Lincoln (1988)

Second only to World War II, we know how much the American miniseries adored The Civil War.  So, it was inevitable that it would get around to Abraham Lincoln, the man, not the guest star.  We’ve seen him in a few miniseries already, but only fleetingly.  This time, the story is all about him.  However, this is Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln,” which gives it extra heft.  Though the miniseries is nowhere near as riveting as Vidal’s historical novel (one of his best, and I love them all), but the casting of Sam Waterston (a role he has played a few times) as Lincoln assures quality.  The wild card here is Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Todd Lincoln.  That’s not exactly apt casting physically, and our beloved TV Mary, even in her dramatic roles, has always been a model of steely excellence, so playing the lunatic Mary Todd Lincoln is a stretch…but she nails it!

What also makes this piece particularly interesting is that it sticks to the private life of the Lincolns, for the most part.  The Civil War and ensuing politics cannot be ignored or separated from that, but “Lincoln” spends more time on situations like Mary’s spending habits than battles one by one.  This is a small story, not the nationwide story usually told of Abraham Lincoln. 

Getting off the Baltimore train to be met by Congressman Elihu Washburne (Jerome Dempsey) is the newly-elected Abraham Lincoln, hiding in disguise with only Allan Pinkerton (Bill Chorney) and one other detective.  But, his coat covers his face and no one seems to notice him.  Abe jokes with everyone that getting shot wouldn’t be the worst thing after 12 days of a boring train ride, where he’s grown a beard as an activity.  The proprietor of Willard’s Hotel mistakes the rotund Washburne for the President-elect, which is how unknown Lincoln is; they haven’t even bothered to make sure his room is cleared.

So, he sits down to a meal with Secretary of State William Seward (Richard Mulligan), who isn’t unhappy to be rid of the “cotton republics” as he feels “expansion is our destiny.”  Lincoln says “our union is not like a marriage.  We cannot simply give it a divorce.”  Seward chortles that he’s “not used to your typical western rail-splitting president,” but Washburne cuts him off saying, “oh that?  That was all made up for the campaign.”  That’s Vidal’s voice coming through very clearly. 

They head off to the War Department, which is caked in mud and geese (and where a boy pretends to shoot Lincoln, the second shooting reference in under 10 minutes) to pay a call on General Scott (John Houseman, doing nothing to hide his British accent).  General Scott’s opinion of what to do about the South is to pull the troops out and be done.  But Lincoln does not believe the Confederacy actually exists, since secession itself is illegal.

And then the rest of the family arrives, all of those poorly behaved boys and their harried mother.  Mary is furious that some expensive jewelry might be missing (she was always worried about money), thinking that Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay (Steven Culp) has nothing better to do than tend to her luggage or keep her boys in check.  According to chatterbox Mary, Lincoln is not in favor of abolition, merely against allowing slavery in the new territories.

The only Lincoln child not causing problems is stalwart Robert (Gregory Cooke), a fascinating man in his own right, but not yet in life.  He’s off to Harvard to put a thousand miles between him and his family, annoyed to be called “The Prince of Rails.”  After another shooting reference, an old fraternity brother friend of John, who is in a bar with incognito Robert, gives John a list of “Washington’s most prominent whorehouses.” 

When Salmon Chase (John McMartin) shows up for a meeting with a gaggle of pushy politicians, Mary is a bit perplexed, but Abe explains that he wants to keep his fellow Republicans “where I can see them, in the Cabinet” because he knows “they all want to be President.”  He tells them he still believes “abolishing slavery in the Southern states…is beyond my power, or desire.”  Chase finds Lincoln a “weak and indecisive man,” but though he considers Lincoln a consummate politician, his daughter Kate (Deborah Adair) is every bit as conniving, her only dream in life to have her father be elected president.

Lincoln is inaugurated, with hoards of people watching, even from the trees, and his speech reflects his current stance.  Then it’s party time.  Mary makes a triumphant entrance on the arm of Stephen Douglas (Robin Gammell), her one-time beau and Lincoln’s famous adversary.  As the First Couple enjoys the party, the politicians do nothing but grumble about the inauguration speech and Lincoln’s positions.  John seems to have taken a shine to Kate Chase.

