Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
by Doris Kearns Goodwin
No Ordinary Tome
A review by Thomas Mallon
The "Local Authors" section of the Concord Bookshop slyly puts Emerson,
Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott in front of the browser, who has probably come
to the old Massachusetts town to see the "rude bridge that arched the flood"
back in April of 1775. This is the essential small town of the American Revolution,
but as any visitor soon discovers, and as the bookshop display confirms, the Civil
War sits upon it much more righteously. John Brown twice, in 1857 and 1859, came
to raise funds at the town hall, and Emerson, who gave the rude bridge its poetic
description, was in the audience both times, looking not back but forward, to
wherever the abolitionist tide would soon be taking the town and the country.
In its later eagerness to remember those who died in the War of the Rebellion,
Concord managed to raise its monument -- a large obelisk that still dominates
the town square -- before the year 1866 was out.
It has taken Doris Kearns Goodwin ten years, about a third of the time she's
lived in Concord, to raise up her monumental study of Abraham Lincoln and his
Cabinet, Team of Rivals. She first came out here to pick apples while
a graduate student at Harvard in the 1960s, a time that brought her fatefully
together with Lyndon Johnson, first as a White House fellow and then as a confidante
and biographer. But today when she refers to the "sixties" she's likely
to be talking about the decade of Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, not John Kennedy
and LBJ. The "fifties," similarly, is now the time of Kansas-Nebraska,
Dred Scott, and the caning of Charles Sumner, the decade in which her Concord
home was built and the United States became a house divided.
Goodwin remains the approachable historian next door, the television commentator
once described as "the one with the normal hair." Her childhood nickname,
"Bubbles," bestowed because of her effervescent storytelling, still
fits too, and yet there's a careworn fragility to her physical presence: an
extreme thinness, eyes that will suddenly go wide and wan. In the fall of 2005,
three years after a devastating scandal, she is operating under a double and
paradoxical burden: Has her ten years' labor given us anything different
from what's in the hundreds of other Lincoln books stored floor-to-ceiling in
her home? And even if so, has she given proper deference, and citation, to all
the scholarship within them?
Team of Rivals begins with a truth that Frederick Douglass held to be
self-evident as early as 1876: "The whole field of fact and fancy has been
gleaned and garnered. Any man can say things that are true of Abraham Lincoln,
but no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln." In fact, at
the time Douglass spoke, only the first geologic layer of Lincoln literature
had begun depositing itself upon the historical and popular consciousness. Anecdote
and apologia -- including the reminiscences of William Herndon, Lincoln's law
partner, and the life jointly written by his personal secretaries, John Hay
and John Nicolay -- would continue to pour out for decades. For much of the
twentieth century Carl Sandburg's loud, circus-tent hagiography would dominate
the field, its vast American audience only sometimes drawn away by the mature,
unsentimental studies of scholars such as J. G. Randall and David H. Donald.
Beveridge, Thomas, Oates: almost every year brings another. At times the student
of Lincoln almost thinks he hears them singing the old Union volunteers' song:
"We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more!"
Was Goodwin intimidated by their endless ranks? "Oh, surely at the start,"
she told me in the first of my two interviews with her, at her home in Concord.
"Oh, there's no question." But she "put that panic in abeyance
for a while," introduced herself to the community of contemporary Lincoln
scholars ("enormously welcoming"), and faced the simple fact that
she "wanted to do Lincoln," which meant "wanting to live with
this subject, wanting to go back into the past and learn about the nineteenth
century, which I didn't know much about." Besides, "there wasn't anywhere
else to go," no other figure or period of such engrossing magnitude, she
decided after winning a Pulitzer Prize for writing No
Ordinary Time, about Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Second World War.
During the last phone call Goodwin ever had from her first subject, Lyndon
Johnson, he complained about Sandburg's Lincoln,
which Johnson was still reading two days before he died. Lincoln just wouldn't
come alive for him. "And if that's true for me," he lamented, "one
president reading about another, then there's no chance the ordinary person
in the future will ever remember me. No chance."
