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Lincoln and the Dirty Business of Politics

Appealing to rightness and reason is rarely enough to achieve big things. Politics requires dealing with human beings, and human beings are flawed.

"The greatest measure of the nineteenth century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America." These lines, from the movie "Lincoln," capture an elemental truth about politics. They are spoken by the leader of the Radical Republicans, Thaddeus Stephens, as he hands the official copy of the freshly adopted 13th Amendment abolishing slavery to his housekeeper, Lydia Smith, a black woman who is also his lover.

The truth is that justice is only achieved in any meaningful way through politics. Abolishing slavery, extending voting rights to blacks and then to women, ending child labor, establishing the 40-hour work week and the eight-hour work day--all of these were accomplished by political acts. Politics requires dealing with human beings, and human beings are flawed. Appealing to rightness and reason is rarely enough to get the votes that are needed.

This important truth is almost never recognized. David Brooks, however, captures it perfectly in his New York Times column about the movie. He writes that what is depicted "shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others--if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical."

Few of us would say that the traits he describes are what we look for in a political leader. But this is the truth: Advancing the cause of social justice requires both corruption and purity. Compromise is required in politics, and the fact is that among the first things you must do is to compromise your own morals and scruples.

I have thought a thousand times about how I should have acted differently as mayor of Kansas City, but only recently came to the realization that this was one of my most fundamental mistakes. I deeply prized my reputation as a truth-telling, straight-arrow auditor. As mayor, I was the caricature of the priggish and morally correct. I initially refused to soil myself with the dirt and dealing that had to be done. When I finally got to the point that there was no alternative, I was squeamish and ham-handed about it. My wife must have told me a hundred times to stop being such a damned Boy Scout, but I didn't "get it" until late in the game.

To achieve great things requires power. To accrue power, Abraham Lincoln traded patronage jobs and maybe more, and he trimmed and parsed the truth. The great challenge is to wield power ruthlessly and savagely while holding savagery in check, accruing power but eschewing hubris and tacking carefully in response to one's own moral compass.

Thaddeus Stephens believed in the full equality of all human beings, both black and white. His views had been forcefully expressed many times and were well known. But he grudgingly acquiesced to Lincoln's request that he temper his comments in the congressional debate so as not to alienate those whose support for the amendment was shaky.

In the debate, he said that he believed only in equality before the law. The result was a furious assault by his opponents, who accused him correctly of lying and concealing his true beliefs, and scorn from his fellow Radicals, who saw him as a sellout. Stephens had fought against slavery his entire career, but it was only by dishonestly masking his real feelings and breaking ranks with his fellow true believers that he was able to achieve his goal. Stephens saw what we, especially those of us who work with and write about politicians, should bear in mind: The means do matter, but not as much as the ends.

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