Histories are rarely graced with literary invention. Excellent prose, yes. Intriguing insights, sure. But plot? Character development? Tensions? Deceits? Doris Kearns Goodwin does it all in this hefty tome that compares the life and politicking of Lincoln to his contemporaries. To quote the grandfather in the Princess Bride -- "Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles... "
Goodwin immediately draws you into the Civil War era. The tension and danger are so palpable in her writing, you feel as though you are reading newspaper dispatches instead of a biography. The portrait of the coming war is so vivid, you can practically hear the guns roar at Bull Run.
While the pace and excitement of the writing make the book a pleasure to read, what I admire most is the careful, but not tedious, comparison of Lincoln to his chief rivals for the Presidency. The very men he fought to become President graced his cabinet, and it wasn't all gentility. Lincoln found a way to assert his will, while still accepting counsel from men whose ambitions drove them to attack, badger, undermine, antagonize, deride the man himself.
Goodwin writes with a compelling grace, extolling the Lincoln as a political genius. Her case is well proven; Lincoln must be considered a political genius just for attaining the Presidency from within the ranks of the newly minted Republican party. What I saw in her story, and admired even more, was Lincoln as a management genius.
Lincoln not only survived his political adversaries; he was able to recognize their individual strengths and harness their relentless ambitions to accomplish his own agenda. Goodwin makes a clear, strong case for two personal qualities that defined Lincoln's management style: endless magnanimity; and iron resolve.
Throughout his life, Lincoln avoided two mistakes without exception -- he never held a grudge, and he never reversed public positions. From Goodwin's telling, I would say Lincoln's magnanimity was an innate talent of historic proportions. His consistency in public positions, however, goes far beyond mere talents. Based on this biography, I would argue that Lincoln's remarkably steady public record was the direct result of his cabinet structure. By surrounding himself with powerful, ambitious men that matched his own intellect, Lincoln created a private gauntlet for his own ideas. Often he yielded to the arguments of his "Team of Rivals"1 -- modifying his position or reversing his thinking altogether.
Goodwin details the story of one reversal -- Lincoln had wanted to provide tremendous leniency to the South in Reconstruction. He even initially planned to allow the Confederate legislatures to reconvene and repeal their own articles of secession and rejoin the Union. With his entire cabinet against the idea, he recanted. Yet, many of the players involved expressed the notion that if Lincoln had won over even one of them, he would have held original position.
His was a careful calculus, weighing the opinion of many gifted peers against his own thoughts. Lincoln's careful judgment about when to be swayed and when to be firm shine through as his singular gift.
Goodwin also saves her best work for the end of the book. She unfolds the night of Lincoln's assassination, while maintaining her steady comparison between him and his rivals. The result is a truly literary concoction of tensions, entwined lives, multiple perspectives, and ultimately, tragedy.
1. Quoting the title is something I hate reading, but somehow find irresistible when writing. I apologize also.
2. Princess Bride quote verified at the imdb.