But as I watched the movie recently, I found myself drawn to and surprised by the portrait that emerges of Abraham Lincoln as a father.
Even for the Great Emancipator, parenthood was the great equalizer.
The movie takes place in the waning weeks of Lincoln’s first term as he tries to broker a deal to get a constitutional amendment barring slavery passed by the combative House of Representatives.
Only two of the Lincolns’ four sons are alive at this time, with the death of 11-year-old Willie in the White House in 1862 casting a huge shadow over the family. Tad, the youngest, is a boy of 11 in the film and the apple of his adoring — and permissive — father’s eye. Tad is allowed to sit on his father’s knee as he conducts the business of state, have photographs of slaves that his mother objects to, and run a goat-pulled cart through the halls of the White House.
In one scene, the lanky president lies on the floor next to the small boy, who is plagued by nightmares, before gently carrying him off to bed. This man, who is willing to invoke the awesome power of his office to demand his political operatives get him the two more votes he needs to pass the 13th Amendment, seems powerless in his ability to guarantee his young son something as simple as sweet dreams.
Having seen Lincoln as the doting dad with Tad, it’s stunning to watch as eldest son Robert comes home from college only to be greeted curtly and coldly by his father. When Robert enters Lincoln’s office during a meeting, he receives a quick handshake and an equally abrupt dismissal. Could the same man be father to both children?
Later, Robert argues with his father that he should be allowed to join the Army — something to which Mary Todd, who has already lost two children, is vehemently and understandably opposed. A clearly frustrated Lincoln, trapped between the positions of his wife and his son, fumes at Robert, telling him that he will not become a soldier unless his father, “as commander in chief,” says so.
It was as if when faced with a strong-willed child, this brilliant orator was capable of nothing more than “because I’m your father, and I say so, that’s why!”
In one of the most passionate, heartbreaking scenes in the movie, Lincoln and Mary Todd have a bitter argument. It starts out with Lincoln begging her to allow Robert to join the Army and devolves into his stinging rebuke of her allowing her grief over Willie’s death to rob Tad of his mother. Mary Todd gives as good as she gets in what, at its heart, is a battle over parenting styles. This particular argument was played out in a tapestry-lined bedroom in the White House in the 1860s, but one can imagine the same sentiments echoing through the earliest caves of Dordogne and in today’s suburban tract homes.
Seeing Lincoln as a far-from-perfect parent did nothing to lessen him in my eyes. Instead, it served to confirm what I think every day: There is no job more difficult, heartbreaking, vexing and inexplicable than parenting. This man, who would lead a country of 35 million through its darkest hour with such clarity of vision, seemed daunted by the far more intimate task of managing his unruly family of four.
This was most clear in his different interactions with his sons. As parents, most of us would be loathe to admit to loving one child more than another. But certainly at select moments, we like one child more than the other. We find one child easier to be with. We may let an offense by one child slide, while railing at another for a similar infraction. Over time, the roles may switch and things even out. But such a lack of parental equanimity feels wrong — until you see the likes of Abraham Lincoln being undone by his son.
Less than 100 years after the Lincolns inhabited the White House, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy told a reporter, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.”
You can almost imagine Lincoln, looking down from his portrait, saying, “You got that right.”
Grant, the editor of KidsPost, writes about parenting issues every other week.
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