Easy Chair — From the February 2013 issue

Team America

( 3 of 5 )

That was the initial phase of the book’s rocketlike ascent into the middlebrow empyrean. The second stage, as I mentioned, came during the 2008 election season, after Team of Rivals was endorsed by Barack Obama. That’s when it occurred to pundit after pundit that the book was about something that should properly warm the heart of every American: bipartisanship. The Obama/Lincoln comparison was suddenly the great cliché of the moment — it made the cover of Time in October and the cover of Newsweek in November. And once the election was over, the possibility of an executive-branch team of rivals became a fixation of our intellectual politburo.

Soon they were busily quizzing one another as to whether each new cabinet nominee fit the “team of rivals” template. Hillary Clinton obviously did, and the same might be said of Larry Summers and the Republican Robert Gates. When Obama nominated another Republican, Judd Gregg, for commerce secretary, the Lincoln comparisons flew; when he sought out the opinions of his recent antagonist John McCain, they soared. In a conversation with Tom Brokaw, NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell noted how Team of Rivals (by “our colleague and friend Doris Kearns Goodwin”) had influenced Obama, then suggested some additional rivals the president-elect might care to embrace:

He has John McCain coming tomorrow to Chicago. That is a very important step, they say. . . . There are others who have been mentioned: Chuck Hagel and, we know, Bob Gates at Defense, and other Republicans — his good friend Dick Lugar, who has not been persuaded to come to the State Department so far. So he really sees this in a very bipartisan way, in the true spirit of that.

Mitchell’s juxtaposition of “friends,” “rivals,” and “bipartisan” helps us understand the high-octane appeal of this plodding idea. To a modern-day Washington grandee, what assembling a team of rivals means is that glorious thing: an election with virtually no consequences. No one is sentenced to political exile because he or she was on the wrong side; the presidency changes hands, but all the players still get a seat at the table.

The only ones left out of this warm, bipartisan circle of friendship are the voters, who wake up one fine day to discover that what they thought they’d rejected wasn’t rejected in the least. And all in the name of Abraham Lincoln. Thanks for that, Abe.

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