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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006 10:02 pm

A few good men

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin looks at Lincoln’s inner circle

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Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, in a sense, worked her way up to the nation’s greatest leader by first producing several acclaimed political studies of some of the 20th century’s best-known presidents. Her journey to Abraham Lincoln began with another wartime leader whose political career ended unhappily. Goodwin, who earned a doctorate in government at Harvard University, was an assistant to President Lyndon Johnson during his final year in office, and she later helped Johnson with his memoirs. This experience provided the impetus for her first book, Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream (1976). The book made the New York Times bestseller list and was followed by other political studies: The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga (1987) and No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (1995). The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys was made into a six-hour television miniseries, and No Ordinary Time won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. Goodwin also is the author of Wait Till Next Year (1998), a memoir about growing up in Brooklyn and following her beloved Dodgers. She since has become one of the nation’s top analysts of the presidency. Until 2002, when she acknowledged that she had not properly credited passages from another historian’s work in her book about the Kennedys, she was a regular on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer; she currently works as a commentator for NBC programs such as Meet the Press. In her latest book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Goodwin examines how Lincoln forged an administration of political opponents, building a coalition that would allow him to govern as the nation was split asunder. Goodwin will be in Springfield this weekend for book signings and talks, including an appearance on Saturday at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, where she’ll be interviewed by museum director Richard Norton Smith. From 11:30 a.m. to 12:50 p.m., Goodwin will join other historians at a book signing at the Old State Capitol, and she’ll continue to sign books at the presidential-museum gift shop from 1 to 2:30 p.m. She is also the featured speaker at the sold-out Abraham Lincoln Symposium on Sunday night at the Old State Capitol. Illinois Times interviewed Goodwin last week. ______________
IT: Having lived in Springfield my entire life, Lincoln seems like not only the icon we have come to know but also the neighbor across town. Your new book, Team of Rivals, captures both sides of him.
Goodwin: Oh good, because that’s what I really hoped.
IT: Let’s start with the title. How can you have a team if its members are rivals? And for those who haven’t read the book, who were these competitors?
Goodwin: Sure. I think what is most remarkable about Lincoln is that awareness, once he won the nomination and then the election to the surprise of the country, that he needed to surround himself with people who were better known and seemingly stronger than he was. And the people he put in really were in some ways some of the best known people in the North — I mean William H. Seward, particularly, having been governor and senator of New York, and in many ways it seemed to me that the most colorful character in the 1850s and the name on most Republicans’ lips probably in terms of expectation about who would get the presidential nomination. Salmon P. Chase, so opposite from Seward, in the sense that, unlike Seward, who loved to drink and smoke and talk to the wee hours of the morning, he was much more stiff and proper. Chase spent his evenings trying to practice jokes that he never could deliver and never did lose his ambition to be president, but yet becomes, as you know, a very successful secretary of the treasury. And then Edwards Bates, that elder statesman, who had a very classy reputation in the nation, and especially in the North, so that he becomes the attorney general. And I think that what happens when Lincoln brings them together is that, even though they’re rivals with each other as well as to him, he somehow is able to get them each to do an excellent job at their own position and really to pull together as a team even if they are at times at each others’ throats. So that’s where the whole idea of a “team of rivals” comes from.
IT:The book is 750 pages, with an additional 100-or-so pages of footnotes. Tell me about your source material. Did you avail yourself of the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library?
Goodwin: I was in Springfield several times during the research for the book. [State historian] Tom Schwartz was the best. I went to what was there at the time before it became the library. I went, of course, to the house and saw the law office and the Old State Capitol, and I spoke there. And I did go to Lexington and the various places in Kentucky.
IT:Did you see the Mary Todd House [in Lexington]?
Goodwin: Yes. It’s so interesting to see because she has these double parlors in the house which she then tries to replicate in the Springfield house. There was material in Springfield, and just knowing Kim Bauer [curator, presidential museum] and Tom Schwartz when I needed to find something, they were really helpful because I had met them early on in the process.
IT:Did you make it out to New Salem?
