Book Look - Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Just – wow! Admit I approached this enormous volume with some trepidation – could even a subject as vast and fascinating as the life and death of Abraham Lincoln hold my interest for so long? The answer is a resounding yes! This riveting and superbly-told tale of Lincoln’s life and political career not only held my interest: it kept me up nights, pinned me at home on beautiful weekend afternoons, and had me turning down invitations for lunch so that I could bolt down my food while reading.

Obviously, Doris Kearns Goodwin is a wonderful storyteller. But it helps that her protagonist is such an extraordinary individual. Over and over again I was amazed by Lincoln’s wisdom, his decency, his patience, and his extraordinary political acumen. Goodwin’s intent here, it’s pretty clear, is to focus on the latter of these attributes. While most Americans know of Lincoln’s moral courage, his social legacy, and (of course) his exemplary oratorical skills, few (I’m betting) fully appreciate his political genius. Over and over again he pulls political miracles out of his hat – extracting victory from defeat, forging unforgeable compromises – armed with little more than an unwavering moral compass, an encompassing empathy, humility, patience, and a seemingly endless stock of jokes, puns, and folksy anecdotes. Few anecdotes illustrate his politicla genius as clearly as the fact that he staffed the major posts of his new cabinet with political rivals …. or that, in time, those same rivals became his most adamant supporters.

I thought I had a fairly good background knowledge of Lincoln’s life and his administration, but by the end of the second chapter I jettisoned this misconception. Goodwin’s scholarship is as exceptional as her storytelling skills. Scarcely a page passed without exposing me to some startling new bit of information, constantly enhancing and challenging my preconceived notions.

There are so many lessons here that I wish modern politicians would embrace: do the right thing for the right reasons, no matter how unpopular; always allow your political opponents to save face; invite – don’t avoid (or worse, squash)- dissenting opinions; compromise always trumps conflict; and, above all, always put the good of the nation above your own personal ambitions. Alas, since our politicians seem to be too busy doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, humiliating each other, squashing dissenting opinions, seeking out conflict, and placing their own interests above those of the country, perhaps it’s up to us U.S. citizens to absorb the lessons from this book on their behalf and then let them know the standards against which we intend to hold them accountable!

I don’t give out many 5 star ratings, but if I could give this 6 stars, I would. This is one of those rare volumes that has permanently changed the way that I view our country, our political system, our destiny, and – above all – the potential of ordinary Americans to accomplish extraordinary things.

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