Mary doesn’t take well to living in the Executive Mansion.  Back then, the doors were open to the public at all times, but Mary is furious when they violate her “private sitting room.”  Elizabeth Keckley (Ruby Dee) arrives, a freewoman who is a dressmaker.  After Mary fills her in on the difference between her levels of headaches, she tells her she has as dress that needs to be done in three days.  Looking at Elizabeth’s references, she notes “you worked for Mrs. Jefferson Davis?  I’ve known Mr. Davis for a very long time,” yet another of her memories that are completely inappropriate for any public consumption, given her husband’s position.  But she doesn’t stop there.  In fact, she gives Elizabeth a complete rundown of her political views, her hatred of the press, Lincoln’s views, just about anything that comes to her mind.  She launches into a particularly vivid memory of slave beatings are particularly uncomfortable for Elizabeth.  “We are from the outlandish West and we are very poor,” she reminds Elizabeth, before also telling her, “I’m the one who wants slavery destroyed.” 

On the night of the first official dinner, Abe follows it with a cabinet meeting where he tries to figure out what to do about Fort Sumter.  Seward wants to provoke a war with another country to get the South back in line, but Lincoln decides to fortify the fort, much to every one’s dismay.  After the meeting, Seward and Chase meet and Seward tells Chase that he has decided they will run the country and Lincoln will merely be a figurehead.  “No more funny backwoods stories, no more Hamlet-like vacillation,” he notes. 

Fort Sumter falls and war is inevitable.  He’s no dumb politician.  While issuing a proclamation for volunteers, he refuses to call Congress until he knows every one’s opinion.  He seeks advice from his old foe Stephen Douglas, who is always honest with him.  “Now you have the power to free the slaves or enslave us all,” he tells Lincoln, using his words he remembered from a speech of Lincoln’s.  He then turns to Seward, wondering how exactly they are supposed to go to war against Spain or France considering they can’t defend one of their own forts and then slowly getting around to Seward’s suggestion that someone from the cabinet run the country.  Things get heated, but Lincoln makes his point and Seward offers to resign.  “We have more than enough work for two men,” Lincoln says, brushing aside Seward’s disloyalty and greed. 

“Lincoln” is a smart miniseries that does not shy from long stretches of history.  They may lack color and fun, but these sections are very important.  Lincoln’s actions stretch the Constitution (Seward is only the first to note the suspension of habeas corpus), but he has his arguments ready for anyone who notices.  His most pressing problem is to keep Maryland in the Union to protect Washington DC.  Seward asks what happens if Maryland doesn’t fall in line?  “We burn Baltimore to the ground,” Lincoln responds.  This is not the Lincoln of history books.  This is the practical Lincoln, the realistic Lincoln.  The legendary Lincoln would not appear until after his death.  During his time in office, he wore no halo. 

At the funeral ceremony for a loyal friend of the Lincoln family, Mary has one of her top level headaches and passes out for two days.  When she wakes up, Elizabeth assures her only Abe and she have been in the room, so no trouble was caused.  The sounds of war can be heard from her bedroom, but Elizabeth brushes it off, saying, “some of the quality folks have taken picnic baskets to watch the fighting.”  The Civil War is raging and Mary is just as schizophrenic as the country.  The Battle of Bull Run is a success for the Confederacy, to every one’s surprise.  Lincoln calls General McClellan (David Leary), who immediately realizes the shabby shape of the Union forces. 

Poor John Hay has to follow Mary around the city while she goes on one spending spree after another, both for herself and the “Presidential Palace.”  “For a year, they were so accommodating, now they claw at me for money,” Mary whines when the bills come in.  It’s a terrible dance Mary has to do to spend like she wants and then hide the bills from everyone.  That was a lifelong problem.  An opportunity may have dropped into her lap when John comes looking for the State of the Union address and notes it would be worth a lot to the newspapers.  The scene ends before we see that Mary did with it, but gossip around Washington is that she did sell it to pay bills.