Goodwin: I did see New Salem, which is a strange place. It feels remote, but somehow, seeing the tavern and the little stores, you can feel that it was a community. To go back to your question of sources, probably the sources that mattered the most were the fact that Seward and Chase, and Bates — and Edwin Stanton, too — wrote so many letters to their families and kept these long wonderful diaries. The fact that they wrote thousands of letters to their family and kept these long introspective diaries allowed Lincoln to emerge through their picture images of him.
IT:That leads me to my next question. Given the recent controversy over memoir and creative nonfiction, how do you decide when you are reading these diaries and letters — for instance, the diary of Chase’s daughter, Kate — when do they embellish? How do you separate out what really happened?
Goodwin: I think what you really have to do you have to figure out, you know, to some extent, the diary entry that’s written the day of the event is going be somewhat closer, you would hope, to at least the person’s emotions about the day, if not always the facts. And the great thing is that so many of them kept diaries . . . so you can often read conflicting accounts of the same event that happened that day. So in the end you just have to decide that you think you know your characters or these people and you just decide what seems to ring true, knowing your person after a period of time. But you’re right, especially in the case of Kate Chase’s diary — some of that was written after the fact — then you know if you’re writing it later you’re writing it through the prism of what you’re feeling at that time.
IT:And she’s not around to verify it.
Goodwin: That’s right. But I think compared to, suppose, like, in the 20th-century research that I’ve done before, you’re doing interviews, but those interviews may often be way after the fact. And then you’ve got the fragile nature of people’s memories. At least it seems to me with letters written at the time and diary entries those very nights you’re as close to the events as possible and it does have a kind of truthfulness to it.
IT:One of the relationships I noticed in Team of Rivals was that between father and daughter — Seward’s daughter Fanny, Chase’s daughter Kate, whom you call almost a “surrogate wife.” Lincoln had no daughter. Did he have close female friends other than Mary?
Goodwin: It doesn’t seem so. No, it really doesn’t. It’s interesting, too; it seemed in all those families — and I hadn’t thought about this whole father-daughter thing until you said it — because even in Bates’ family there’s one of those daughters, who stays with the family and doesn’t get married. It does seem in a lot of these large families at that time that one of the daughters stays home and becomes the glue for the family in later years. And it’s possible that if Lincoln had had daughters, maybe he would have been more at ease with women. . . . Aside from Mary, he seemed much more at ease with the men in his life.
IT:And the closeness of his male friendships, as you talk about, led to the idea that he was gay. But isn’t that just the way men related to one another then?
Goodwin: Oh, I think that’s absolutely right. I think, interestingly at that time, I think there probably weren’t as many examples of men-women friendships — true friendships — because of the social constrictions of whether you could be in a room alone with a man if you weren’t married to him and the whole need for chaperones, so it meant that men had much closer relationships with other men and women had much closer relationships with other women, because that dividing line was part of the culture at the time
IT:And the father-daughter thing might be, in some cases, simply because the mother is either exhausted or too busy rearing the other children, or she’s died in childbirth.
Goodwin: That’s exactly right, which is so often the truth, obviously as with Kate and her father. And Mrs. Bates — with 17 children though only nine were there, she needs help. And Mrs. Seward had Fanny to help her. But as you rightly point out in the question, if we start thinking about Abe Lincoln as gay because he slept in the same bed with Joshua Speed, or wrote affectionate letters to him, it really is taking out of context the fact that in that day and age many men slept in the same bed. On that circuit, when Lincoln traveled around, there were sometimes three of them to a bed. And the letters that Stewart exchanged with his friend in the Legislature or Stanton wrote to Chase when they were young men are much more romantic than the ones that Lincoln wrote to Speed, and yet no one talked of them being gay.
IT:Lincoln’s temperament: You chronicle his oversize ambition, yet you also talk about his empathy and his humility. How can you be that ambitious and still be humble?
