Sunday, July 26, 2009

An Unrivaled Look at Lincoln’s Cabinet: “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I had been planning for some time to read “Team of Rivals,” by Cambridge’s own Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin. This volume was on my ever-growing list of “books to read.” The book got bumped to the top of the list after I had an opportunity to have a conversation with Ms. Goodwin.

Last week, when I reviewed Linda Robinson’s “Tell Me How This Ends,” I mentioned that I had heard General David Petraeus speak at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. During his speech and the subsequent Q&A session with David Gergen, he alluded on several occasions to the writings of Doris Kearns Goodwin, who was sitting in the front row, just in front of me. So, it was natural for me to be able to speak with her during the mingling time that followed Petraeus’ presentation. During our brief conversation, I learned that she had just finished the research portion of her next book – a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. I left the Kennedy School that day determined to procur a copy of “Team of Rivals.”

I thought I knew quite a bit about Abraham Lincoln, but Kearns research and writing in this book shed new light on many aspects of his life and presidency that I had been unaware of. For me, there was a special familial treat in reading about Lincoln’s bumptious and contentious cabinet. Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury was one Salmon P. Chase. Chase and I are descended from a common ancestor: Aquila Chase, who settled at the mouth of the Merrimac River in the 1640’s. Chase later served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I remember as a child being in awe of seeing his face on the $10,000 bill as we toured the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C. (The $10,000 bill was removed from circulation in 1969, so you won’t be asked to give change for one anytime soon!) In Goodwin's book, as well as in Gore Vidal's earlier work on Lincoln, Chase emerges as a self-righteous, self-serving curmudgeon who was often at odds with Lincoln and other members of the cabinet.

I have written often – in this space and elsewhere – about the power of narrative. So, I was struck by a passage in which Goodwin recounts the early influence on Lincoln of his father’s story-telling abilities:

“Night after night, Thomas Lincoln would swap tales with visitors and neighbors while his young son sat transfixed in the corner. In these sociable settings, Thomas was in his element. A born storyteller, he possessed a quick wit, a talent for mimicry, and an uncanny memory for exceptional stories. These qualities would prove his greatest bequest to his son. Young Abe listened so intently to these stories, crafted from experiences of everyday life, that the words became embedded in his memory. Nothing was more upsetting to him, he recalled decades later, nothing made him angrier, than his inability to comprehend everything he was told.

After listening to adults chatter through the evening, he would spend, he said , 'no small part of the night walking up and down, and trying to make out what was the exact meaning of some of their, to me, dark sayings.’ Unable to sleep, he would reformulate the conversations until, as he recalled, ‘I had put it in language plain enough, as I thought, for any boy I knew to comprehend.’ The following day, having translated the stories into words and ideas that his friends could grasp, he would climb onto the tree stump or log that served as an impromptu stage and mesmerize his own circle of listeners. He had discovered the pride and pleasure an attentive audience could bestow. This great storytelling talent and oratorical skill would eventually constitute his stock-in-trade throughout both his legal and political careers. The passion for rendering life experience into powerful language remained with Lincoln throughout his life.” (Page 50)

What a marvelous picture of the origin of the headwaters of the river of eloquence that flowed from Lincoln’s mind and mouth and branded the 16th President as one of the greatest communicators in history. I once heard a great Black preacher talk about making complex concepts accessible to even the most humble members of the congregation: “Sometimes you just need to put the cookies on the lower shelf so all the folks can reach them!” Lincoln knew how to put the cookies within reach of everyone.

Another significant early influence on the inchoate leader was the power of reading to turn the prairie-bound lad into a vicarious world traveler:

“’There is no Frigate like a Book,’ wrote Emily Dickinson, ‘to take us Lands away.’ Though the young Lincoln never left the frontier, would never leave America, he traveled with Byron’s Childe Harold to Spain and Portugal, the Middle East and Italy; accompanied Robert Burns to Edinburgh; and followed the English kings into battle with Shakespeare. As he explored the wonders of literature and the history of the country, the young Lincoln, already conscious of his own power, developed ambitions far beyond the expectations of his family and neighbors. It was through literature that he was able to transcend his surroundings. (Page 51)

Lincoln’s humanity emerges indelibly as sketched in the inimitable words of the Abolitionist, Frederick Douglass:

“Finding a large crowd in the hallway, Douglass expected to wait hours before gaining an audience with the president. Minutes after presenting him card, however, he was called into the office. ‘I was never more quickly or more completely put at ease in the presence of a great man than in that of Abraham Lincoln,’ he later recalled. The president was seated in a chair when Douglass entered the room, ‘surrounded by a multitude of books and papers, his feet and legs were extended in front of his chair. On my approach he slowly drew his feet in from the different parts of the room into which they had strayed, and he began to rise.’ As Lincoln extended his hand in greeting, Douglass hesitantly began to introduce himself. ‘I know who you are, Mr. Douglass,’ Lincoln said. ‘Mr. Seward has told me all about you. Sit down. I am glad to see you.’ Lincoln’s warmth put Douglass instantly at ease. Douglass later maintained that he had ‘never seen a more transparent countenance.’ He could tell ‘at a glance the justice of the popular estimate of the President’s qualities expressed in the prefix “honest” to the name of Abraham Lincoln.’” (Page 551)

The section of Goodwin’s book that treats the events of Lincoln’s assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth left me in tears. As most students of history know all too well, when Lincoln had breathed his last and had finally succumbed to the assassin’s bullet, Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, uttered the words: “Now he belongs to the ages.” How grateful I am to Goodwin for making the humanity and greatness of Lincoln accessible to our age – to our generation. For the very character traits and skills that allowed Lincoln to hold together bitter rivals and mold them into a team to heal our nation in a time of war and economic turmoil, are the very same gifts that our leaders today must bring to the table.

This is a book for our time. If you have not yet read it, bump it to the top of your list. I am glad I did.



1 comment:

Di said...

This has been on my list of must reads so I will bump it up. Yes, the $10,000...we only asked for one as a souvenir!!!!! "keep the line moving."