Actually, one can argue that for all its disjointedness, Lyndon
Johnson and the American Dream (1976), Goodwin's youthful, almost coltish
book, still succeeds in bringing Johnson psychologically alive; and some comfort
derived from that early achievement must have abided in her as late as 2002,
when she went from being a media favorite to being the subject of stories with
headlines like "No Ordinary Crime" (Newsweek).
Journalists were already on the plagiarizing trail of the popular historian
Stephen Ambrose when they learned that several dozen unmarked quotations from
Lynne McTaggart's biography of Kathleen Kennedy, JFK's sister, were present
in Goodwin's The
Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, which had been published in 1987. The duplications,
laid out by The Weekly Standard and the Los Angeles Times's Peter
King, were extensive, serious enough to have necessitated an out-of-court settlement
between McTaggart and Goodwin in the late 1980s -- not long after Goodwin had
told Publishers Weekly of her pride in "learning how to craft a
book" from her work on The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. "You
read all the relevant material," she told PW's interviewer, "you synthesize
all the books, you speak to all the people you can, and then you write down
what you know about the period. You feel you own it."
Such blitheness disappeared into contrition when the McTaggart matter came
to light. Goodwin explained in Time magazine that when she'd been writing
footnotes for the Kennedy volume, a few sources did not get "fully rechecked."
"I relied instead," she said, "on my notes, which combined direct
quotes and paraphrased sentences. If I had had the books in front of me, rather
than my notes, I would have caught mistakes in the first place and placed any
borrowed phrases in quotes." This is not a procedure that a bank examiner's
daughter could have confessed to with much pride, and Goodwin's normal hair
became quickly less evident on television. She would soon enough resume contributing
to NBC, but she has never returned to PBS's NewsHour.
Doris Kearns Goodwin and I have a lot in common: Catholic childhoods in the
burgeoning postwar Diocesis Petropolitana in Insula Longa (the Diocese of Rockville
Centre, on Long Island); Harvard; and Lincoln, whose assassination is the central
event in my novel Henry
and Clara. More awkward, I had published a fairly well-known and some would
say Draconian book on plagiarism (Stolen
Words) that was often referred to in discussions of the McTaggart affair.
I came to Concord to talk mostly about Lincoln, but we both knew that the other
subject would arise -- as it will all along Goodwin's upcoming two-month book
During my first visit to her house, in the fall of 2004, she showed me not
only the massive chronological ledgers she had constructed for the day-to-day
activities of the principal characters in her yet-to-be-completed Lincoln book,
but also an enormous binder full of extensive footnotes, which she says she
has learned to write contemporaneously with the text. Her anxiety was evident,
as it would be on my second visit, this summer, during which she more than once
asked to go off the record when the issue of plagiarism came up.
Because Simon & Schuster (her publisher in 1987 and now) is "giving
me the space to do it," Goodwin says, the Lincoln footnotes will be "as
important as the narrative, as the historical detail, as the veracity of the
characters -- all the other things that I've always cared so much about."
Although criticized for relying too heavily on researchers, she still, without
apology, uses them, including Linda Vandegrift, who worked on the Kennedy book.
"I never had a 'stable' in the first place," Goodwin says. To avoid
errors in transcription she now electronically scans or photocopies sources
and has taken care "to double-check and triple-check everything" herself.
"It's interesting," she says. "I think if I'd had to go out
on the book tour two or three years ago, I might have felt closer to the event,
and it would have been more nervous-making in a certain sense. But you know,
at this point I feel really proud of what the book is. I know that certainly
I've worked harder on it and put more life force into it than anything I've
done before." Lincoln himself has proved a consoling figure; his "whole
philosophy," Goodwin says, "was not to waste precious energies on
recriminations about the past."
It's unclear to me what recriminations might be in order, or why, but long
since sick of the subject of plagiarism myself, and mindful that everyone seems
to discover his own needs in Lincoln's story, I don't resist the let's-move-on
spirit of the Second Inaugural Address that hovers over our conversation -- not
if it will let us proceed to Lincoln himself, about whom Doris Kearns Goodwin
has written an enormous book possessed of a friendly grandeur and, against all
odds, a considerable freshness.