Goodwin: Well, I think if your ambition is for something as large as his was — to accomplish something worthy so your story can be told after you die — then I think, in the short term, you’re willing to put your ego aside for that longer-term purpose. I don’t think he ever really was humble in the sense of being modest about his intelligence or his talents. I think he understood that he had special gifts, but on the other hand he never seemed to need to project himself as a superior figure when he was dealing with other individuals, compared to [Gen. George] McClellan strutting around or needing to be accompanied by a phalanx of aides. And Lincoln had, his way of dealing with other people, had a certain kind of humility to it. I guess there’s a difference between humility and ordinariness and a willingness to do whatever’s necessary to deal well with people vs. being humble about your own talents.
IT:Much has been made about Lincoln’s depression. What did you see as Lincoln’s anti-depressant?
Goodwin: Well, it seems to me that he knew himself so well, it’s almost as if he were his own best shrink, in a way. First of all I came away feeling that we’ve probably overdone the depression, only because, as I listened to everybody talking about him during the presidential years, there’s almost no time when he is dysfunctional, when he takes to his bed. He’s the one sustaining everyone else’s spirits. It seems like once he’s in the presidency and he knows his talents are being realized, even though it’s difficult, and it’s rational for him to be sad much of the time. It makes sense [for him to be melancholy] if 10,000 people have just died that day. And he loses Willie . . . . It seems to me that he’s got a real ability to soothe himself when he gets sad. To some extent it is the humor that he brings forth to the surface, telling stories. To some extent it’s being willing to go out and night and go to a Shakespeare play, to be able to get away from the anxiety of the day. He goes to the battlefronts right after a battle has been lost, knowing somehow if he can walk among the soldiers and bolster their morale it will bring his own morale back. It just seemed to me he was very aware of his own moods and he knew how to soothe himself and get himself out of those moods, which was an extraordinary thing to do.
IT:You mentioned his storytelling and his humor as antidotes to his depression. What other purposes did the storytelling serve? Goodwin: It seemed almost like he had a computer in his brain that when some issue was being discussed, it’s as if he could say, “Ah yes, that reminds me of a story” — and the story would often illustrate whatever was being discussed, or it would take the tension away from some confrontation. Or by self-deprecating he could make somebody feel better about themselves. It seemed like they had a moral or a point. Obviously he read Aesop’s Fables as a young boy. Those stories always have a moral or some larger tale to tell, and it seems like Lincoln’s did as well. They seem to serve enormous numbers of purposes, ranging back from when he was a little kid standing on a tree stump and entertaining his friends in the field to the days when he’s a lawyer and people come from miles around to listen to him tell stories in the taverns at night.
IT:Good writers are often good storytellers. One of the things I noticed about Team of Rivals is that you did a marvelous job of inserting details to tell your story. One of them — and you’ve already mentioned George McClellan — is the night Lincoln went to see him and sat in the parlor and McClellan came home, went upstairs and went to bed, completely snubbing the president.
Goodwin: What happens, hopefully, by having stories like that, your emotions do get involved. There were times when I just wanted to yell at Chase, “Stop doing that!” or similarly to McClellan — or other times I just felt so grateful that Seward was able to put his ambitions aside and entertain Lincoln at night as the two of them would sit in Seward’s house until midnight talking to each other and Seward drinking and taking his cigars and smoking — or whatever that snuff stuff is. Those things do bring these people to life, and then you do feel emotionally about what they’re doing to each other.
IT:Lincoln never kept a diary, but of course we have his speeches. You say in your book he was a great communicator, but there’s a difference between being a great communicator and just writing and delivering great speeches. Can you talk about him as a communicator?
Goodwin: What it means probably for a president to be a great communicator is not only the words of the speeches but the timing of them and where and when you chose to speak to the public. Part of his great skill as a communicator was knowing where is there a moment when the morale of the North is diminished and I’ve gotta go and send a public letter that will then get reprinted and put in the newspapers or I’ve gotta deliver a speech that will then get a lot of attention, and then being able to know what the theme of those speeches or letters should be, depending on what’s happening in the country at that time. So I think you’re right; it is something even broader than just the words. It’s where you choose to speak. My husband, who wrote speeches for John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, always talks about the fact that a great speech has to have an occasion to make it work. If Patrick Henry went before the Chamber of Commerce and said, “Give me liberty or give me death!” it’s not going to have a lasting historical ring.
