“Why, if the old Greeks had had this man, what trilogies of plays—what epics—would have been made out of him! How the rhapsodes would have recited him! How quickly that quaint tall form would have enter’d into the region where men vitalize gods, and gods divinify men! But Lincoln, his times, his death—great as any, any age—belong altogether to our own.”—Walt Whitman, “Death of Abraham Lincoln, 1879”
How do you fall so mushily in love with a man, a century and half late?
You read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account of Abraham Lincoln’s political sojourn.
A friend had just watched Daniel Day Lewis spectacular performance in Lincoln where the ace movie director Steven Spielberg had once again dazzled with his genius, and would not let me be. He had seen the movie again and again, over the last year and wouldn’t stop harassing me to go see the movie (I always harass him to give his brain to books too).
We would be having a random discussion, and from nowhere this Lincolnyte would slip into this unfamiliar brogue that was too often an epic failure at a Lincoln impression. If I didn’t catch it, he was quick to point out what it was to me. I figured if my friend (a movie buff, albeit a snub) was this impressed and was willing to so make a fool of himself, maybe I ought to see the damn movie.
The thing is, I had read a review of the book from which the film was adapted and I had managed to get a copy which was quite hefty. The movie was only 3hrs long, as my friend had told me, but it’ll take me days to finish the book. As a bookie, movies are an inadequate substitute for books and I wasn’t going to allow Spielberg sketch on the blank canvass of my mind with his version of the story. So before I saw the movie, I decided to read the book on which the film was partially adapted; Team of Rivals – The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 2005).
For such a hefty book, reading Goodwin was an absolute delight. She was this uber-efficient Secretary taking the minute of Lincoln’s life, leaving nothing undone. She made Lincoln look good. What could have been a trite, boring detail of a man’s life became a highly engaging literary experience. To be sure, I wasn’t exactly new to Lincoln or anything. In fact as a doe-eyed ten year old, I once memorized the Gettysburg address to impress an uncle – an American-returnee once, but what Goodwin offered was the definitive book on a man who arguably has had the most books written about him. She was a tour guide leading her readers by the hand, covering every aspect of Abraham Lincoln’s life from his uneventful birth to his ill-fated assassination. She made sure everyone that had contact with Lincoln had their time too. It was this three dimensional aspect of the book that made it feel ‘like a frigate, that takes you lands away’.
While Lincoln stood like a giant oak in the book, others were not left out. We caught more than a glimpse of his wife Mary Todd, his friend Joshua Speed his cabinet members and former rivals; New York Senator William H. Seward (Secretary of State), Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase (Secretary of the Treasury), Missouri’s distinguished elder statesman Edward Bates (Attorney General), former Democrats; Gideon Welles (Secretary of the Navy), Montgomery Blair (Postmaster General) Edwin Stanton (Secretary of War). This was an unusual cabinet; ambitious men with different interests and the craftiest ploys. Every meeting was suffused with drama; enemies with deep-seated contempt glared openly at each other, political scores were tallied with the hardest punch rolling off bitter tongues. Everyone seemed to be competing for Lincoln’s ears ostensibly to edge out the other in this cat- and-mouse game. It was a torrid affair.
With another man at the helm, the ballast of egos would have sunk the ship of the nation. As Goodwin rightly pointed out, “[Lincoln’s] success in dealing with the strong egos of the men in his cabinet suggests that in the hands of a truly great politician the qualities we generally associate with decency and morality—kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, and empathy—can also be impressive political resources.”
Reconciling these different interests is a clear testament to Lincoln’s inimitable leadership quality.
But why did he choose these very disparate individuals in the first place, you may ask?
The answer lay in Lincoln’s believe in the ultimate good of man. He was an impossibly magnanimous man, with a charitable trust of benefits- to friends and foe alike. For instance, his patience and forbearance with the smug General; George B. McClellan still has my blood boiling with rage.
It’s hard to tell how much of Lincoln’s inadequacies failed to strike Goodwin’s good, if hawkish eye. I believe the decency of the man Lincoln doth render apart the Shakespearean mores of an enduring evil and a transient good. Unlike that other great figure of historical reckoning from across the Atlantic who straddled his burgeoning empire in power and glory centuries before: Julius Caesar, Lincoln needed no trumpeteering Mark Antony to sing his dirge, or to stir the people to reverence. Books after books have bequeathed upon this man the noblest honour that any man has had in the history of mankind. Everybody loves Honest Abe.
