Politics & Government

Doris Kearns Goodwin discusses Lincoln, Obama — and their 'rivals'

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of "Team of Rivals"
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of "Team of Rivals" Theo Kingma / MCT

WASHINGTON — Thousands of Americans have bought Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," after hearing that it shaped President-elect Barack Obama's thinking.

"Rivals," which examines how Lincoln put three of his opponents in the 1860 election in his Cabinet, was No. 14 on Amazon.com's bestseller list the Friday before Thanksgiving, no small feat for three-year-old nonfiction. (Obama's "Audacity of Hope" and "Dreams From My Father" were No. 10 and 11 on that list, respectively.)

Goodwin spoke by phone with McClatchy recently about her take on Obama and the lessons Lincoln offers him:

Q. Barack Obama called you after reading "Team of Rivals" and you met. What did he ask you, and what did you tell him?

A. It was early in the primary process. He hadn't won any of the primaries yet. My husband (Richard Goodwin, an adviser to presidents Kennedy and Johnson) and I went down and visited him in his Senate office. It was very relaxed and fun. That was the first time I'd met him.

He just called me on my cell and said, "This is Barack Obama," and told me he'd read the book and how much he admired Lincoln and how much he thought he could learn from Lincoln. He seems to be a man who thinks about history, which is great.

(We talked about) the Progressive era, the New Deal, the 1960s, when it was ripe for leadership to take the country in a new direction. That was something that happened in Lincoln's time. He (Lincoln) worried that his generation didn't have the challenges that the Founding Fathers had, and that all that was left for his generation was modest ambitions.

Of course, that turned out not to be true. We (Goodwin and her husband) both came out of the meeting having the feeling we were in the presence of someone with a really spacious intellect. I think mostly what he (Obama) had absorbed, which is what he's talked about, was that Lincoln was willing to surround himself with who he thought were not necessarily the rivals — that's become a catchword — but the strongest and most able people even if they argued with him.

Q. When you wrote "Team of Rivals," who would you have predicted would be elected president in 2008, and did you have any thought that your book would be consulted?

A. No! I started writing the book way back in 1995. It took 10 years to write. At the time (of publication) one would have thought it would be Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama, I'd heard him speak at the convention in 2004 and I sat next to Michelle Obama at a luncheon that Teresa Heinz (Kerry, the wife of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry) had put on, but there was no way in '05 that one would think he'd be the nominee, nor could I imagine that the concept that putting together a team in this way would be talked about in this way.

But if you're going to have a mentor, he's (Lincoln) the best. There are temperamental qualities of Lincoln that can help you. He just refused to dwell on past hurts. He didn't have any desire to retaliate on people who'd done things to him in the past. He thought if you let resentments fester, he said, it poisons a part of you.

Another part of his temperament: He had no trouble acknowledging errors when he made them. Whenever something went wrong, he had a tendency to write about it, (as in) after the battle of Bull Run. He shared credit for his success. When someone failed, he often shouldered the responsibility himself to protect the person.

Q. Do you see Obama's outreach to Hillary Clinton and John McCain, and the consideration of tapping Sen. Clinton as secretary of state, as embracing the "team of rivals" idea?

A. I think yes. Mostly what it embraces is the willingness to say, "I want to put around me the people I think are the strongest and most able people," which is exactly what Lincoln did. I think what it shows is he's going to cast as large a net as he can.

Q. What are the biggest lessons Obama can learn from what Lincoln did wrong?

A. One of his weaknesses was his wanting to give everybody a second or third chance, which meant he was too slow in firing people. It was especially damning with Gen. (George S.) McClellan. He trained the troops very well but kept holding back from putting them into battle. Lincoln just kept hoping, "I'll give him more time." Finally he just gave an arbitrary deadline.

And, interestingly, Eleanor Roosevelt said of Franklin (her husband, President Roosevelt) that one of his weaknesses was he liked people, so it was hard to fire them.

Q. If you were to compare Obama based on what you know now to a previous U.S. president, would it be Lincoln or a different president?

A. Both FDR and Lincoln had to deal with crises (of huge national magnitude). What both men had is an internal confidence and a certain serenity to not get rattled.

Q. The Civil War was a different time from this, and the context of a nation at war with itself seems different from the context of a nation politically divided but at war with Islamic radicalism overseas. Is Lincoln's experience relevant?

A. There's no question we're in a very different situation. At bottom, politics, leadership, is about human relations: how you can mobilize people to follow you, how you can bring a country together. Those things are universal.

Q. Do you see this as a Progressive era now?

A. I think it's a possibility. We could indeed be coming into one again.

Q. How would that manifest?

A. Government takes a greater responsibility for the health care of the country, to help alternative energy along in a deeper way, in national service. In each of these (Progressive) eras, it's not just what happens in the government, it's that people feel they want to be a part of what's happening in the country, that the citizens are active.

Q. What are you reading now?

A. I'm mostly reading Teddy Roosevelt now, because the next book I'm going to do is on Teddy Roosevelt and (William Howard) Taft and the muckraker journalists.

Q. Has Obama asked you to play any formal or informal role in the administration?

A. No. But I'd love to help out if I could.


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