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A leader of grit and generosity

Doris Kearns Goodwin examines the political genius of Abraham Lincoln

By Randy Dotinga / November 1, 2005



He was a hick country lawyer with all the down-home quirks of a frontiersman: His clothes were rumpled and he walked as if his legs needed oiling. His political experience was almost as unimpressive. While he'd made a slight mark as a freshman congressman, it was for all the wrong reasons: He'd brashly accused a sitting president of ginning up evidence to push the country into a needless war.

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No wonder hardly anyone thought much of Abraham Lincoln's chances for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Essentially, he was the fourth man in a three-man race, up against a trio of politicians with loads of experience as governors and senators.

But Mr. Lincoln carefully carved out a moderate position on slavery and transformed himself from an also-ran to Republican party nominee. He won again in November. Then, in a remarkable display of equanimity, he immediately asked his three convention foes join his cabinet.

They agreed, with visions of President Pushover dancing in their heads. But they soon learned better, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin explains in her captivating 916-page book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

In this immense and immensely readable work, Ms. Goodwin uncovers how Lincoln's unusual combination of forgiving human spirit and savvy political instincts converted his enemies into (mostly) loyal friends and advisers.

Without their expertise and guidance, Lincoln could have lost the Civil War; without his careful steering, the bipartisan cabinet would have dissolved into endless angling for power.

Thanks to voluminous letters and diaries, William Seward and Salmon Chase - Lincoln's Secretary of State and the Treasury - are the most vividly portrayed cabinet members in "Team of Rivals."

Mr. Seward comes across as one of the forgotten heroes of American history. He emerges as an energetic and inspiring abolitionist who provides the basic wording that Lincoln - in one of history's great feats of editing - turned into the powerful poetry of his second inaugural address.

Mr. Chase - the man whose grim face stares out from defunct $10,000 bills - is nearly a comic villain, constantly plotting to gain power and endlessly threatening to resign. But even he, often unwittingly, serves Lincoln's ends.

Goodwin isn't a prose stylist, and she could have included less play-by-play and more color commentary. But this veteran of books on the presidencies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy is still a master storyteller, and she includes dozens of memorable anecdotes.

Some of the tales resonate today, including those portraying Lincoln's masterly use of press leaks and his obsession with campaign battleground states. She also includes tales of some of Lincoln's political missteps, including the young Abe's ill-advised attacks on President Polk over the Mexican War.

Other stories liven "Team of Rivals" with delicious comedy.

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