Easy Chair — From the February 2013 issue

Team America

There have been an estimated 16,000 books written about Abraham Lincoln; like the lives of the wealthy and the secrets of self-improvement, a fascination with the Great Emancipator is an unchanging feature of American literary taste. Few of these volumes, however, have had the extraordinary resilience of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. In 2005, when the book first appeared, it was the subject of “vast critical acclaim” and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for some twenty-seven weeks, according to the press release that accompanied my copy. Three years later, a junior senator from Illinois named Barack Obama anointed Team of Rivals one of his favorite books, once again pushing it into the glare of public adulation. And last year, when Steven Spielberg transformed it into his movie Lincoln, the book climbed the charts for a third time. (Should the film win an Oscar later this month, the vastness of Goodwin’s critical acclaim will no doubt get yet another boost.)

Despite having triggered these sequential booms in Lincolniana, Team of Rivals is uninspiring to the point of boredom. It is not only a retelling of the most familiar story in American history but also a fairly dreary one. Goodwin’s account doesn’t provoke or startle with insight. Most of what she tells us has been told us before — many, many times. Indeed, the theme song from Ken Burns’s The Civil War played involuntarily in my head as I read, again, about the election of 1860, the Peninsula Campaign, the maneuvering in Washington over emancipation.

Goodwin’s hypothesis, if she can be said to have one, is that the successes of the Lincoln Administration were not a one-man accomplishment. No, the president had help, and he knew how to motivate people. It was Lincoln plus Secretary of State William Seward; Lincoln plus Attorney General Edward Bates; Lincoln plus Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase (you know, the man on the $10,000 bill). Do you get it, reader? The Civil War was a team effort, in which men who didn’t really like each other — political rivals, even — held important government jobs.

One cavil you might raise is that this isn’t much of a revelation, since big wars are generally fought by national unity governments. Nor is the “team of rivals” concept an innovation of the early 1860s, though Goodwin assures us it is. As the historian James Oakes pointed out in 2008, administrations incorporating the president’s adversaries were standard stuff in the early nineteenth century. They have been fairly common in our own time as well. During the Great Depression, for example, Franklin Roosevelt hired prominent men from the opposition to fill cabinet posts, and almost every subsequent president has followed suit.

It was, in other words, an unremarkable arrangement, documented here in an unremarkable book, all of it together about as startling as a Hallmark card. How did such a commonplace slice of history come to define our era?

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  • Emily

    I’m not a subscriber, but I’d love to read this article. Just FYI, I’d be willing to pay for access to individual articles.

  • Jerry Brown California Governo

    Lincoln was a great movie. The mystic vision and sense of the union combined with the down to earth manner of the president was perfect. I was inspired.

  • Steve

    What a douchey essay. Could the author have tried to make his point in a less blase and condescending manner? Probably not, because I don’t see much actual evidence of his point, like, gee I don’t know, quotes from the actual book. Just a lot of general conjecture and name-calling.

  • wiseacre1

    I saw the movie,and did not come away with a sense that corruption was cute and necessary to advance a good cause. I think most viewers understand the difference between using humour as a device to relieve dramatic tension,and the reality of sleazy politics. I found the movie inspiring and demoralizing at the same time,in other words,a fairly honest rendition of the human condition.

  • John T.

    I, for one, appreciated this piece very much. Strong writing and unconventional thinking make for a much better critical review than eye batting and jaw dropping. Of course Daniel Day Lewis was outstanding, and of course Spielberg produced a compelling drama. They’re professionals, that’s what they do. The point is that there are professionals in every arena, and professional politicians should be should be cast in a (fair) light that doesn’t radiate with the moral glow of abolitionism. If were talking about compromise, let’s compromise about which administration should be portrayed so that compromise, itself, as a political ideal, can be met on level ground, instead of just snowballing downhill with the weight of glamour and popularity.

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October 2015

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