Doris Kearns Goodwin on Lincoln and Obama
With Barack Obama being sworn in as the 44th president of the United States today, and his fierce rival for the nomination, Hillary Clinton, having her confirmation hearings to become his Secretary of State last week--and with the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln coming up next month--it seemed like a good time to talk to Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose big Lincoln book, Team of Rivals, was published in 2005 but has become even more talked about since. We spoke to her by phone last Wednesday, just before she headed to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration and for a live Oprah show tomorrow. I was hardly the first to ask her about the Lincoln-Obama connection, but ask I did, as well as bringing in FDR, Darwin, and her next subject, Teddy Roosevelt. (And I had to ask whether she remembered her last visit to our offices, when Team of Rivals came out, which resulted in this favorite photo. It turns out that she's been telling that story as much as we have ever since--although she has not gotten her own tattoo.)
Here's our interview, in both podcast and, after the jump, full transcript formats:
Amazon.com: I'm used to talking to people whose books have just come out. But obviously, Team of Rivals came out in 2005, but we're still talking about it today. Did you have any idea that it would have that kind of staying power?
Goodwin: No, there was no way of knowing. I mean, people have teased me when I wrote the book, was I thinking that Obama was going to like Abraham Lincoln, and be similar to him in some ways. But at the time when I wrote the book, which was 10 years before it was published, he wasn't even on the national horizon. So it's been a wonderful coincidence of a president-elect who really seems to have taken Lincoln to heart and has read this book and really, hopefully, has learned from it.
Amazon.com: Was "Team of Rivals" always the title? Did you know that was going to be your angle on Lincoln?
Goodwin: I knew it would be the angle. It was always the working title--not really always. The first couple of years I was playing around with the idea of doing Abe and Mary Lincoln as I had done Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Because you take confidence from one book to the other, and it was so terrifying to be doing Lincoln. I knew I couldn't just write in general about him. I needed to have some way in so it wouldn't resemble 14,000 other books.
But as I got into it after a couple of years, I realized Mary couldn't carry the public side of the story the way Eleanor Roosevelt did. And as I began to see how much time Lincoln was spending with Seward and Chase and Bates and Stanton, the members of his cabinet, and how they all had kept diaries and wrote letters, I began to see, wow, this is the story I think I'd like to tell--and then especially when realizing they had been his chief rivals, and the fact he had the confidence to put them in his cabinet.
So "Team of Rivals" after like two years into the ten-year process became the theme, and was always the working title, but never did I really think it was going to be the real title, because it didn't seem poetic enough. So for months and months prior to the publication, we would sit around in our favorite restaurant in Concord and all our friends at the bar would be coming up with ideas. What are we going to call this book? And at one point, it was going to be called "Master among Men" and of course that was terrible, any connotation of master with slavery.
And then "The American Colossus," "The Great Unifier," and finally I was taking so much time coming to the title that David Rosenthal, the publisher, simply said, "Forget it, we're going with the working title, 'Team of Rivals.'" [laughter] And I'm so lucky that we did.
Amazon.com: Right, little did you know. I think James Fallows has recently called for a moratorium on the use of the term. It's become a cliche almost.
Yes, one reason we're talking about the book is that in six days, Barack Obama is going to be inaugurated. And I think it was just around the time that his primary battle with Hillary Clinton was reaching its peak when he started saying publicly that he had been reading and thinking about your book. And here we are: It's January 2009, and Clinton, the senator from New York who thought the nomination was hers for the taking, is playing the William Seward role to the full. She's going through her confirmation hearings this week for Secretary of State. The comparison is obvious. How far do you think it holds up?
Goodwin: I think it really does hold up. I mean, think about it: Seward, everybody thought he was the shoe-in to win the Republican nomination, the most celebrated anti-slavery orator of the decade, the governor and senator from New York. So certain was he that he was going to win that he went waltzing off to Europe for nine months prior to the convention where he was wined and dined by kings and queens who thought they were meeting the next president.
And his loss was almost irrecoverable to him. He felt like his political career had come to a terrible end. And Lincoln gave him this new chance by making him the most powerful post of Secretary of State. And people wondered at first, how could that be? He was so much more educated, experienced, and celebrated than Lincoln. But Lincoln said, "The country's in peril, I need the strongest people by my side." And that meant Seward, Chase, and Bates as well.
And somehow he was able to work a relationship with Seward that I think will probably happen, hopefully, with Obama and Clinton where they actually became friends, not simply allies, not simply adversaries turned into partners, but even closer than that. So, it'll be so much fun to watch how this thing works itself out.
But she's got a great chance now to do something really important.
Amazon.com: There's the question of whether she becomes a Seward or a Chase who were each, obviously, useful, but the relationship was very different.
Goodwin: Absolutely. That's the worry. Obviously, Chase also an extremely able person who had wanted to be president as well as Seward. And unlike Seward, when he got into the cabinet, he never gave up his presidential ambitions and really tried to run against Lincoln in 1864, would say all sorts of disparaging things about him behind his back.
