “He is a pivotal figure in the history of our country.”

Roach dressed in a period costume and shook the hand of Lincoln, as played by Daniel Day-Lewis. His part in the White House reception scene, filmed in the Virginia governor’s mansion, ended up on the cutting room floor.

But Roach said he met director Steven Spielberg. He reminisced with David Strathairn, who played Secretary of State William Seward, and spent time in Jefferson Davis Parish in the early 1990s for the production of “Passion Fish.”

But, mostly, Roach said, he watched as Spielberg interacted with cast and crew while putting the film together.

Spielberg and Kushner “were constantly working the script, constantly working with the actors,” trying to convey the sense of the moment for the months after Lincoln’s re-election in November 1864, to his death in April 1865. They wanted it as efficient as possible, but also as realistic as possible, Roach said.

The focus in the movie was Lincoln’s efforts, mostly in January 1865, to pass the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery. He tried to negotiate and maneuver through Congress an idea, freedom for the slaves, whose time had not yet come — rather than bullying opposition and bulldozing through the law.

That particular event is but a few pages in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, “Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” The book basically retells how Lincoln went about accomplishing his political goals by, for instance, seeking the counsel of those who disagreed with him, instead of relying on advice that reinforced his own prejudices.

Roach said Lincoln was a first-rate politician, a fact glossed over by many historians, but that is the basic theme of the movie. “Like most politicians you don’t always understand how they do what they do and why,” he said.

The very word “politician” gives Americans the creeps. Consequently historians have generally failed to recognize Lincoln’s skills as a dexterous — even cagey — politician. That point was made by Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton University, during a recent Lincoln lecture series sponsored by The Huntington Library, of San Marion, Calif., one the world’s largest collections of Lincoln papers.

For many today, politics is synonymous with slick campaigns, evasive public comments, vicious attack ads and, partisans who run and govern on the basis of opinion polls or with polarizing demagogic appeals to the lesser devils of our nature, Wilentz said. But, Roach said, Lincoln could not have been a statesman, had he not been an excellent politician.

“I remember talking to Tony several years ago while he was working on this script,” Roach recalled. “Tony commented that if Lincoln had not been president, we probably would have ended up with at least two Americas and possibly four or five. … Your history, my history, would have been totally different.”

Historian Jay Winik, of Chevy Chase, Md., would agree with Roach. In his book “April 1865 — The Month That Saved America,” he argued that America could easily have turned out like Northern Ireland or the Middle East, but evolved past a clever political arrangement into “a transcendent and pervading idea.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.