Tuesday, September 15, 2009

He Still Belongs to the Ages

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Honestly, these boneheads who call themselves leaders today could take a lesson from Lincoln (are you listening, Joe Wilson?). The more I read about Lincoln, the more obsessed I become with him, and the more I want to read about his life and character. Team of Rivals is not a traditional biography, although it spans Lincoln's life. Instead, it is a thorough, well-researched look at Lincoln's relationships with his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. The book show us Lincoln's young life and development, but also that of William Henry Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates. Goodwin does an amazing job of giving us mini-biographies of each of these presidential hopefuls, and each one was an interesting and brilliant person in his own right.

The book also devotes a lot of attention to Lincoln's relationship with Edwin Stanton, a rather arrogant man who had looked down on Lincoln and majorly dissed him when they were supposed to work together on a court case in the 1850s. In spite of that shaky beginning, Lincoln eventually appointed Stanton to the vitally important position of Secretary of War. Stanton developed tremendous respect for Lincoln and the two became close friends. When Lincoln drew his last breath in the boardinghouse across the street from Ford's Theater early in the morning of April 14, 1865, it was Stanton who uttered the now famous words "Now he belongs to the ages."

Lincoln possessed an incredible capacity to be magnanimous to those who were uncharitable toward him, and he was able to rise above the sharp elbows of political life. He seemed to almost never take criticism personally, and would listen if someone challenged his point of view. When he assumed the office of POTUS, he gave his three closest rivals important positions in his Cabinet, because he believed they were the best ones for the jobs. Henry Seward was made Secretary of State, Edward Bates Attorney General, and Salmon Chase was Secretary of the Treasury. Lincoln had his hands full not only with developing his own relationships with these stubborn and (sometimes) arrogant men, he also frequently had to referee between them and soothe the ire brought about by their competition with one another. He steered the ship through one of the worst periods in our history, and brought out the best in each member of the team.

The person who had to have been the most major challenge for Lincoln was Salmon P. Chase. Chase felt entitled to be POTUS, and believed that the prize should have been his, even though he had made enemies in his career because he was so ruthless and unforgiving. While serving as Lincoln's Treasury Secretary (which he did most capably), he began a bid to unseat Lincoln in the 1964 election. Lincoln dealt with all this with an enviable amount of equanimity and good nature. He seemed to sense that Chase would hang himself on his own rope, but still if it were me I would have a difficult time not responding in anger. Lincoln not only did not get angry, he recognized Chase's abilities and appreciated them. After all of Chase's shenanigans, Lincoln appointed him to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at the beginning of his second term. Talk about gracious.

Team of Rivals helped me to understand even more the mystique that surrounds Abraham Lincoln. He was a truly unique person and president. He was not without his personal ambitions and ego issues (but is any of us, really?), yet was somehow able to remain focused and clear-headed under unbelievable pressure. The grace that he showed to his Cabinet members also extended to his military generals (even when they undermined him and the war effort, as General George McClellan did for several months), his family, and even random people stopping in at the White House to seek his help (clearly, things were different then). I believe (as I have written elsewhere) that the process of Reconstruction would have gone so much more smoothly if he had not been assassinated.

It seems serendipitous that there is so much material available about Lincoln right now - we could benefit from our leaders taking a page from his playbook. President Obama displayed some similar magnanimity when he appointed his former rival Hilary Clinton to be Secretary of State, but his example has yet to be picked up by his political opponents. Moreover, his detractors are pulling out all the stops to undermine his work and lower the level of civility in public discourse. I am dismayed by the fear mongering and outright manipulation of the truth that is supposed to pass for dialogue and debate right now. I wonder if Lincoln watches what goes on and shakes his head in sorrow. I imagine him thinking "They can do better than this. They are all Americans." He would be right.

Reverent Reader


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