So that's the danger when you take somebody in as powerful and as ambitious as Hillary. The one difference, I think, between now and then is that in Lincoln's time, one-term presidencies were really the rule. There hadn't been two terms since Jackson. So it wasn't that odd for Chase to think that he could take Lincoln on in 1864.
But nowadays the idea that somebody in a cabinet can go against a sitting president and defy him for the nomination, it would be very hard for that to happen. Because two-term presidencies, or at least nominations, are generally the rule right now.
Amazon.com: Right, so there's a little more breathing room in the relationship.
Goodwin: That's right. And also, she's not going to be that old when she finishes, so that if she does a terrific job as Secretary of State and has that experience to combine with everything else, she would be a likely nominee the next time around in eight years, presuming he wins two terms.
Amazon.com: Yeah, as you point out a number of times in the book, it's not just a question of having rivals in your cabinet. It's a question of having a team of rivals. And I think many people would say that Bush the Second has had plenty of rivalries, at least, in his cabinet.
What's the difference between rivals that are rivals and rivals that work as a team?
Goodwin: Well, I think the key for the president if he brings strong-minded people into his cabinet is that it means there's going to be lots of arguments. There's going to be fighting over turf. And he's brought, Obama has now, a lot of strong-minded people into both the White House and the cabinet.
And then the challenge for the leader is that the leader has to figure out when to stop the discussions, when to keep the arguments within the family rather than getting outside of the family, and then to make the decisions and bring everybody on board.
For example, Lincoln allowed arguments about what to do about slavery to go on for months inside that cabinet. And there were people who thought he shouldn't touch it. It would mean the war would go on forever. Others who thought he should have ended slavery as soon as the war started. And then finally he made up his decision to have the historic Emancipation Proclamation, he goes to the cabinet. He said, "I've now made up my mind on the main issue. I no longer want your thoughts on it. But I will listen to your suggestions on its implementation and its timing." So, I think that'll be the key: that the president has to take hold of this process, has to be the one really in charge, or otherwise the rivalries can really become dysfunctional in a certain sense.
Amazon.com: Do you think that's harder to do now that there's so much more--that there's blogs reporting by the hour on what's happening in the White House, and the media attention is so much greater, that it's harder to keep your counsel in that way?
Goodwin: Much harder now. In Lincoln's time, we know about some of the fiery arguments from the diaries that were written or the letters they would write home to their families. One cabinet member was so angry with another, he never went to cabinet meetings if the other one was there. Another one called another one a traitor or a liar. There's no way if those things leaked out today that it wouldn't be the main story on the cable news and make it much harder to bring that team together.
I mean, it was hard enough in Lincoln's time. It was a very difficult process. And there were times I'm sure when he must have thought, Oh, it might have been smoother if I had put like-minded people in here. But it was worth it in the end, because he saved the Union, won the war, and emancipated the slaves. But, I think it would be much more difficult today.
Amazon.com: While we're making historical parallels, there's someone else that Obama himself and many other people are looking to that you also know very well, especially the first hundred days of FDR's first term when he met historical conditions that were a lot more similar to what Obama is facing than the Civil War.
What's your sense of what Obama could learn from the way FDR treated his first hundred days?
Goodwin: I think the most important thing that FDR did--I mean we all remember the words "There's nothing to fear, except fear itself"--but more important than that was the tone that that inaugural projected, which was this fine line between confidence that we're going to get out of this thing, plus following up with bold experimental actions--act now, keep moving--and knowing that if something didn't work he'd then scrap it and go to something else.
So there was a sense of forward movement that he projected and optimism that it would eventually work. But somehow that confidence is so important to make the country feel that something has changed. For example, even after that first inaugural of FDR's, people would write in by the thousands saying, "We feel better. You're there." Somehow it made a difference.
This one letter that I remember hearing about years and years ago, somebody wrote in and said, "My dog is lost, my roof fell off, my wife is mad at me, I've lost my job. But it's all going to be OK, because you're there." [laughter] So if it's possible for Obama to use an inauguration, which is a time of renewal and change, to instill confidence without it being false confidence. Because things, as he's already said, they're going to fall down hill before you go uphill. And Roosevelt constantly reminded people of that. Then I think it really can work.
The interesting thing to me always is to think that the natural comparison, which is a real one, is 1933 and now. But in some ways Roosevelt's leadership style and the way he mobilized the entire country behind World War II, has even more relevance, because he became much more of a bipartisan leader, as Obama is hoping to become. He brought two top Republicans into his cabinet in 1940. He made his peace with the business community--no more class division rhetoric. He mobilized the entire country to go into those factories and build the ships, tanks, planes, and weapons, converting the industries to war production, just as Obama is hoping to convert industries now into a Green Revolution.
Maybe he could set big goals for America just as Roosevelt did to lead the world in the weapons of war. Now instead to lead the world in fuel-efficient cars and electric cars. Maybe somehow appeal to our imagination again, the way Roosevelt did. And if we could convert the enormous things we did in World War II, we could certainly convert to become a leader in the Green Revolution today.
