Team of Rivals is an exceedingly well-written book, whose message has been strangely diluted. In the Age of Obama, it appears to suffice to cite Team of Rivals in the course of claiming that the President’s personnel selection is Lincolnesque; after all, did the President not appoint old rivals like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden to prominent and important positions? And did he not allow Robert Gates to continue on in his job?
The book makes clear, however, that being Lincolnesque involves a great deal more than merely being Obamaesque. Lincoln’s team of rivals were contending with him to shape the future of a very young, very impressionable Republican party, and just about all of them went into their partnership with the 16th President thinking little of him. At the end of that partnership, they considered him utterly statesmanlike, utterly masterful, and the acknowledged icon of the Republican party. By contrast, people like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton were already pretty much on the same policy page as Barack Obama–the ferocity of the primary and caucus struggle in 2008 notwithstanding–and while it is not the President’s fault that the Democratic party is less impressionable in the current day and age than the Republican party was at Lincoln’s time, Obama’s ability to significantly influence and become the icon of the Democratic party in the manner that Lincoln influenced and became the icon of the Republican party, simply does not exist.
Back to the book: Goodwin’s best contribution is to show that the encomiums that surround Lincoln’s memory and legacy hardly do him justice. Praise for Lincoln has become something of a cliché, which is why it is so important to look past the boilerplate praise, and rediscover the real Lincoln. The real Lincoln was, of course, a man with a powerful and voracious intellect, strongly committed to reading and learning. He was the ultimate self-made man–rising from nothing and with little in the way of formal schooling to become one of the great men of the age. His familiarity with the world of ideas and literature was extraordinary–especially given that almost all of it stemmed from his autodidactic nature–and he was regularly able to call on those ideas and literary references to comfort himself, and to give comfort to those around him, as well as the nation he led. His emotional intelligence was just as high, allowing him to make friends out of enemies, and to turn the contemptuous into the admiring.
With all respect to the current group of politicians out there, no one really matches Lincoln for mental power, and capacity for greatness. Those who read Team of Rivals can and should feel free to be inspired by the story. But while we can hope that Lincoln’s example will soon be replicated in our modern day and age, we ought to be honest with ourselves and admit that in recent years, it hasn’t.