Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access

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?

To begin with, the book perfectly captures the beloved fatuities of our white-collar priesthood. The appeal of Team of Rivals to this corporate demographic is built into its very architecture: after Goodwin relates some familiar Civil War anecdote, she invariably ties it to Lincoln’s style of personnel management — this being the true manifestation of his genius. And to every vexing human-relations question, Team of Rivals gives a pat answer. How, for example, does one ride herd over a group of difficult, contentious, even creative people? Goodwin’s Lincoln offers the following counsel: Listen more and blame less. Also: Be sure to relax now and then. Also: Don’t hold grudges.

“Lincoln’s Leadership Lessons” was the headline that Forbes chose for a 2006 interview with Goodwin. When Harvard Business Review spoke to her in 2009, they called their article “Leadership Lessons from Abraham Lincoln”; Fast Company’s take on the book was headlined “The Leadership Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” Goodwin herself is more original. When she spoke at the annual convention of the Society for Human Resource Management in 2008, she called her talk “HR Success Through [the] Lens of Lincoln.”

I’m sorry I missed that presentation; it must have been enlightening. I suspect this because Inc. magazine has listed Team of Rivals as one of the “Best Leadership Books of All Time.” Donald Trump, in his 2009 magnum opus Think Like a Champion, includes it in his own recommended-reading list, as does superconsultant Jim Collins. In truth, however, this last, vast piece of critical acclaim shouldn’t surprise anybody: as a blogger for the ManpowerGroup, “a world leader in workforce solutions,” pointed out, “Lincoln personified the Level Five Leader immortalized in Jim Collins’ Good to Great.

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.

Finally Steven Spielberg, that Michelangelo of the trite, signed on to what Goodwin was selling. His Lincoln focuses very narrowly on a short segment of the book in which the president rams the Thirteenth Amendment — the one abolishing slavery — through the House of Representatives. It’s 1865, and Lincoln has just won reelection. Still, he doesn’t want to wait for a new Congress to be seated: the amendment must be passed immediately. This means winning a two-thirds majority in a lame-duck legislative body that is still filled with his opponents, and the bulk of the movie is a close study of the lobbying and persuading and self-censoring to which Lincoln and his team must descend in order to, well, free the slaves. These are the lessons for our time that Professor Spielberg has plucked from Goodwin’s Lincoln saga.

And upon beholding the film, the men of the middle mind saw the clouds part and the sun shine through. Yet another commonplace had been magnificently reaffirmed — a Triple Crown of banality for Doris Kearns Goodwin! — and this time it was the emptiest D.C. cliché of all. “It’s compromise,” is how Goodwin summarized the film’s message for an interviewer. And the commentariat chimed in unison: Yes! We have learned from this movie, they sang, that politicians must Make Deals. That one must Give Something to Get Something.

[*] And lo! A screening was scheduled for the Senate on December 19. The invitation from Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, who have been at each other’s throats for many years, noted that the film “depicts the good which is attainable when public servants put the betterment of the country ahead of short-term political interests.”

The film was a study in the “nobility of politics,” declared David Brooks; it teaches that elected officials can do great things, but only if they “are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.” Michael Gerson of the Washington Post suggested that members of Congress be made to watch the thing in order to acquire “a greater appreciation for flexibility and compromise.”[*]

According to Al Hunt of Bloomberg, the film shows our greatest president “doing what politicians are supposed to do, and today too often avoid: compromising, calculating, horse trading, dealing and preventing the perfect from becoming the enemy of a good objective.” And here is an exchange about the movie between David Gregory and — again! — Andrea Mitchell, two Beltway Brahmins experiencing a miraculous mind meld on an episode of Meet the Press:

mitchell: Compromise is not a bad thing. And you — you feel that . . .

gregory: At a time when we so loathe politics . . .

mitchell: Exactly.

gregory: . . . so many people in this country.

mitchell: And it’s become caricatured and demonized.

Those cruel caricatures — they’re so unfair to Compromise! Clearly someone needed to rescue it from our sneering, cynical idealism.

Had Spielberg really wanted to make an historical epic about compromise, he could have filmed a chapter in the life of Lincoln’s great adversary Stephen A. Douglas, champion of the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas–Nebraska Act. Now there was a bamboozler.

