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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Team of Rivals. Doris Kearns Goodwin. Penguin Books (2009)

This is a fascinating biography of Abraham Lincoln that places him firmly in his historical and political context. On May 18th 1860 Abraham Lincoln won the Republican Party nomination for President, the way in which he did so was an example of his political skill and thoroughness, how he managed his Presidency is a measure of his genius. Lincoln won the nomination over the heads of three other candidates who were all considered far more likely to win it, when he became President Lincoln invited these same three men to join his Cabinet. That Lincoln choose to staff his cabinet with political rivals at a time when the country was sliding into Civil War is, as Doris Kearns Goodwin shows, a measure of the man. The choices were made both to preserve unity in the Republican Party when it was sorely needed and critically because Lincoln though that they were the right people for the positions they were offered.
Doris Kearns Goodwin gets behind the iconic image of the assassinated President to present a view of a shrewd and amazingly skillful politician and administrative manager. Lincoln was always his own man, confident enough to surround himself with very strong and ambitious personalities who frequently did not work well with each other, yet they were ultimately the right people for the fearsome tasks they faced in a civil war. Lincoln was a very talented staff manager and he drew the best from those around him.
One of the most extraordinary achievements of this book is that it explains why politicians are necessary, the fact that the majority of any set at any time are not very competent at the role has reflected badly on the role itself. By demonstrating what a truly competent politician does, Abraham Lincoln was a politician to his fingertips, Doris Kearns Goodwin illustrates the necessity for politics and politicians. Lincoln was a leader and a follower of public opinion, his actions were shaped by the need for public support and the requirement to create it. Any war has a significant political dimension and there was no better political general than Lincoln. This large, inclusive, wonderfully written book is inspiring and engaging.

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