IT:In an interview with Charlie Rose in December 2005, you said that politicians these days say they don’t make decisions on the basis of polls and that you didn’t necessarily think that that was a good thing. I think that is similar to what you’re talking about here — how politicians need to know their constituencies.
Goodwin: That’s exactly right. It seems like they’re all taking such pride in saying, “No, no, I never look.” First of all, they all do look at the polls, even when they say they don’t. What is true is that if the polls become imprisoning you — if you think, “OK, this is the way people feel — I can only do what they’re telling me,” then, of course, it’s not leadership. It does seem like it’s important to know what the people are feeling so you can know where they’re at so you can move them to where you hope they’ll be, to move toward some positive goal — and Lincoln was not at all shy talking about the importance of understanding where the people were and of moving them step by step to where he wanted them to go.
IT:He also followed his conscience in his only term as congressman when he showed his opposition to the Mexican-American War.
Goodwin: It’s a weird thing. The war is sort of winding to a close when he gets there, but [President James] Polk deliberately wants the Congress to pass a resolution that’s sustaining the rationale for entering the war. So that’s what Lincoln said. If he hadn’t been asked to do anything, then maybe he wouldn’t have made that big speech against Polk, but, because he was asked, that’s what brought him into saying that, the war had been, in his view, started on false prospects. And if we allow a president to enter a war whenever he wants to by claiming falsely that the other people had attacked us, then you lose that whole idea of Congress and what its responsibility is. But at the time the war was so popular in bringing lots of territory into the United States that somebody likened him to Benedict Arnold. You know, never question a president in a time of war. And then he had to defend himself by saying he never did vote against supplies for the soldiers, sounding very much like John Kerry.
IT:Do you think if Lincoln were in Congress today he would have opposed the invasion of Iraq?
Goodwin: Knowing what it’s like to send soldiers into harm’s way, we presume he would have kept that debate going longer than it did. I look back on the real failure [on Iraq] — Congress on both sides of the aisle was so anxious to get that debate over with because it was before the midterm elections. It never really did question or tap the kind of time that would have been necessary before authorizing the president to go to war.
IT:You say that you think that politics should be an honorable profession, and obviously you think that Lincoln was an honorable man. Following his lead, what could politicians do today to make their profession more honorable?
Goodwin: What interested me really was the idea that the kind of qualities that, interestingly they’re qualities that we often associate with women as opposed to men and sometimes in women they’re seen as weaknesses, which are compassion and sensitivity, empathy. In Lincoln’s hands, though, those kinds of qualities were great political resources because, in the long run, politics is all about human relationships, and if you’re willing to understand that, if you’re able to deal kindly with people, they will reward you in the long run, even though in the short run you might be angry, if you can subordinate your anger and be able to deal on a cooling-down basis as he did. Lincoln gave that temperance speech — temperance then was like the abortion issue today — and says you’re never going to change anyone’s mind if you keep denouncing people who drink as the cause of all evil in the land. Denunciation leads to denunciation, and you gotta reach to their heart. That would be so true today. When you think about politicians just yelling at one another – point-counterpoint — they go on television at night and it’s always the most extreme positions that make it onto the point-counterpoint. There are the personal attacks that are so prevalent now in the campaigns, making it harder when one person wins and the other loses to shake hands and then become friends again.
IT:OK, last question. You say that when you finally finish a book, you miss its characters. Do you think that you’re going to miss them as much as the Red Sox will miss Johnny Damon?
Goodwin: Oh yes, I suspect I will. You know, there are teenage girls crying at the thought of Johnny Damon being gone. But you know it’s part of modern baseball where loyalty is no longer a two-way street. It’s very sad. But we’ve now got this new guy called Cocoa Crisp — we’ve got a cereal coming to replace Johnny Damon!
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