Team of Rivals [Book Review]

Yesterday morning, exactly 151 years and 1 day after the death of Abraham Lincoln, I finished the Lincoln biography Team of Rivals. It would not have been so auspicious to me, but I would have finished the last chapter (the one where Doris Kearns Goodwin relates his assassination) 1 day earlier, but I didn’t know if I could handle the last hour of listening to the audiobook, late at night, and having The Good President up and die on me in Ford’s Theatre.

So, a couple comments about audiobooks in general: I always feel like I’m cheating because I don’t use my eyes to digest the information. Why is that? There’s no rule that says if you haven’t looked at the information yourself, you haven’t digested the information. Maybe I didn’t see the footnotes (they seldom read footnotes in audiobooks) but everything was understood. It was all perfectly “there” for me to participate in. In terms of the hardcopy version, it was 916 pages long; something I certainly wouldn’t have time to get through in the time it took me to hear the audiobook. You can do dishes while listening to an audiobook. You can take a walk. You can even be in the shower and finish a chapter. I did all those things.

Doris Kearns Goodwin was amazing. She said in her preface that she had spent ten years of her life with Lincoln and his cabinet. It certainly shows in her writing. We get the feeling of intimacy that often doesn’t come from reading historical accounts.

Everybody writes about Lincoln. The Wall Street Journal estimates that 16,000 books have been written about the sixteenth president, and that folks have penned almost 6,000 biographies. (this was in 2012; the number has surely gone up since then). So Goodwin tackled the problem by focusing on those members Lincoln selected to be on his cabinet: Bates, Chase, Stanton and Seward.  They made a movie about it.

These guys despised him. Bates, Seward and Chase were all defeated by Lincoln in the 1860 republican nomination for the presidency. They thought he was lacking in every way for office of the presidency. Stanton was appalled by the rumpled president, whom he froze out of a patent case while Lincoln was a lawyer. He called him a “long lank creature from Illinois, wearing a dirty linen duster for a coat, on the back of which the perspiration had splotched wide stains that resembled a map of the continent.” This wasn’t an uncommon perception. The newspapers of the day constantly ridiculed the 6’4″ Lincoln for his dress, and his lack of social grace. (I am taller than Lincoln was. Just an FYI.)

Most of these guys also despised each other. This made things even more tricky.

The amazing thing is that Lincoln brushed aside this scorn and the complaints, and held the newly-appointed cabinet officials even closer, eventually causing them to work together as a team; and eventually earning their respect as a master tactician.

Spoiler Altert: Lincoln dies at the end. I didn’t cry when this happened. I did, however, cry when his cabinet, those grumbling archrivals, all broke down in tears. They kept the information from Secretary of State Seward, who was recuperating from a carriage accident, and was himself the victim of an assassination attempt. He commented to a friend three days later, “the president is dead, isn’t he? He would not have failed to call on me when he heard the news, and he hasn’t even sent a note. I can only conclude that he is dead.”

My takeaways from the book?

Okay, here’s a shocker. It’s very seldom I read anything that makes me want to try to be a better person. This book did it for me.

Lincoln’s personality was so strong that, while constant criticism seemed to bend him, it rarely, if ever snapped him. He was the master of mastering himself. He would never throw a harsh word at someone criticizing him. I don’t know how he could do it. I don’t generally snap at someone who annoys me, but I certainly might rant and rail later on, to a friend or confidant. There’s no evidence that the president ever even did that.

He never, ever went back on his word once he decided to do something. He was slow to decide on occasion–was constantly criticized, in fact–but once he made up his mind, he would not turn back from his plan. This was even true on the day of his assassination–he did not want to go to Ford’s Theatre, but the press reported he was going to be there, so he went. How many times have I blown off something I simply didn’t want to do?

One final note.  It is extremely rare that, upon finishing a book, I find myself wanting to start over from the beginning and digest it again. This was one of those times.

Kudos to Ms. Goodwin.

Five stars out of Five.



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