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A Civil War of Words

The dark maw of a Koreatown karaoke bar was the site of a peculiar fund-raiser one recent happy hour. The event benefited 1864, a documentary film seeking to draw parallels between the titular presidential campaign, in which a war-torn nation re-elected one of its greatest leaders, and our current presidential race, which is also unfolding against a backdrop of war and dissent. Above the Brass Monkey’s small stage area, a portrait of the 1864 Democratic candidate, former Union General George McClellan, frowned at one of the Republican Abraham Lincoln, while lyrics to shower-stall anthems immortalized by Ricky, Marvin and Mariah were replaced on monitors by “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Old Susannah” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom” (Oh, we’ll rally ’round the flag boys, rally once again . . .).

Lincoln, it turned out, was present in the form of professional impersonator Don Ancell, who led the room in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I’d seen Ancell years before and remembered how he made for an impressive Abe — from the tall, craning stoop to what my wife calls his “Sam Waterston eyebrows.” Ancell was here with his wife, Susan, who was dressed as Mary Todd Lincoln.

“Traffic from Oxnard was terrible,” Mr. Lincoln had told me outside the Monkey, before taking the microphone. “I’m glad we left at 3 to get here.”

General Ulysses S. Grant — Civil War re-enactor Larry Clowers — nodded sympathetically and chewed a cheroot. Tonight there would be a “Grant” but no McClellan because of a flat market for impersonators of the famous procrastinator.

X-Back Pictures, as 1864’s PR says, “specializes in the production and distribution of historically relevant motion pictures, documentaries and television shows.” It’s part of a group called RebelLight, whose Web site, when not excoriating the American Civil Liberties Union for its apparent attacks upon “our history, our foundation, our memory,” plays up similarities between the respective presidential candidates of 1864 and 2004. Two were war heroes, for example, while two others had waged unpopular wars that began with one set of goals but diverged into other pursuits.

At first glance these mirrorings resemble the harmless intellectual parlor tricks familiar to most Americans of a certain age (one was named Lincoln, the other rode in a Lincoln, etc.), but soon I realized 1864 was trying to fit Abe’s stovepipe onto George W. Bush’s unlined brow. The filmmakers cagily suggested Bush is an unpopular but visionary war president and John Kerry his McClellanesque nemesis.

“His bold reliance on God and Divine Providence would scare his own friends and family,” the Web site said — of Lincoln. “He opposed a cruel war in the South and a vicious and hateful Peace Movement in the North, a movement that would demand the end of the war in exchange for the continuation of slavery by the South.”

When I requested more examples of the film’s parallels, Lincoln replied simply, “The vicious attacks on President Bush by the far left.”

“The Democrats,” General Grant clarified.

 

Besides X-Back, the sing-along had another beneficiary — the Freedom Alliance Scholarship Fund, an endowment “honoring the sons and daughters of America’s heroes.” Interestingly, the nonprofit Freedom Alliance was founded by Oliver North, the Iran-Contra figure-turned-pundit who now serves as the alliance’s honorary chairman. Besides granting scholarships, the group’s favorite pastimes include U.N.-bashing, Kerry-baiting and handing out Defender of Freedom Awards to people like Jesse Helms, Sean Hannity and Ward Connerly.

I asked Yervand Kochar, 1864’s director, about his event’s ties to North’s group.

“It’s a scholarship fund for children of servicemen killed [during war],” he said. “One of the problems is that liberals won’t give to the alliance, but liberals have died in the war, and this [fact] is part of our movie.”

Kochar, an intense 26-year-old who was born in Armenia, first seemed eager to avoid the partisan implications of his documentary’s parallels, but soon returned to them.

“We didn’t want to get into this left-right political thing,” he said about the Brass Monkey event. “We’re not comparing personalities in the film. Both Lincoln and Bush focused on one thing. Lincoln risked his career and election because he was losing the war. Bush’s focus began on weapons of mass destruction but changed to liberating Iraqis — Bush is freeing Muslims.”

However, for every oblique similarity Kochar cited, 10 head-on differences came to mind. Lincoln, after all, had been forced to wage war to save the United States when confronted by a slaveholders’ rebellion, while Bush sent armies to the other side of the world to invade and occupy a sovereign country. Nagging stuff like that — and the fact that Lincoln would not likely recognize the angry drunk tank of militarists, tax dodgers and theocrats that his Republican Party has become. The GOP is now the party of Lincolns (and Cadillacs), whose members see themselves as cheated, discriminated against and oppressed. It’s a delusion that allows them to effortlessly turn history inside out and portray Bush as Lincoln and Kerry as General McClellan — if not General Benedict Arnold.

“Today we are in the civil war of opinions,” Kochar said, “we’re killing each other with words. Back then the issue was slavery, now in the media it is the weapons of mass destruction.”

I couldn’t resist asking about the event’s raffle banner offering “a case of good French wine” to the drawing’s winner.

“We thought we’d have good liberal French wine,” said the director, “with good conservative fun.”