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Tony Kushner on the Overlooked “Radicalism” and Lessons of Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency

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For his latest project, Tony Kushner is writing the screenplay for an upcoming Steven Spielberg movie about Abraham Lincoln. Kushner says an understanding of Lincoln’s presidency carries valuable lessons for political life today. “I think that [Lincoln’s] incredible ability to finesse very, very treacherous political circumstances and continue to move the country forward, I mean, to lead the country forward in the midst of the most horrendously difficult period in its history, I think, is breathtaking and awe-inspiring.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, Tony, you mentioned earlier that you’re working—you’ve been immersed in Lincoln now, as you’re working with Steven Spielberg on this film. The parallels that you say you’ve come to appreciate between the period of Lincoln, obviously one of the most iconic figures in American politics, and our times today?

TONY KUSHNER: Well, you know, I mean, there’s—I’m very interested—in fact, this is—I think I can say this—part of what the film is about—it’ll be out in—we finished filming it in last December, and it’s going to be out this November, late November. I’m very interested in the relationship of Lincoln to the left, the relationship of Lincoln to the abolitionist left, in Congress and out of Congress, the way that Lincoln both respected the people on the left, who gave him a very hard time and didn’t support him very often, and the way that they sort of slowly came around to understanding how radical, in fact, Abraham Lincoln was and—I mean, I’m not the first person to say this—how he transformed what was initially a civil war into a—into, you know, as he said, the new birth of freedom in this country, into a second American revolution, into—you know, I mean, he ensured that the Civil War did not end without the absolute termination of slavery as an officially sanctioned government institution in the United States, which essentially meant that it would end everywhere on earth as an officially sanctioned institution. And I think that his incredible ability to finesse very, very treacherous political circumstances and continue to move the country forward, I mean, to lead the country forward in the midst of the most horrendously difficult period in its history, I think, is breathtaking and awe-inspiring. I spent six years working on the screenplay, and I don’t regret a minute of it. I was working on a rewrite of it in 2008 on election night, while I was watching the returns.

I don’t think—I mean, no one is Lincoln. Lincoln was a genius on the level of Shakespeare and Mozart, in my opinion. And Barack Obama is probably not that. But I believe that there are immense—immensely valuable lessons to be drawn from the Lincoln playbook in terms of looking at how—again, in the midst of circumstances that are certainly as difficult as those that Roosevelt faced, possibly more difficult, because Roosevelt, after all, could rely on a certain belief in government that had been building over the course of decades and decades and a more coherent country, and a country in much more desperate circumstances, which helped him move a progressive agenda forward. Obama is not the president of a country like that, unfortunately. And, you know, it was interesting to read Richard Lugar’s concession speech yesterday and read this guy who is articulating exactly the damage that he and other Republicans have done to the fabric of civic society in this country, without actually getting that he’s the author of the thing that’s undone him, and it’s a stunning document.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tony Kushner, we want to thank you for being with us. And also, I wanted to wish you a happy anniversary, right?


AMY GOODMAN: It’s been nine years since you had your commitment ceremony?

TONY KUSHNER: We’ve been together 14 years, and the commitment ceremony—we’ve had like 16 marriages. We had—

AMY GOODMAN: Now, what anniversary do you actually celebrate? You had a commitment ceremony here in New York. You got married in Massachusetts. How long ago?

TONY KUSHNER: We sometimes celebrate April 15th. Tax Day is the day we first met. April 27th is when we got married. It was when we got married in our commitment ceremony at an Italian restaurant with a lesbian rabbi. It was great. And then we don’t even really remember the day that we got our license in Provincetown, Massachusetts. And, you know, so we have a lot of different events. But I say—on the inside of my wedding band it says April 27, so as far as I’m concerned, that’s my anniversary. Mark sometimes agrees and sometimes doesn’t agree, but that’s what makes a marriage.

AMY GOODMAN: So, for you, it’s about commitment.

TONY KUSHNER: Yeah, it’s—you know, I love him, and he loves me, and I think we have a great connection. And getting married in front of witnesses in the context of your community is—you know, taking your vows in public helps make a marriage, which is not easy for anyone, work. And so…

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tony, thanks so much for coming back to Democracy Now!

TONY KUSHNER: Thanks. Lovely to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Kushner, renowned playwright and screenwriter. He won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his play Angels in America, later made into an award-winning TV mini-series. His other plays include Homebody/Kabul, Caroline, or Change, A Bright Room Called Day. His most recent play was The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. If you’d like to see a transcript of today’s broadcast, you can go to our website at When we come back, one of Mexico’s leading poets, Javier Sicilia. He’ll talk about why he’s come to the United States and the death of his son at the age of 24 at the hands of a drug cartel. Stay with us.

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