03 December 2008

Team of Rivals

I ordered this book a few months ago,after reading or hearing about a group of books that Obama has mentioned influenced him, which also included Alinsky's Rules for Radicals and Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society.

I started reading it after the election and was enthralled. Goodwin writes beautifully, and she brings Lincoln and his contemporaries to vivid life. I think I haven't read much history from this period, and my mental picture of Lincoln dates from high school social studies: a secular saint.

Goodwin both presents Lincoln as an authentic human being and highlights the elements of his character that made him such a great president at such a critical time. The book also greatly improved my understanding of the Civil War--in school I learned it was about slavery, and later I bought the notion that this was a naive view (like thinking we fought WW2 to save the Jews); at least as Goodwin describes it, slavery was an increasingly critical issue as the war progressed.

Of course I was thinking a lot about Obama as I read, and there are many parallels in their political careers and in their (apparent) temperaments. Reading about how Lincoln assembled his cabinet as Obama assembled his was a very interesting experience. A key trait of Lincoln's was his refusal to hold grudges, or to act on them. Others thought him simple, or naive for that refusal, but his insistence on seeing and expecting the best of others served him extremely well.

Finally, Lincoln assembled a cabinet of strong personalities. The strongest, Seward, thought he would be the "power behind the throne," and throughout Lincoln's presidency, there were some observers who believed that. Seward, however, was quickly disabused of his notion of Lincoln as a simpleton who needed to be led by the hand, and became his great friend and support.

Lincoln was able to manage a team of strong personalities because he was himself a confident and insightful leader. He understood his own strengths as well as the strengths of the individuals on his team, and he trusted no one's judgement so well as he trusted his own. He was idealistic, but also pragmatic.

Sound familiar?

A measure of the effectiveness of Goodwin's work: when Lincoln was assassinated, I cried and cried. I even cried for Seward and his son, who were attacked the same night. You felt the loss of something tremendous and abstract, and you also felt the loss of people you loved.

I don't know when I've read a better history book.

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