By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
As a Connecticut Yankee born and bred — or perhaps I should say born and white-bread, which is how most people think of Connecticut Yankees — I have always loved history, not just because I am old enough to be historical myself, but because I could never do algebra.
That’s why I was so grateful when Joe Courtney, the Democratic congressman from Connecticut’s Second District, defended our brave little state from the slander perpetrated against it in the 2012 film “Lincoln.” The offenders were director Steven Spielberg, who is from Ohio, and screenwriter Tony Kushner, who is from New York, though they both might as well be from Neptune (and not New Jersey, either).
The movie showed how the president (William Henry Harrison — sorry, I mean Abraham Lincoln) pushed for the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.
In the key voting scene, two of the three members of the Connecticut delegation were wrongly depicted as voting against the amendment. In reality, there were four members and they all voted for it.
Incredulous after seeing the movie, Rep. Courtney wrote an open letter to Spielberg, pointing out the flub and asking for a correction on the DVDs, which the director had promised to send to middle and high schools across the country, presumably so the lie about Connecticut could be perpetuated for the current generation of students.
The letter prompted a snotty, half-baked response from Kushner, who threw Spielberg under the horse and buggy by saying the director approved the intentionally erroneous scene because it gave the audience “placeholders” (was he planning a dinner party?) and was a “rhythmic device” (which would have been more appropriate if he had been making a movie about George Gershwin).
Kushner also said he and Spielberg wanted to show how the closeness of the vote was the “historical reality.” Truth be told, the historical reality was that they got it wrong on purpose. How stupid was that?
It had to be the biggest mistake of Spielberg’s career, not only because it was easily avoidable and completely unnecessary, but because the resultant controversy was probably the main reason why he, Kushner and the film itself didn’t win Oscars in 2013.
Now that it’s 2015, the 150th anniversary of the passage and ratification of the 13th Amendment, Rep. Courtney is again coming to Connecticut’s defense.
This time he and his staff have produced a resource guide titled “Honoring Connecticut’s Role in Abolishing Slavery, 150 Years Later.” Intended to accompany any school showing of “Lincoln,” which probably would put kids to sleep anyway, the guide shows how the state’s four representatives — Augustus Brandegee, James English, Henry Deming and John Henry Hubbard — braved hardships and personal attacks to vote for the 13th Amendment when it passed on Jan. 31, 1865.
“Did they sail from Connecticut to Washington on their yachts or did they drive BMWs?” I asked Rep. Courtney in a phone conversation.
“I think they rode horses,” he responded.
“Spielberg would be shocked,” I said. “The photos of the four representatives in your guide show that they didn’t wear polo shirts, so I assume they weren’t wearing khakis and boat shoes, either.”
“Probably just woolen suits,” Rep. Courtney said.
“Another Connecticut myth exploded,” I declared.
Unlike Spielberg, Kushner and the late, great singer Sam Cooke, whose 1960 hit, “Wonderful World,” opens with the lyrics, “Don’t know much about history,” Rep. Courtney, 61, was a history major at Tufts University and graduated in the class of 1975.
“I wouldn’t say I was magna cum laude,” he acknowledged, “but I got pretty good grades.”
“Do you think Spielberg and Kushner got good grades in history?” I asked.
“Based on what they did to Connecticut in ‘Lincoln,’ they might have flunked,” said Rep. Courtney.
“I’m glad you set the record straight with your guide,” I told him (it can be accessed at courtney.house.gov). “In fact, it would make a great movie.”
“I can see it being a documentary,” Rep. Courtney said.
“And I have just the guys to make it,” I said. “Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner.”
“I don’t know about Kushner,” Rep. Courtney said.
“You’re right,” I replied. “He’s a brilliant writer, but he never met a fact he didn’t hate. How about if I wrote it and you produced it?”
“If you can find an agent and a backer,” said Rep. Courtney, noting that politics in Hollywood are even worse than they are in Washington, “it could work.”
“And if Spielberg promises to get it right this time, he can direct,” I said. “Who knows, he might even win an Oscar.”