Amazon.com: Yeah, one thing that Obama shares with the later Roosevelt, as opposed to the early Roosevelt, is that he will be a war president. One thing that struck me when I went back to Team of Rivals is that Lincoln's relations with his generals were very different than his relations with his cabinet, where he seemed like he worked very hard to keep everybody together for--almost everybody--for his full first term.
Whereas generals he was firing left and right across the country. You need a scorecard to keep track of the players, as they say. Why do you think his relationship with his generals was different than his cabinet?
Goodwin: Well, I think in part it was just the lack of quality of those generals. When he started off, he himself wasn't confident enough about his own understanding of military strategy. He was actually going to the Library of Congress to take out books on military tactics and strategy. And so he relied in the beginning on a general like McClellan.
And it became clear early on that he wasn't up to the task of taking those troops into battle, though he was able to give them morale and discipline them and drill them in a good way. And it took too long actually for him to fire McClellan. But, I think once he fired McClellan, then he'd get another general who didn't do the job right. Then it was easier to fire the second, third, fourth guy.
But I think if Lincoln were asked your question, he would say I would have loved to have found somebody earlier and stuck with him. But it wasn't until Grant and Sherman came along that he found the generals that he needed.
And it may have been partly because the Southerners had much greater tradition of West Point, of military service. So the quality of military leadership in the South at the beginning of the war was so much higher than in the North.
Amazon.com: Yeah, and Lincoln himself was not much of a military man. The thing that divided his cabinet more than anything was slavery, and that was an issue that he had been thinking and working through himself for so long that he was able, probably, to walk that line much better.
Goodwin: That's absolutely right. The interesting thing is historians who know more about military affairs than I do in the Civil War, will say that many of Lincoln's instincts were correct about what to do early on about the war. But he had to depend, he thought, in the beginning, on these people with better judgment--he assumed--because they had experience he didn't have. As he often teased, his only experience was in the Black Hawk War where the only blood he drew were mosquitoes.
But then I think after a while, he began to realize that some of the same qualities of how you handle men that he had learned through his long political life, were the same qualities of leadership he needed to look for in the military. And he finally did find his men in Grant and Sherman.
Amazon.com: Well, there's one other historical connection that is another reason we're talking about him right now. It'ss his 200th birthday in a couple of weeks, and he shares that birthday, remarkably, with perhaps the other most famous man of the 19th century, Charles Darwin.
And I don't know if you've thought at all about that parallel, two men who obviously grew up in very different places and led very different lives, but whether you think it's just coincidental that they were part of a generation, or whether you think there's any connection between them.
Goodwin: Well, it really is an astonishing thing. You're absolutely right, to realize that both those men have left a monumental mark, so that we're still talking about them this many years later, and probably will be two hundred, four hundred, six hundred years from now. It was interesting, Lincoln did read Darwin, we've heard, when he was a younger man, and began to feel that he was right. He liked the whole idea. He was intrigued by the whole idea of evolution. And some people have said it may have influenced Lincoln's own leadership to move toward an evolutionary style: you move step at a time from starting the war for the Union, and then eventually bringing in the end of slavery, and eventually then bringing the South back into the Union as he hoped after the war was over.
And it is an amazing thing to think too that Lincoln, who so wanted to be remembered after he died, hearing that if you just die without accomplishing something worthy, then dust becomes dust somehow. Because his mother when she died when he was a young boy had not promised that they'd meet in an afterworld. She simply said "Abraham, I'm going away from you now. And I shall never return."
So he was haunted by the thought of death, which he took solace and comfort from only from the thought that if you could accomplish something in your life that was worthy, your honor and your reputation would outlive your earthly existence. And as I think about this 200th anniversary, and people really thinking about Lincoln, thinking about the connections between Obama and Lincoln, he would have been a very happy man had he known that before he died.
Amazon.com: Yeah, that's a nice way to think of it. Well, thanks for talking. Enjoy the festivities next week.
Goodwin: Thank you very much.
Amazon.com: Can I ask what you've been working on since this book came out?
Goodwin: Oh, yes. Teddy Roosevelt. What I'm doing, again, because so much has been done on him, I need to have a certain way into it, hopefully. So it's a combination of Teddy and Taft's broken friendship. Because they were great friends before Teddy runs against Taft in 1912. But also, it's the muckraker journalists who create the climate of reform that he then gives voice to.
So big characters in it are going to be Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Baker, and William Allan White. They're all at one magazine called McClures, run by this crazy guy, Sam McClure. His relationship with those press people is so astoundingly wonderful. And Taft falls apart. And that's part of the difficulty.
So it's been fun. Taft's an interesting and kind of moving figure. Never really wanting to be president, and sad when he was president, but he finally got, after the presidency was over, years later, his Supreme Court job, which was all he really wanted. And we would have been better off if he'd had it from the start.