Lincoln is so desperate to meet with McClellan that he and Seward go to his house to wait, but McClellan ignores them and they are forced to wait in the parlor.  Seward is furious, but Lincoln knows how popular McClellan is with the troops and waits, though McClellan goes to bed without ever seeing the men.  However, at a Christmas party given by Kate, John takes the opportunity to publicly shame McClellan for avoiding Lincoln.  “There was a misunderstanding, the President comes to see me so often,” McClellan fumbles for an excuse.  “I don’t think he will again,” John Hay notes, a threat McClellan and the assembled crowd understands. 

The Congressman who gave the State of the Union address to the press is in serious trouble, and Mary wants to save herself from being mentioned.  Lincoln has no idea, and she keeps him on topic by telling him to fire McClellan and replace him with “anybody.”  “That’s the trouble.  I can’t find anybody,” he notes.  But she’s so nervous that they do have to discuss the speech.  Actually, he’s not angry at her, because he’s finally seen the bills and is furious.  “I can’t find enough money to pay the soldiers and here you go spending more than $10 thousand for a carpet!” he rails.  Thankfully, a visit from William Herndon (Jeffrey DeMunn) interrupts this violent argument.  Lincoln’s former law partner has come begging for a job for his potential brother-in-law.  He’s happy to break his rule on office seekers for Herndon.  Mary is exceedingly frosty to him because “Lincoln came from ordinary folks like me.” 

The matter of the speech keeps going.  A groundskeeper who had “been stealing for years” agreed to take the blame, but a Congressional committee doesn’t buy it.  Lincoln goes to the Capitol to testify, certainly a first.  Bringing Seward with him, Lincoln starts off by reminding the committee that he’s the “head of the Republican Party” and wants them to believe the story.  “I believe John Watts’ story and I want you to believe it too.  Otherwise, in the middle of this terrible war, it will embarrass me personally.  It will damage our brand new party, and of course you would be giving great comfort to the rebels in the South,” he tells them with a light tone, but heavy hand, and then reminds them that election time is also nearing. 

All of that seems like nothing when Willie Lincoln dies.  “It is hard to have him die,” Lincoln tells his son Robert with Mary screaming and howling in the background.  Someone has to tend to her, but Robert can’t and Abe won’t.  The funeral is particularly grim, as the soundtrack plays the noises of war behind the personal grief.  Abe can’t avoid Mary any longer once she locks herself in a room, and he apologizes.  He apologizes for letting her mourn alone, but that doesn’t work, so he drags her to the window and shows her the new insane asylum being build.  “If you do not get a hold of yourself, we will have to send you there,” he shouts and the first part ends.

Lincoln visits the war front, where Union bodies are piled high after yet another loss.  McClellan has proven to be a terrible disappointment and in the upcoming elections, his party may lose control of key states.  He has written the Emancipation Proclamation, but not the one we know.  It frees only the slaves in the rebel states.  Chase is outraged.  “This is a half measure,” he complains.  Seward wants to avoid publishing it until the tide of the war turns.  Lincoln agrees to that and has John Hay lock up the decree. 

Edwin Stanton (Jon DeVries) is the new Secretary of War, just in time for the Battle of Antietam.  He realizes immediately that McClellan is not an ideal general (and the rest of the cabinet find Grant a joke, so it’s not his time for promotion yet).  A telegram comes informing them that “Lee’s army has retreated into Virginia,” betting Lincoln’s hopes up, but “McClellan does not pursue them,” which has him throwing his hat on the ground in disgust.  Lincoln refers to McClellan as “the great American tortoise” and says they will have to make Antietam out to be a huge success and order Hay to fetch the Emancipation Proclamation from the strong box.

The Commander-in-Chief runs the document by Frederick Douglass (Cleavon Little), who is disappointed that it does not free all slaves.  Lincoln explains that “I do not have the authority to abolish slavery in the Union.”  He has to wait until the war is over to get a Constitutional Amendment to do that.  He offers Douglass and his cohorts Grenada, noting honestly that “even when you cease to be slaves, you are still a long way from being placed on equality with the whites.  On this broad continent, not a single member of your race has been made the equal of one of ours.  It is better for us both to be separate.”  Douglass doesn’t go for it.  “This is our country too,” he reminds Lincoln.  Lincoln and Hay have a beautifully written short exchange about their feelings on races, one that smacks of Gore (that’s a good thing) because it’s so honest. 