If Mark Antony tried to refute by proxy the unofficial charge of “ambition” made by Julius Caesar’s traducers against Caesar, Goodwin exalted Lincoln’s ambition as a desperate longing for recognition bordering on solicitousness. Perhaps this has a lot to do with Lincoln’s disadvantaged childhood.
Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. I have no other as great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition , is yet to be developed- 23-year old Abraham Lincoln
And what’s more? There is an uncanny parallel to these two men: Caesar and Lincoln.
The two great men met their ends in the same way. They died within two months of their 56th birthday, before they could accomplish their life’s work
Often when the life of a man as big as Lincoln is to be documented and an adequate amount of time has passed, we often forget that they are human at all. The unsavoury aspect of their humanity, common to all, are allowed to settle and are then ran off like an effluent unfit to be remotely associated with such an image. While Goodwin may have pandered to the sterling image of Abraham Lincoln, she dug beneath the charisma for the clumsy, the oratorical for the incoherent, the heroic for the insecure, straddling the world of the coffee-drinking shrink with a hawkishness that prods deep.
Here we saw a young Lincoln so insecure, so despondent to the point of being suicidal? He was ordinary until he did extraordinary feats. There were no markings of a great man. His was not a fate written in the stars. His career as a lawyer and then a politician skittered in fits and starts before he came to national limelight. His nomination as the Republican Party candidate in 1860 was a fallout of a fierce horn-locking battle between two titans; Seward and Chase who did themselves in by totally snubbing and disregarding a relatively unknown Lincoln. Abe became the underdog who went home with the price by sheer providence. What strategy he had would have failed ignonimously if the other contenders had paid him the slightest of attention. The New York Herald regarded him as a “fourth rate lecturer who cannot speak good grammar” – one who slid to the Republican nomination slot as a dump down of ‘small intellect, growing smaller”.
Ha. Abraham Lincoln fa?!
Today, Lincoln has been so haloed; he makes the United States look like a midget.
The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln . His example is universal and will last thousands of years… he was bigger than his country – bigger than all the Presidents together…and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives – Leo Tolstoy, The World, New York, 1909.
Lincoln’s story through the eyes of Goodwin is a cache of leadership (and human) qualities that adumbrates the good in man – his magnanimous spirit, his first-rate mind, his infectious cheeriness, his radiant bonhomie.
It wasn’t enough for him to be the President of the United States. He had to go beyond the sinecure to challenge the status quo in a rather delicate move that required precision in the timing and a sure foot in the act of persuasion. He bore a hole through a document thought to be faultless and he got the 13th amendment for it against all odds. How he managed that? Well, that’s one very fine class act of political machination! Here what he had to say: “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing.”
“A real democracy would be a meritocracy where those born in the lower ranks could rise as far as their natural talents and discipline might take them.”
“To Lincoln’s mind, the fundamental test of a democracy was its capacity to “elevate the condition of men, to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all.”
He was funny, he was melancholic and he was smart. He loved to read, he loved the arts- and he died for it too.
Beneath the swashbuckling speeches was a careful thinker – a poet, an inventor, a Shakespearean aficionado. I still have images of him pacing the floor of the White House late at night in deep contemplation, brows furrowed like lines on a chartered map. His dark moods are as famous as his public meetings. He loved to peer into people’s minds, to bounce around ideas; nimbly weighing, adroitly accessing and patiently waiting for the current to serve him.
In the just concluded election, Hillary Clinton tried to channel Lincoln’s power of equivocality in one of the pre-election debates and got walloped by Trump’s biting retort. It was like a moment of Jesus I know, and Paul I know, how do you fit in here Madame?…
That left a bitter taste in my mouth (I as a Clinton supporter) but not as much as what was to come after.
I could go on and on about Doris Kearns’ Lincoln, and I have a full note of scribbled material to show for it, but I’ll leave it here. Lincoln the movie is good; it’s only a hair’s breadth of Team of Rivals.
Go read the book. Every page is worth it.