Having produced a paucity of personal letters and no diaries in an era when
public men often composed a surfeit of both, Lincoln -- like Shakespeare and
Jesus -- forces biographers into a greater-than-usual reliance on what contemporaries
wrote about him. Their diaries and letters become competing, fragmentary gospels
through which the Union's savior is reconstructed into a tentative whole. One
sees this oblique method, the alternation of multiple perspectives, again and
again in modern depictions of Lincoln, from Gore
Vidal's 1984 novel to We
Are Lincoln Men, the collection of friendship studies with which David H.
Donald followed up his 1995 biography.
Goodwin's principal technique for depicting Lincoln is to see him through the
rivalrous eyes of three men from whom he snatched the presidential nomination
when the Republican Party, minus the contending candidates, gathered at Chicago's
Wigwam meeting hall in May of 1860. Having united the Illinois party two years
earlier in his distinguished but unsuccessful Senate race against Stephen A.
Douglas, and having delivered affecting, closely reasoned speeches about slavery
and disunion on recent trips east, Lincoln stood as a largely unobjectionable
second choice to New York's William Henry Seward, Ohio's Salmon P. Chase, and
Missouri's Edward Bates. But, as Goodwin puts it with a nice sonorousness, "There
was little to lead one to suppose that Abraham Lincoln, nervously rambling the
streets of Springfield that May morning, who scarcely had a national reputation,
certainly nothing to equal any of the other three, who had served but a single
term in Congress, twice lost bids for the Senate, and had no administrative
experience whatsoever, would become the greatest historical figure of the nineteenth
century." The real plans for celebration -- bonfires stacked, banners
furled -- had been made in Auburn, Columbus, and St. Louis, all of whose sons
would in the end have to enter history as the "team of rivals" from
which Lincoln made his Cabinet.
There's a wonderful, almost comically baleful villain to be had in Chase, the
governor of Ohio, though with her typical, genuine niceness, Goodwin tells me
she really can't call him villainous, "because I so respect his moral force
about emancipation early on, and about racial equality." "But on the
other hand," she says, "there's no question that his temperament is
so the opposite of Lincoln's that it really shows what Lincoln is made of, in
a certain sense." Jealous, puritanical, and tormentedly ambitious -- suffused
with the egomania of the self-loathing -- Chase flogged himself toward success
("I almost despair of ever making any figure in the world") in the
kind of diary that Lincoln didn't keep. A terrible speaker and a man of promiscuous
political affiliations (he'd moved from the Whigs to the Liberty Party and then
the Free Soilers before throwing in with the Republicans), Chase had earned
great respect for the legal strategy with which he had challenged slavery in
the 1840s (seeing it as "'a creature of state law' and not a national institution"),
but his habitual double-dealing made it impossible for the Ohio delegation to
unite behind his candidacy.
Chase would become Lincoln's secretary of the Treasury, in which capacity he
did a splendid job both of financing the Union army and of getting his own face
on the new one-dollar bill. Less inclined than his colleagues to revise an initial
underestimation of Lincoln, he operated behind the president's back, repeatedly
threatened resignation, and clumsily attempted, from within the Cabinet, to
run against Lincoln for the 1864 nomination. Chase's pomposity ("a great
change seemed to come over men's minds while I was in Washington") is exceeded
only by that of the preening, inert General George B. McClellan.
Goodwin's second prismatic rival is a less well-known if appealing figure,
though one who proves to be of limited utility as the book moves forward. Edward
Bates, a sixty-six-year-old retired congressman and judge, a prosperous pillar
of St. Louis blessed with personal contentment and an "ideal home life,"
was the most conservative choice before the delegates in the Wigwam, one who
would have clear appeal to the Unionists in border states like Missouri. But
readers will have trouble believing he was truly a contender amid the antislavery
fervor sweeping Chicago.
Even after Bates becomes Lincoln's attorney general, Goodwin has difficulty
keeping her attention on him, and strays instead to other members of the Cabinet,
especially Edwin Stanton, a combustible, workaholic Quaker who would find himself
awash in blood as Lincoln's second secretary of war. Having been overtly contemptuous
toward Lincoln when they were teamed as lawyers on a patent case in the 1850s,
Stanton had the furthest to travel along the road of re-evaluating his boss.