But the movie Spielberg actually made goes well beyond justifying compromise: it justifies corruption. Lincoln and his men, as they are depicted here, do not merely buttonhole and persuade and deceive. They buy votes outright with promises of patronage jobs and (it is strongly suggested) cash bribes. The noblest law imaginable is put over by the most degraded means. As the real-life Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives, is credited with having said after the amendment was finally approved: “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

The movie is fairly hard on crusading reformers like Stevens. The great lesson we are meant to take from his career is that idealists must learn to lie and to keep their mouths shut at critical moments if they wish to be effective. Lobbyists, on the other hand, are a class of people the movie seems at pains to rehabilitate. Spielberg gives us a raffish trio of such men, hired for the occasion by William Seward, and they get the legislative job done by throwing money around, buying off loose votes — the usual. They huddle with the holy Lincoln himself to talk strategy, and in a climactic scene, Spielberg shows us that a worldly lobbyist can work wonders while a public servant dithers about legalisms. Happy banjo-and-fiddle music starts up whenever they are on-screen — drinking, playing cards, dangling lucrative job offers — because, after all, who doesn’t love a boodle-bundling gang of scamps?

To repeat: Spielberg & Co. have gone out of their way to vindicate political corruption. They have associated it with the noblest possible cause; they have made it seem like harmless high jinks for fun-loving frat boys; they have depicted reformers as ideological killjoys who must renounce their beliefs in order to succeed. This is, in short, what Lincoln is about. All right, then: what does it mean to make such a movie in the year 2012?

Tony Kushner, the celebrated playwright who wrote the script for Lincoln, told NPR that the project had allowed him “to look at the Obama years through a Lincoln lens.” As in 1865, he said, there is enormous potential now for “rebuilding a real progressive democracy in this country.” There are “obstacles” to this project, however. And among the most notable ones, in Kushner’s view, are those damn liberals — or more specifically, “an impatience on the part of very good, very progressive people with the kind of compromising that you were just mentioning, the kind of horse trading that is necessary.”

Many observers have described Lincoln as a gloss on President Obama’s struggles with the Republican House of Representatives. The film’s real message, however, is both grander than this and much smaller. It is, in fact, a two-and-a-half-hour étude on yet another favorite cliché: the impracticality of reform.

In truth, though, things are more complicated. Abolition was nine parts grassroots outrage to one part Washington machination. And since the middle of the Bush years, we have been living through another broad revival of reform sentiments. What ignited this revival, and what has kept it going since then, is a disgust with precisely the sort of workaday Washington horse-trading that the makers of this movie have chosen to celebrate. Remember? The Duke Cunningham and Jack Abramoff scandals. The soft-money campaign donations. The lobbyists who wrote the Medicare prescription-drug benefit. The lobbyists who wrote the financial-deregulation laws. The power of money over the state.

I myself think it’s healthy that public outrage over this stuff has simmered on into the Obama years; there’s still plenty to be furious about. The lobbyists may be Democrats now, but they are pulling the wires for the same interests as always. The people who supported the deregulation of Wall Street (or their protégés) are still in power. And even the president’s great health-care triumph was flawed from the beginning, thanks to a heavy thumb on the scales from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

Maybe complaining about all this is yet another hang-up of the contemporary Thaddeus Stevens set, who can’t see that tremendous victories await if they’d just lighten up about reform. But maybe — just maybe — reform is itself the great progressive cause. Maybe fixing the system must come first, as a certain senator from Illinois once seemed to believe, and everything else will follow from that.

Lincoln is a movie that makes viewers feel noble at first, but on reflection the sentiment proves hollow. This is not only a hackneyed film but a mendacious one. Like other Spielberg productions, it drops you into a world where all the great moral judgments have been made for you already — Lincoln is as absolutely good as the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark are absolutely bad — and then it smuggles its tendentious political payload through amid those comfortable stereotypes.

If you really want to explore compromise, corruption, and the ideology of money-in-politics, don’t stack the deck with aces of unquestionable goodness like the Thirteenth Amendment. Give us the real deal. Look the monster in the eyes. Make a movie about the Grant Administration, in which several of the same characters who figure in Lincoln played a role in the most corrupt era in American history. Or show us the people who pushed banking deregulation through in the compromise-worshipping Clinton years. And then, after ninety minutes of that, try to sell us on the merry japes of those lovable lobbyists — that’s a task for a real auteur.


More from

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now