Many have viewed Lincoln as a parable about gridlock, saying it provides a prescription for our current stalemates: Rather than making the perfect the enemy of the good, we have to compromise. Abraham Lincoln, they say, didn't dig in his heels. He found ways to lure recalcitrant Republicans and a few lame-duck Democrats to his side. "Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good," the New York Times' David Brooks wrote, invoking the word that nearly every reviewer of the film invoked: compromise. In short, if only President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner would just calm down and meet each other halfway ...
But this, I think, is a serious misreading. Lincoln never compromises his political principles in the film. He doesn't change a word of the amendment. He doesn't postpone the vote. He doesn't even invite his opponents to engage in dialogue and resolve their differences. He knows that he is right and they are wrong.
Instead of compromising his political principles, Lincoln compromises his personal principles. He finagles, wheedles, pressures, bribes, and even lies to make sure he achieves his end: the underhanded in the service of the exalted.
As parable, this suggested that Obama ought to hold out for his own deficit-reduction plan while working to coax some Republicans aboard. That coaxing should come not by finding areas of agreement, but by finding things that individual Republicans want: federal largesse for their districts, government jobs, even promises to let them run unopposed.
And here is where the parable fails. Lincoln is about the human dimension of politics - indeed, the human dimension that makes politics possible. It is Lincoln's understanding of and appreciation for the human, for both the lesser and better angels of our nature, that enables him to pick up votes - promising money to the greedy, sympathy to the aggrieved, reassurance to the nervous. If Lincoln says anything, it is that ideals are sacrosanct, but humans are malleable; in an odd way, Lincoln's greatness resides in both his humanness and his opponents'.
These are the politics that so many have justly praised. But these are not the politics we have today. That kind of humanness is in short supply in our political culture.
We live in an ideological age - an age in which most politicians have subordinated their own needs and desires to a sense of ideological purity that not even Lincoln could have dented. Lincoln's opponents may have been zealots, but they had a human core. Our own conservative zealots, having mistaken ideology for idealism, are more devoted to conservatism than they are to the public good. There is nothing you can give them but their own ideological way. In effect, they have taken the politics out of Congress.
So Lincoln is less a timely parable than a tragic anachronism about a time when there really was such a thing as human wiggle room. It is not about trimming one's sails for the greater good. It is about how the greater good is often the product of our individual frailties. It is not perfection that is the enemy of the good. It is unrelenting self-righteousness.
Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination." He wrote this for the Boston Globe.