He remained irritated by the president's drollery, storytelling, and theatergoing,
but finally experienced an awed, emotional conversion, one his old friend Chase
was incapable of undergoing with any completeness.
Next to Lincoln himself, Goodwin's standout figure is Seward, the almost dandyish
front-runner for the nomination, whose popularity among abolitionists had been
sealed with a prophecy of "irrepressible conflict" between North and
South. Inevitably, the New York senator would disappoint them at key moments.
His own political realism restrained his antislavery zeal, as did the enforced
cautionings of the "Dictator," Thurlow Weed, the Albany editor and
boss who had turned the state's Whigs into Republicans. Yet any reader whose
image of Seward's personality derives from his stern expression in period photographs
will be surprised to find in Goodwin's pages a fun-filled cosmopolite who had
made the acquaintance of Gladstone, Queen Victoria, and the pope well before
Lincoln made him secretary of state.
With his supporters thunderstruck that the convention in Chicago had "given
us a rail splitter" for a candidate, Seward, as irrepressible as
the sectional conflict, rallied quickly and campaigned hard for Lincoln. Even
so, once in the Cabinet he tried to make himself into the administration's real
power, forcing Lincoln to establish dominance with a few shrewd, feline swats.
Unexpectedly, the relationship that resulted was not only productive but mutually
delightful. Seward's lively household in Lafayette Square, across from the White
House, became a home away from Lincoln's troubled home, bringing back, Goodwin
suggests, "memories of his convivial days on the circuit, when Lincoln
and his fellow lawyers gathered together before the log fire to talk, drink,
and share stories." The president sought refuge with Seward often enough
to make Mary Lincoln jealous, and John Hay, Lincoln's young secretary, would
come to marvel over how "the history of governments affords few instances
of an official connection hallowed by a friendship so absolute and sincere."
Seward may not be Goodwin's protagonist, but in her pages he's as perceptive,
flashy, and satisfying as Boswell.
Last fall Goodwin speculated to me that had she stayed in academic life, she
might have written a series of smaller books about less titanic figures, studies
"in seriatum" of the sorts of Cabinet figures she now calls her "guys."
Those books are not the kind that tend to get signed up by Alice Mayhew at Simon
& Schuster, but Team of Rivals contains, at intervals, the chapters
for a tiptop, almost extractable biography of Seward, as vivid as any that's
Master Among Men was Goodwin's original title, one that perhaps even
more strongly emphasized what remains her principal theme: Lincoln's political
genius, a "gift for managing" men that was married to psychological
necessity. He won the nomination, she argues, for many reasons: character, hard
work, consistency of argument. (Helping to bring the convention to his home
state didn't hurt either.) But Lincoln also won because of the remarkable extent
to which he had learned to refrain from turning competitors into enemies --
something at which Chase certainly, and Seward to a lesser degree, could not
claim success. The Illinois delegation was united in Chicago, partly
because of the way Lincoln met treachery with friendship after seeing his first
Senate campaign, in 1855, heartbreakingly undermined by supposed allies.
Throughout the war his Cabinet would function successfully, even as its members
fussed and feuded; Stanton's running of the War Department surpassed even Chase's
performance at the Treasury. There are times, however, when Lincoln's management-by-magnanimity -- after
four years of badmouthing and betrayal, Chase was rewarded with the post of
chief justice -- seems to border on the masochistic. But Goodwin disagrees
when I put the psychological possibility to her: "If the forgiveness were
eating away at Lincoln, and not being able to deal with the anger directly was
taking certain life force away, then it would be a negative thing; but you don't
have the feeling that that's happening with him."
Lincoln could absorb the hurts and slights -- suck it up, as we would say today
-- because he possessed, Goodwin convinces us, the longest possible view. For
rewards he would leave himself to heaven; no matter that he didn't believe in
its existence. The seraphim he could see was posterity, whose deferred
approval would be huge. He furloughed soldiers so that they could go home and
vote for him, and he was bolstered by their love. But he was after something
more permanently enveloping than that, and he came to understand that the Emancipation
Proclamation would be his guarantor of immortality. Always self-mocking of his
stringy, badly dressed form, he could still imagine it in marble.
