Saturday, November 28, 2009

Team of Rivals

Putzd about with books this year. A bio of Joe McCarthy. A thing about the Gospels by Gary Willis. John Wooden book on how to be a good basketball player. Mailer’s Fire on the Moon in honor of the Lunar Commemoration. One thing I actually finished was Team of Rivals. This Lincoln book didn’t quite hit the mark compared to some of my other history ‘books of the year’ - on Eisenhower, on McArthur, of Grant (is there an apparent thread here?) – but here goes on a book report..

Before Abraham Lincoln was an improbable president, he was an improbable presidential candidate. A bitterly poor youth – he worked every kind of job (land tiller, mule skinner, boat guy, and so on) as he sought to rise from the impoverished mire – was dramatically capped with two years in the 1840s as a Congressman where he unpopularly challenged the Mexican War.

But then, quickly, it was back to Illinois for a very long stint as a circuit court rider lawyer. He benefited fortuitously from the locale of the 1860 Republican convention: Chicago. There, as the young party searched for a middle ground candidate between blood thirsty abolitionist Republicans and inbred racist Republicans, he won the day.

A deep depression of Lincoln’s early manhood became carefully modulated in later years. He came to be seen as a very fair, understanding person. When he won the election, riding on a middle plank, he sought, rather like John Kennedy one hundred years later in his nomination, to unite his party by hiring-on his most critical opponents as cabinet members (as Kennedy did in selecting top contender Lyndon Johnson as running mate). Lincoln’s choices for top cabinet counselors’ – Chase, Bates, Seward – all were far wealthier, and accomplished. And they thought Lincoln to be an overmatched hick. One, Chase, never really overcame his aristocratic politician’s disdain for Lincoln. The story of how deft hick Lincoln melded these adversaries into an effective cabinet is the story of Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin produced a highly readable work that effectively brings you back to the daunting days of the Lincoln Administration.

In Team of Rivals, we get a view of the war from the White House, not the battlefield. For devotees of political history, it should prove of special interest.

Ultimately, however, this view of the executive suite doesn’t quite live up to its potential to tell the epic story of America’s great upheaval. Kearns Goodwin has hit the convention ciruit with the book, showing how corporate executives can benefit from studying Lincoln’s approach to governance. Portions of the book read like notes for PowerPoint presentations for just such a crowd.

When she is summing up sectional themes with the intention to provide bullet point ‘to-dos’ for the executive crowd, the prose path gets rocky. The occasional turgid straights strand this book short of such presidential biographies as Morris’s take on T. Roosevelt, or McCoullough’s portrait of H.S. Truman. Kearns Goodwin’s book does not stoop so very low, but it skirts the netherland of formulaic history-books-tailored-to-the-needs-of-today’s-executive; this segment has its pantheon, an ever-changing one led by such titles such as Patton: World’s Greatest Salesman; How Robert E. Lee Would Hire; or, Stonewall Jackson on the Art of the Deal.

Kearns Goodwin builds the case that Lincoln’s hardscrabble frontier experiences significantly separated him from his rivals. He bested them because he was more a doer .. ’more accustomed of working to shape his own destiny.’ But while he knew the rough side (like such that followed him as Lyndon Johnson), he was ‘tremendously temperate and patient.’[p.254-255, paperback edition]

He comes off as a bit of the quintessential Midwesterner. He never seemed to be off balance. He seemed to avoid extremes. Not a small temptation in the Republican party of his time. Not a small temptation in the America leading up to and including the Civil War.

He could fumble and stumble about, as he did with a succession of Union generals. And as he did with the notion of emancipation of slaves. Yet he could make necessary decisions. And when he found his army chief in Grant, and his political manifesto in the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln appeared as a great leader – but, still, a remarkable mix of the firm and the mild. [p.262]

All and all, this comes across in Kearns Goodwin’s writing, but the pontoon bridge that gets it over is a bit of a feeble artifice, build to suit the dual and devilish purpose of telling history and cheering on corporate managers.

No doubt, today’s management class needs some new insights in order to better manage. But general conclusions taken from Lincoln’s four years in power are probably not enough to deter them from continuing to do what they are already doing, albeit with a slightly more sophisticated sense of nuance. The book lacks the fire of history experienced, and, as such, a lecture based on the text is most likely a quick route to reinforcement and buttressing, not illumination. But if you eat up them U.S. history books, you will probably have more joy than pain in the reading of Team of Rivals.

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