As for Mary, she’s not exactly the picture of mental stability.  She has a session with a psychic whose “control” is the Emperor Constantine and who plays on her feelings for her dead son.  “Beware of a small man with a large nose,” the Emperor Constantine hisses.  Lincoln has his own plans, and they are not based on the spirit world.  Admittedly, his theory isn’t particularly brilliant: “sooner or later, they will run out of soldiers, and we won’t.”  His view of the war’s conclusion is merely that the Confederacy gives up when the population of soldiers runs out, because the Union has far more men at its disposal.  It’s an awfully grim and pessimistic world view, but it’s honest. 

If Lincoln the human does not quite understand the racial issues or grasp military maneuvers, Lincoln the politician is far more down-to-earth.  After a visit to McClellan who is still refusing to advance with a larger army than Lee’s, Lincoln knows that if there is no decisive battle victory in the next few weeks, his party will lose control in Congress.  He and Washburne discuss it and Washburne says there is talk of McClellan taking over the presidency as a “dictator.”  “He would be the first general to overthrow a government without having ever won a battle,” Lincoln jokes, adding, “of course, if he had a few victories, I might have him chase us all out of town.” 

Just when things were going so well, Hollywood intervenes in a scene where Lincoln insists on going to see Confederate prisoners and offers his hand in friendship, saying he hopes they have no malice towards him.  Cue the one-legged soldier with the outstretched hand. 

Mary hasn’t learned when it comes to spending money.  She has a new scheme.  One of the White House staff is leaving and she asks John Hay to see to it that a paycheck is still issued in his name, and she can take the money for yet more improvements to the mansion.  She says it’s been going on since Washington.  “The first occupant of the White House was not Washington, but Adams.”  “Don’t be tiresome,” she clucks, “it was certainly done during Mr. Buchanan’s administration.”  John wonders aloud what Congress will think of it, so Mary knocks him off his perch by reminding him that Congress only pays the salary of one secretary for Lincoln and he technically is an employee of the Interior Department collecting a salary in the White House.  In her mind, the two are the same. 

The midterm elections do not go well.  Important Republicans states fall with opposition to the war and because soldiers are unable to vote (Mary was packed off and shipped from DC so she couldn’t cause any trouble, so it’s not her fault).  When Hay does the final tally, the Republicans remain in control of the Senate, but the House?  Well, they keep it, but by only 18 seats.  Oh, but Lincoln is thrilled with the outcome because now politics are out of the way for another few years.  Lincoln tells Stanton, “tomorrow you will relieve General McClellan as Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac,” which he has been waiting to do for ages.

With the midterms elections over, we can get back to the Lincolns themselves.  Robert wants to go into the army, but his parents refuse.  Mary refuses to lose another child, and petulant Robert hurls insults at both Mary and Abe, threatening to enlist on his own, though he surmises his father would pass a law that brings him back.  Robert stamps and says, “the war will be over” soon enough, but Lincoln stops him there.  “No, there will be war enough to go around.”  Indeed.  It’s only December 1862.  Robert trusts Hay with the family secrets, or the way he sees them: Lincoln is a cold father to him, hates “the rail splitter stuff” and is trying to bury his past.  Historically, Robert wasn’t exactly wrong, but he and his father were such vastly different men, and Robert’s career after his father’s death would have been quite a shock to his humble (faux or not) papa. 

Oh, and for anyone interested, Kate Chase gets engaged to Governor Sprague (Thomas Gibson), which is a crushing blow to John Hay.  This miniseries has so many rich characters on its plate that it tends to use Hay merely as a listening tool for them all, but in Gore’s book, he’s actually the main character.  So, in the miniseries, Hay’s love life is really not at all important.  Sorry, Steven Culp, you got the short end here, and Vidal would not have wanted it that way.  “Desperate Housewives” is waaaay in the future, but keep going, you’ll get there.  Hay thinks it’s awfully convenient for Sprague and Chase because their power and money put together could mean Chase for President in 1864. 

Mary is thrown from a carriage that had been tinkered with and ends up in the hospital.  Lincoln remains at her bedside day and night, relieved only by faithful Elizabeth. 

