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Unimportant Musings

Where an amateur attempts at divining somewhat passable insights.

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War and Peace: Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear, Leo Tolstoy
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Review: Team of Rivals

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln - Doris Kearns Goodwin

Abraham Lincoln had always seemed to me, an outsider flattening my nose against the fishbowl of American history, generally a big deal. In his story's oversimplified version, he kept his country together, freed slaves, and was all but deified upon his assassination. The man was, even if everyone else at the time didn't know it, "still too near to his greatness" as they were, "[h]is genius... still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us," as Leo Tolstoy put it, a veritable badass. Pitting him against vampires was redundant. The broad strokes of his life were already very well-known to me, burned into the public consciousness as they have been by more books, biopics, and occasional pop-culture references combined than any one person save Doris Kearns Goodwin with her superpowers of research and organization can know what to do with. Most people are usually content enough not to investigate any further.

Team of Rivals, however, had been recommended so frequently in so many different circles, selected so often by various algorithms as my next to-read based on my reading history, and nibbling so determinedly at my subconscious that I had finally to take the leap, bump the book up the priority list, and give my curiosity the chew toy it had been growling at me for. What caution there initially was quickly went out the window after not even ten pages. The rabbit hole I fell headfirst into with this book was one I regretted to find someone had lacked the foresight to dump a million more rabbits into and dig more of, the better to stave off the inevitability I dreaded was hurtling towards Lincoln. The obligatory appreciation, approaching almost offensive indifference, that colored my early perceptions of him had by the final pages exploded into the sort of enthusiasm and love people reserve in their hearts for boy bands, superhero movies, or football.

The word "politician," as soon as it's verbalized into the air to there hang unpleasantly like some gas passed inside an elevator, has taken on negative connotations. Anyone who works in the profession and has the slightest self-awareness would think twice before volunteering such information to a forgetful aunt they never see except sometimes at family functions. If it were more a rule than the rarest exception that politicians actually strive to be like Lincoln in intention as well as action, pitchforks and torches would've been used for their original purpose. It's tempting to think he had it easier because times then were simpler, but that way lies confusion: if keeping countless plates spinning without any of them wobbling and falling, all in the hope of stopping his country from crashing and burning, is considered having it easy, what might the whole situation look like on insanity mode?

What most of all set Lincoln apart from his contemporaries, as Goodwin began hammering home with her choice of book title, was his pragmatism. He had the crazy idea to form his Cabinet not like his predecessors had done by surrounding themselves with agreeable faces and building an echo chamber, but by plucking men from the opposition who fought against him for the Republican nomination and others from different factions who had no reason or inclination to treat Lincoln, then relatively inexperienced in the political arena, with kid gloves. At the time, the country was little better than a house of cards. Choosing from all the prominent parts of his party instead of his own and making certain they each had a voice in the government gave that house solid ground. Because he "had no right to deprive the country of their services," Lincoln had only thoughts of what was best for the people in mind when he sought help from "the strongest men of the party" who would make up the Cabinet and restore calm and sanity to a party that seemed then about to implode and inadvertently usher in a slaveopia. Not only was he open-minded enough to give opposing viewpoints their due consideration, but he had confidence enough that none of them if unsound would sway his own, which his surprised Cabinet soon came to find out and grudgingly respect.

Lincoln alone is interesting enough to read about. Goodwin, still the fantastic writer in this alternative scenario, would enjoy no less success were she to have focused solely on his life and not biographized three other men's as well. No greater decision could she have made, however, than that she ended up doing otherwise. To appreciate Lincoln's political achievements, many requiring no less than Herculean efforts to secure, it is helpful to understand what obstacles he went up against and overcame. Charismatic and loyal William Henry Seward, brooding and shady Salmon Chase, and old and traditional Edward Bates, Lincoln's three biggest hurdles on his road to the presidency, wanted it no less. Split into two parts, Team of Rivals dedicates much of the first to the lives of these four men facing each other down for their name to be on the Republican presidential ticket, and while Lincoln naturally remains the central figure of the book, Goodwin touches with equal attention on Seward's popularity and evolving political strategy, Chase's lack thereof and blind ambitions, and Bates' family life and more conservative tendencies. Emerging at the end of their sections, some with prospects more optimistic than the last, I wondered how Lincoln hoped to beat any of them. It was their race to lose.

By doing the exact opposite of what his opponents did and not giving in to complacency in Seward's case, harboring silly delusions of grandeur in Chase's, and offending important voting blocs in Bates', Lincoln seemed like he was in the right place at the right time when delegates started directing their votes his way, which while true to some extent implies his victory was just luck's doing. Again and again, Goodwin shows how freakishly attuned Lincoln was to events then happening and even those yet to happen. Never one to sit idly by and wait for good things to come magically unprompted, even if he may have at times seemed to some inexplicably unbothered and maddeningly slow to react to unexpected developments, he possessed the sixth sense to know when to proceed with his designs and when not to. After winning Seward, Chase, and Bates over to his side with proxies and flattering letters, and with his Democrat counterpart Stephen Douglas busy defending his moderate platform against radicals in his party, winning the presidency was for Lincoln almost as easy as one-two-three. Then came the decidedly trickier bit of being president.

