Playwright Tony Kushner, talking about his ‘Lincoln’ screenplay, says the left has become ‘comfortable with powerlessness’

Tony Kushner and Jeremy McCarter (Courtesy PEN World Voices Festival)
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Tony Kushner has had presidents on the brain lately. Two in particular.

“I’ve watched the Obama presidency through the lens of looking at Lincoln. And it’s given me a very deep conviction that Barack Obama is a great president,” Kushner said. “He’s done an astonishing job.”

Kushner has been thinking about what makes for a great president a lot lately. He spent the last six years writing the screenplay for the upcoming Spielberg-directed biopic Lincoln.

Kushner was being interviewed onstage by Public Forum Director Jeremy McCarter on politics-as-art at the PEN World Voices Festival last Saturday. McCarter asked Kushner if he felt any hesitation taking on the task of writing Lincoln’s life.

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“When Spielberg was trying to convince me to write the movie, I thought, Why would you do this? As a friend of mine used to say: 'Stick your hand in a blender, it’s faster,'” Kushner said. “There are some human beings—Shakespeare, Mozart—that do things that defy human comprehension. They’re just better than us. Lincoln was one of them.”

Kushner’s work on the screenplay for Lincoln coincided with Obama’s ascension and presidency. Unsurprisingly, Kushner began to see parallels in the two men’s experience.

“I was fascinated with Lincoln’s relationship with the Left, which was not congenial a lot of the time. And I’ve been very concerned, as a person on the Left, with the Left’s relationship with Obama,” Kushner said.

Kushner told McCarter he’s grown impatient with liberal complaints.

“I think there’s a comfort on the Left with powerlessness, and being critics rather than creators. I feel we may be in the process of helping to author a catastrophe, which I believe is what you would call Mitt Romney being president,” Kushner said to audience applause.

“Yes, but is there a valid criticism from the left for Obama?” McCarter asked.

“There are many,” Kushner answered. “[Because] exercising power in democracy is a series of bone-bending, soul-tormenting compromises of the most horrendous kind. And swallowing the stuff that no one would ever really want to swallow. There’s nothing pure about it.”

It wasn’t until McCarter asked about the Occupy protest movement that Kushner seemed less comfortable articulating his political convictions.

“I don’t want to get into that too much. But look, there’s been a great swelling of discontent over the way the 99 percent has been fucked over by the plutocracy, and I’m completely supportive of that,” Kushner said. “But I feel we also have to take into account the true nature of the country as it stands now and how power is held onto and built. I believe a second term for Obama is so exponentially better for this country and the world than a first term for Mitt Romney.”

Although he believes in art’s power to transform, Kushner said he believes real political change has to come from electoral power.

“We have to ask ourselves what are we actually going to build. Do you actually believe, as a grownup, that you are part of the building of a movement for political power—actual power we need to address monstrous social ills? Or are you not? And if you’re not, then I guess my criticism would be, 'Well then what the hell are you doing?'”

That said, Kushner still holds there’s some change that only theater can make us believe in.

“There is something about catharsis. There’s something about that terror and pity that only theater can provide,” Kushner said. “You know, the Athenians invented two things simultaneously: theater, and democracy. And the thing that perhaps connects these two things is compassion. It’s the building of community and empathy.”