The Battle of Gettysburg, 1863.  Lincoln tests it out on his aides.  Without the harangue, the words are very moving.  He keeps stopping to realize he may have to make changes for this specific crowd.  Worn out and tired, he then has to confront more of Mary’s schemes for money.  He takes the blame for her problems, saying, “I’m a very difficult man to life with.”  No one wants to admit she’s plain nuts.

General Grant (James Gammon) arrives and Washburne informs him he will be the highest general of the armed services.  He wants to be in the field with his men, rather than with politics.  His only ambition is to be mayor of his town so he can fix a sidewalk.
Lincoln tells Mary, “there is nothing quite as useless in a war than a general running for president.  On that subject I am the world’s greatest and saddest authority” as they go to the war front.  A man in injured from an explosion feet away from her, but she initially refuses to leave, going on and on about how she could have been a great soldier. 

Politics are important again.  McClellan is sure to get nominated from the Democrats and Chase from the Republicans, but there is also General Grant who may want it.  A strategy is needed for Lincoln’s re-election, though he’s somewhat weary of being president.  On Election Day, Lincoln tells Hay, “I’ve made every shady bargain and maneuver I can.  I’ve dangled the recent corpse of Chief Justice Tanney at Mr. Chase…I have even offered the Ministry of France to Mr. Bennett of The Herald which may provoke a crisis with the Emperor Napoleon.  I can do no more.  I can do no more!”  Rather unexpectedly, Lincoln wins his re-election.

Kate is furious when she finds out her husband and been bringing cotton to be sold, a act of treason.  This comes at a bad time, just days before Chase is to be sworn in Chief Justice.

Mary Lincoln and Julia Grant (Karen Hutcheson) go out to the front where they find Robert in the army.  Lincoln had allowed it as long as he is in Grant’s home base with no chance of getting hurt.  “Sometimes, Father, I wish to God I wasn’t Abraham Lincoln’s son!” Robert bellows.  Mary insults a military wife by calling her all sorts of names and then has one of her “big head aches.” 

“Our work is done,” Lincoln quietly says when given Lee’s note from Appomattox. 

That should make Abe feel better, but he has a dream that he will be assassinated. 

Off to the play, and though Mary waves blankly to the crowd, she’s angry at the Grants for not showing up to tag along.  They discuss what to do after the second term is done.  Mary wants to travel and decorate houses, Abe just wants a job.  The carriage ride over to Ford’s Theater is quite sweet as both apologize to the other for not being the perfect partner, but their love is very obvious. 

Laura Keene’s “Our American Cousin” has the audience laughing as John Wilkes Booth (Glenn Faigen) creeps up the steps to the Presidential Box.  He is taken across the street where Mary howls and howls, though managing to toss in some instructions.  The doctors demand she be removed and not allowed back in. 

Tad wonders why this all happened, and Robert tries to explain it to him, but Mary blames everything else in the world for conspiring against him.  “I think in some way, he willed his own murder as a form of atonement for the great and terrible thing he in giving so bloody and absolute a rebirth to this nation,” is her other take on it. 

After Lincoln was killed, a series of bumbling leaders (Johnson, Grant, Hayes and nearly everyone until Teddy Roosevelt) made what Lincoln did seem utterly out of their reach.  He united the country after being the one to split it.  He reigned over the entire Civil War and remained strong.  However, at the time, his actions were not seen as anything terribly special.  Lincoln-as-icon took some time to perfect.

Mary moved around, obsessed with money and wearing it in a money belt, most of the time.  She was supposedly crazy, with Robert, ultimately the only son to live, having to bail her out of so many scrapes.  She did not go quietly into post-First Lady boredom. 

I would say that one learns something about the Lincolns here.  The dialogue is based on their feelings, or people’s interpretations of their feelings, so we can look at them as the historical part of historical fiction.  History scholars will find little of worth here, but that’s not the point.  The point is that is an American miniseries about one of the two five all-time American heroes and he and his wife are drawn as honest folks in extraordinary times. 

Categories: Historical Miniseries

One Comment to “Lincoln (1988)”

  1. Juanita's Journal 5 October 2011 at 8:30 pm #

    Mary Todd Lincoln WAS NOT a lunatic.

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