Incompetent military generals, Southern aggression, marital headaches, Cabinet tensions, international scrutiny, and the slavery question may just be possible to resolve if the problems arose very considerately one after another. It was Lincoln's unlucky situation that they didn't, forcing him to attend to all of them simultaneously. We have a habit of bringing up before-and-after visual comparisons of presidents and marveling at the physical changes for the worse that they underwent during their terms. Graying hair, sunken eyes, and pronounced wrinkle lines are par for the course. Given Lincoln's challenges, it's more surprising to me not that he aged a hundred years in four, but that he didn't keel over and die straightaway of ulcers the first week into his term. A lesser man would be forgivably overcome with homicidal thoughts after dealing with General George McClellan's breathtaking disrespect and cowardice (the war would've been shorter and many needless casualties avoided had he nutted up and overpowered the other side with the Union Army's superior numbers), Mary Todd's financial woes and mood swings, and Chase's unsubtle machinations and lust for the presidential seat. It's to Lincoln's credit those thoughts never seemed to have occurred to him.

Looming over the entire book, the slavery dilemma influenced most decisions everyone made. Even when the conservatives succeeded for a time in convincing people not to push the issue further, it was never completely gone during their musings. The romantic notion that Lincoln one day materialized with an audible pop out of thin air, anti-slavery views already fully rationalized and a desire burning in his guts to ride into battle to there eradicate that evil for now and ever, is a popular misconception I used to entertain half-seriously. In reality, there were less cinematics and more mental gymnastics Lincoln had to perform to justify abolishing slavery within the restrictions set by the Constitution. That it needed justifying at all is, to our modern thinking, not a little remarkable, yet makes an uncomfortable amount of sense. "Northern objections to slavery were based on ideology and sentiment, rather than on the Southern concerns with property, social intercourse, habit, safety, and life itself. The North had nothing tangible to lose." Compromise was the word of the day. Uneasy with slavery to begin with, Lincoln nevertheless trusted in the natural course of things to destroy it if all agreed to contain it to where it already took root instead of spreading it to new lands. That didn't take. Even with the South rebelling in earnest, Lincoln's hands were tied with appeasing the border states, conservatives, and peace Democrats, without the support of whom his presidency would've been short-lived. Outright outlawing the practice was off the table. It fell to Lincoln's political know-how and knack for logical lawyering to navigate the twists and turns of the law well enough to spot a hole through which to wedge in the Emancipation Proclamation, paving the way for the Thirteenth Amendment and "settl[ing] the fate, for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come."

With maps, photos, and references so many their notes take up 120 pages of the book (lulling me again like Adam Hochschild did with King Leopold's Ghost into being excited for more content left ahead), inserted into the main narrative with such surgical certainty I felt snug in Goodwin's more than capable hands, you fast come to see and be permanently agawk at how together she's got her stuff. After counting on one hand the number of times Team of Rivals ever bored me, all five of my fingers would still be accounted for to give you a full-handed slap for raising so absurd a question. Here is a major undertaking not many would dare attempt, let alone accomplish, yet Goodwin has done exactly that, and done so well she makes it look like a breezy walk in the park. Her writing style is straightforward and unobtrusive, giving the characters center stage; her analyses sensible and convincing, deepening your understanding of what before seemed incomprehensible; and her sources exhaustive and well-cited, leaving us in no doubt she made none of this up. If any fault can be found with Goodwin, it may be that she can seem to have come down too hard with the Lincoln fever, already obvious with the book's subtitle, but that criticism loses steam when Goodwin doesn't hold back from showing the man at his most embarrassing (he, assuming they didn't also view his country as theirs, once advocated coaxing the slaves out of it and form a colony elsewhere).

Excepting history teachers and trivia nerds, we have an awful memory. Game-changers are remembered at the expense of minutiae. Historical figures become less corporeal in the public mind the further from the present they get, their more insignificant characteristics buried under the sand of time, out of which only their greater victories stick like so many tips of pyramids. They sport that sheen of legend. Their actions, given context, make them seem suddenly not all that amazing anymore. Hearing the truth about Santa Claus would probably be less disappointing news. Lincoln, immortalized by a towering statue opposite from the Washington Monument, is both figuratively and literally larger than life. Yet Team of Rivals has shown how Lincoln's status in the history books can only be added to, not detracted from, even when it tackles the bad as well as the good. By gathering up multiple viewpoints ranging from journalists and assistants to soldiers and housewives, and by seamlessly stringing together such a wide variety of voices to create what in others' hands would've resulted in incoherent splatter art and in hers has gifted us a master's painting, Goodwin has done maybe not the impossible, but certainly the dastardly difficult, and elevated Lincoln to such a plane I have serious doubts any leader-to-be now or in the future can ever reach. His will be giant shoes to fill.