Goodwin gives us a man "acutely aware of his own emotional needs,"
one who managed his melancholy as shrewdly as he did his subordinates. She does
not neglect the near-suicidal depression Lincoln sank into in the winter of
1841, though she highlights the political disappointments that contributed to
it. She amply supplies us, too, with Mary's moods and behavioral binges, and
also the grief both parents suffered over the death of their son Willie, who
probably perished, from typhoid fever, in a sort of infectious friendly fire:
"The White House drew its water supply from the Potomac River, along the
banks of which tens of thousands of troops without proper latrines were stationed."
But none of this dominates Goodwin's portrait. "I really do think that
the idea of him as a depressed individual has been overstressed," she tells
me; too much emphasis on the sad, homely expression has prevented Lincoln's
full animation for readers, she believes. In some ways he was "more married
to these guys in the Cabinet" than to Mary, she jokes; and it is Goodwin's
picture of Lincoln laughing in Seward's parlor that stays with one after all
the other lantern slides have been put back into the drawer.
Lincoln-Kennedy "parallels" -- some of them bogus, some of them
real ("Each president in his thirties married a socially prominent twenty-four-year-old
girl who spoke French fluently") -- are an Internet perennial, but Goodwin
agrees when I suggest that few more disparate presidential pairs exist than
the coolly detached JFK and the tender, mystical Lincoln. "Kennedy wasn't
in my head" while writing this new book, she says. Lyndon Johnson (who's
"always in my head") shared with Lincoln a passionate need
to be remembered, though LBJ's developed only after he'd attained the presidency,
whereas Lincoln had spoken of his as early as his first campaign for the state
legislature, when he was twenty-three. The Lincoln parallels to Goodwin's third
former president, Roosevelt, are occasionally temperamental -- "They both
understood, much more than Lyndon Johnson, the importance of relaxation,"
she says -- but more frequently managerial: "They both had a magnificent
sense of timing." Each knew how to bring a reluctant public around to his
largest aims by picking the media forum that suited him best: Roosevelt's fireside
chats and Lincoln's public letters, those widely disseminated but intimate-seeming
communications that explained his evolving position on slavery.
The books into which Goodwin has put these presidents, at the rate of one a
decade, have been decidedly different from one another. Lyndon Johnson and the
American Dream remains interesting for the one-of-a-kind, up-close-and-personal
access that produced it, but it's a ramshackle production, an uneasy blend of
journalism, biography, memoir, and political-science study, much of it reflective
of Goodwin's graduate training in Harvard's government department, where Richard
Power and the Modern Presidents) was "like a second father" to
her. Conversations with Erik Erikson during that same period, and participation
in a seminar on the application of psychoanalysis to biography, make themselves
overapparent in analyses of Johnson's dreams and "repetition compulsion."
Goodwin now muses that she was "always, I think, underneath," a historian,
but in the LBJ book she hadn't yet learned to dramatize the particulars; it's
surprisingly abstract and unanecdotal about Johnson's Senate career and persuasion
The Kennedy book may, as she says, have taught her to write narrative, but
its cast is so big and its decades so numerous that one can only call it sprawling,
with that word's double edge. It's No Ordinary Time that marked an exceptional
advance in technique. Confined to a chronology of five years, Goodwin gave taut
shape to a small ensemble cast, opening with artful alternations between Franklin
and Eleanor Roosevelt on May 10, 1940, while the Nazis are overrunning the Low
Countries. Freudian technique is enough subordinated that the Roosevelts emerge
as characters, not case studies. The president's cigarette holder is just a
cigarette holder, and it flashes with the rest of the small specifics that the
author has learned not only to gather but to set in motion.
No Ordinary Time was the first of Goodwin's books to offer real literary
satisfactions, and it is more or less the template for Team of Rivals.
If the Roosevelt White House's second floor sometimes resembled a zany rooming
house, Lincoln's Washington seems a kind of game board over which the president
rushes, smoothing the feathers of his exasperating subordinates, his feet or
carriage taking him from Seward's Lafayette Square house to Chase's new mansion
at 6th and E and back to Stanton at the War Department's telegraph office. There's
a cozy, episodic quality to much of the narrative.
