David Brooks on Politics. You can do more good in politics than any other sphere. New York Times

We live in an anti-political moment, when many people — young people
especially — think politics is a low, nasty, corrupt and usually
fruitless business. It’s much nobler to do community service or just
avoid all that putrid noise.

I hope everybody who shares this anti-political mood will go out to
see “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony
Kushner. The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the
right way.

It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other
sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But
you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own
character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle,
trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.

The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high
vision and low cunning. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gets this point. The
hero has a high moral vision, but he also has the courage to take
morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality.

To lead his country through a war, to finagle his ideas through
Congress, Lincoln feels compelled to ignore court decisions, dole out
patronage, play legalistic games, deceive his supporters and accept
the fact that every time he addresses one problem he ends up creating
others down the road.

Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the
public good. This is a self-restrained movie that celebrates people
who are prudent, self-disciplined, ambitious and tough enough to do
that work.

The movie also illustrates another thing: that politics is the best
place to develop the highest virtues. Politics involves such a
perilous stream of character tests: how low can you stoop to conquer
without destroying yourself; when should you be loyal to your team and
when should you break from it; how do you wrestle with the temptations
of fame — that the people who can practice it and remain intact, like
Lincoln, Washington or Churchill, are incredibly impressive.

The movie shows a character-building trajectory, common among great
politicians, which you might call the trajectory from the Gettysburg
Address to the Second Inaugural.

In the Gettysburg phase, a leader expresses grand ideas. This,
frankly, is relatively easy. Lots of people embrace grand ideals or
all-explaining ideologies. But satisfied with that they become morally
infantile. They refuse to compromise, insult their opponents and
isolate themselves on the perch of their own solipsism.

But a politician like Lincoln takes the next step in the trajectory.
He has to deal with other people. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” does a nice
job celebrating an underappreciated art, the art of legislating.

The movie is about pushing the 13th Amendment through the House of
Representatives. The political operatives Lincoln hires must pay acute
attention to the individual congressmen in order to figure out which
can be appealed to through the heart and which through the wallet.

Lincoln plays each potential convert like a musical instrument,
appealing to one man’s sense of idealism, another’s fraternal loyalty.
His toughest job is to get the true believers on his own side to
suppress themselves, to say things they don’t believe in order not to
offend the waverers who are needed to get the amendment passed.

That leads to the next step in the character-building trajectory, what
you might call the loneliness of command. Toward the end of the civil
war, Lincoln had to choose between two rival goods, immediate peace
and the definitive end of slavery. He had to scuttle a peace process
that would have saved thousands of lives in order to achieve a larger
objective.

He had to discern the core good, legal equality, among a flurry of
other issues. He had to use a constant stream of words, stories,
allusions and arguments to cajole people. He had to live with a crowd
of supplicants forever wanting things at the door without feeling
haughty or superior to them.

If anything, the movie understates how hard politics can be. The moral
issue here is a relatively clean one: slavery or no slavery. Most
issues are not that simple. The bill in question here is a
constitutional amendment. There’s no question of changing this or that
subsection and then wondering how much you’ve destroyed the whole
package.

Politicians who can navigate such challenges really do emerge with the
sort of impressive weight expressed in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.
It’s a speech that acknowledges that there is moral ambiguity on both
sides. It’s a speech in which Lincoln, in the midst of the fray, is
able to take a vantage point above it, embodying a tragic and biblical
perspective on human affairs. Lincoln’s wisdom emerges precisely from
the fact that he’s damaged goods.

Politics doesn’t produce many Lincolns, but it does produce some
impressive people, and sometimes, great results. Take a few hours from
the mall. See the movie.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on November 23, 2012, on
page A35 of the New York edition with the headline: Why We Love
Politics.