Sunday, November 23, 2008


I'm glad we're finally seeing some Doris Kearns Goodwin blowback. Not that I have any problem with her Team of Rivals book. Of course, like most pontificators, I haven't read it. It's like Robin Hood, the book that everyone knows but nobody has read. But the basic idea, that a cabinet filled with egotistical rivals who offer a president a wide range of perspectives is fundamentally good for the country, isn't a bad one. And maybe that's a good model for Obama to be following as he staffs up his own administration.

But one problem with this idea is that it soft-pedals some of the problems Lincoln faced by pursuing this strategy. As Matthew Pinsker points out:

Out of the four leading vote-getters for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination whom Lincoln placed on his original team, three left during his first term -- one in disgrace, one in defiance and one in disgust. [...]

Only Seward endured throughout the Civil War. He and Lincoln did become friends, and he provided some valuable political advice, but the significance of his contributions as Lincoln's secretary of State have been challenged by many historians, and his repeated fights with other party leaders were always distracting.
I also have a general issue with the constant comparisons between Obama and Lincoln. Now, we know Obama is an astute scholar of Lincoln and we can glean much about the president-elect's intellect from that. (I know Susan Schulten is working on an article on this topic and I look forward to reading it.) Also, Gary Wills' comparison of Obama's race speech and Lincoln's Cooper Union address was a really good one.

But I grow concerned when the comparison are less about the men and more about the times. The usual argument made is that both men were elected by a deeply divided nation, and hopefully Obama has the sort of skill necessary to bind up the nation's wounds.

Humbug. America today is divided in the sense that it's filled with liberal and conservatives who disagree deeply about the sorts of policies its government should enact. The differences are substantive and real, but they are neither violent nor insurmountable. There's a broad acceptance that elections are a fair way to settle these differences. Many people are upset about Obama's election, but they accept it as legitimate. They'll fight his proposals largely through legal and political means and will try to run candidates against him the next chance they get. This is not a crisis. This is democracy.

By comparison, imagine if a large group of armed South Carolinians, with the explicit support of their state government, were surrounding a U.S. Army base demanding that the American soldiers inside surrender to them. And imagine they rejected the legitimacy of the incoming president and vowed to destroy the nation because they believed the new president was hostile to their values and traditions. And ten other state governments seemed prepared to join them in this effort. Now that's a culture war, and that's what Lincoln faced in November of 1860. That's a lot different from sushi eaters and Tim LaHaye readers not understanding each other's lifestyles.

That's all I'm saying.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And wasn't she fired from the NewsHour after plagarism accusations? There are no other historians in the world to quote?