Goodwin's best thematic achievement may be to give us a clear, accruing sense
of why saving the Union -- which even the most casual student of American history
is taught was the real reason for the war -- actually stood as a more transcendent
goal than freeing the slaves. Lincoln's faith in the Declaration of Independence
as an international document, one with global promises, is apparent in his utterances
long before the Gettysburg Address -- including his debates with Douglas in
1858, when he spoke of the Declaration's bearing on "countless myriads
who should inhabit the earth in other ages." Four years earlier still,
noting that the word "slavery" had been excluded from the Constitution,
"just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer," Lincoln makes
evident his view of slavery as something not just shameful but small --
at least in comparison with the possibility of universal freedom, which depended
upon American success. This theme is hardly Goodwin's discovery, but she has
infused it into her book steadily and well, giving us a Lincoln appropriate
to the present hour and our much proclaimed, much doubted obligation to bring
liberty to the whole world.
Goodwin sold the television rights to her Kennedy and Roosevelt books before
each was completed, and for the past several years she has been actively involved
in Steven Spielberg's plans to make a feature film (probably starring Liam Neeson)
from Team of Rivals. Her husband, Richard Goodwin, joked to me last fall
that his wife needed to speed up, lest Spielberg's movie reach theaters with
the credit line "Based on the forthcoming book."
With her wedding to Goodwin, thirty years ago, Doris Kearns married into the
first era of history that she wrote about. As a presidential assistant to John
F. Kennedy, Richard Goodwin found himself, weirdly, the New York Times's
featured "Man in the News" on the morning of November 22, 1963. He
stayed on at the White House to write Lyndon Johnson's best civil-rights speeches;
a pen that LBJ used to sign the Voting Rights Act in 1965 is displayed in the
Concord house not far from the Bronze Star that their son Joseph received for
service in Iraq.
No book about either of the Presidents Bush seems likely in Doris Kearns Goodwin's
future. Theodore Roosevelt is probably the only twentieth-century Republican
within her political pale (one had a sense that her heart wasn't fully in her
MSNBC commentary on Ronald Reagan's funeral), though she admits to thinking
about Ulysses S. Grant as a possible new subject.
Whether or not she follows through with that, she is almost certainly not done
with a genre that severely exasperates many academic historians. Presidential
biography is the only history that many Americans read, but they read it avidly,
pushing the books of David McCullough, Edmund Morris, and Goodwin up the charts,
and raising the blood pressure of university scholars marooned in more arcane
specialties. In 2001, in a review of McCullough's John
Adams titled "America Made Easy," Princeton's Sean Wilentz denounced
a series of big-selling biographers for supplying "pleasant uplift"
instead of reality and rigor. Wilentz tends to equate iconoclasm with seriousness,
but it is worth asking if there isn't in fact something inherently sentimental
in this presidential genre -- an inevitable need to show its protagonist, whatever
his mistakes and travails, triumphing on the nation's behalf.
Goodwin admits that confrontation "is not my style at all" (she may
be the first person ever to praise both Sandburg's Lincoln and Vidal's),
but she insists that she knows how to be hard on presidents when they let you
down, by, say, interning the Japanese or bombing North Vietnam. Her book on
Johnson taught her, in fact, to be extra critical of a subject: "At a time
when I'm at Harvard, the antiwar movement is going on, all the people surrounding
me -- all my friends and colleagues -- hate this man, I feel an empathy
for him. On the other hand, I'm probably bending over backwards, even though
I'm showing the empathy, to talk about his flaws, because that's my other self
that's out there …"
In the case of her current subject, she would point out that she has put Lincoln
up against strong men, not straw men. That the man she depicts is "uncommonly
tenderhearted" may be emotionally convenient for the strikingly warm Goodwin,
but it has a basic truthfulness nonetheless. I'm not sure I would want to turn
Goodwin's sympathies on, say, Woodrow Wilson, lest personal feeling claim a
larger portion of her focus than the long-term calamitous consequences of a
president's good intentions; but cynicism doesn't get anyone very far with Lincoln.
If his kindnesses were often shrewd, they were no less kind: "All the things
that he did that are the marks of a good man," Goodwin says, "turned
out to be those of a great politician." There simply "aren't as many
flaws with him as there are with other people." To make an effortful hunt
for them is to introduce another kind of distortion: "You wouldn't be true
to at least the Lincoln that I saw. That's just reality."
Wilentz dismissed popular historians as purveyors of what he disgustedly called
"narrative, narrative, narrative." But that is Goodwin's natural element.
Lyndon Johnson, she once argued, equated votes with love; in her own life a
connection got made early on between love and storytelling. In the late 1940s,
when her father would get home from work, young Doris would reconstruct the
Dodgers games she'd heard on the radio. As she explains in her memoir, Wait
Till Next Year (1997), her recitations instilled in her the "naïve
confidence that others would find me as entertaining as my father did."
A "Note on Sources" to No Ordinary Time delights in her "favorite
details" of the Roosevelt saga, and for a historian she uses the word "incredible,"
at least in conversation, to a peculiar degree. Her editor seems finally to
have broken her of a tendency, notable in the Kennedy and Roosevelt books, to
dapple the page with exclamation points, but even so, enthusiasm remains evident
in the mature style she's achieved, one that's unpretentious and companionable.
Narrative, narrative, narrative: it was one of Lincoln's natural elements too.
When he told a story, Goodwin writes, "a rapid illumination of [his] features
would be observed." His little tales, tiresome to those who, like Chase,
felt guilty reading fiction, were more than parables designed to persuade. The
journalist Henry Villard grasped the power of these stories to "heal wounded
feelings and mitigate disappointments" among people who heard them. Their
telling is so much a part of Goodwin's book that a reader also begins, perhaps
for the first time, to appreciate their compulsive, self-medicating quality
for Lincoln himself.
"There was something mysterious in his persona that led countless men,
even old adversaries, to feel bound to him in admiration," Goodwin writes.
Attempts to pry Lincoln up from his eternal throne in the nation's capital are
as shortsighted as they are fruitless. All who would engage with him have to
traffic in his semi-divinity; writers on Lincoln get taken in by resisting
it, not by surrendering. In 1866, as Concord was putting up its stone tribute
to the war dead, John Hay -- a kind of mini-Seward in his merriment and sophisticated
tastes -- concluded, not implausibly, that "Lincoln with all his foibles
is the greatest character since Christ." According to the biographer Daniel
Mark Epstein, even Walt Whitman, one of nature's smothering huggers, "hung
back in awe and from a keen artistic instinct" on a number of occasions
when he might have shaken Lincoln's hand.
In his days as a trial lawyer Lincoln argued in favor of holding on to Jefferson's
idea of George Washington as the perfect American: "It makes human nature
better to believe that one human being was perfect, that human perfection is
possible." But Washington's was a perfection of citizenship, a stiff achievement
within human limits, comporting with the smooth but blank perfection of his
monument -- which Daniel Chester French's statue of Lincoln gazes out upon,
across the Mall. On February 12, 2009, the next president of the United States
will rededicate the Lincoln Memorial as part of the bicentennial celebration
of Lincoln's birth. The occasion will call for the first big post-inauguration
speech by the forty-fourth chief executive. The new president, standing on the
memorial's east steps, will be facing the Washington Monument, but he (she?)
will be praying that Lincoln has his back.
In the coming months will Lincoln have Goodwin's? As she travels the country,
smiling her way past the knives that are out, one can almost imagine him protecting
her with his capacity for seeing transgression in proportion to something better
-- what he once might have used to shield the returning wayward states from
the implacable radicals of Reconstruction. Goodwin in fact may be saved by Lincoln's
sheer magnitude, if critical fascination with him trumps schadenfreude
over her own still-recent excoriation.
"I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress,"
Lincoln wrote at the end of 1862 to the daughter of a friend who'd been killed
in battle. His consolations, his urgings, his epistolary loss-cuttings, have
been stacked and shelved around Goodwin, nearly walling her in, for years now.
When I sat with her in Concord last summer, she showed me, one by one, copies
of the pictures that would go into the book, clearly eager to push it over the
finish line, just as clearly hesitant to let it go. Abraham Lincoln is a subject
to which she's done justice, and he is a subject she needed more than she first
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