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Sunday, 20 March 2011

Books -Team of Rivals - the political genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Star rating – 9/10

Having recently devoured the whole of the West Wing box sets in a few weeks, I was yearning for some more American political intrigue and insights into the inner workings of the White House. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s fascinating biography of Abraham Lincoln certainly delivers on that score, but is so much more than that besides. It was the book that, besides the Bible, Barack Obama chose to take into the White House with him for inspiration, and is also heartily recommended by no less than the new Labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell, as a treatise on leadership. So it certainly has a lot to live up to.

Being embarrassingly ignorant about Lincoln, save that he was an American President; had something to do with the Civil War; was assassinated; and has a memorial named after him, this book has been a total revelation to me. Lincoln, who had come from an impoverished family, was a small town lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, and certainly not a name anyone would have mentioned as a favourite for the Republican presidential nomination much before his surprise triumph in 1860. He seemed to come out of nowhere to beat his rivals and established favourites for the nomination, who all came from considerably better stock than Lincoln, namely William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates. And when he won the Presidential race too, he pulled off a masterstroke, and rather than surrounding himself with his allies who had helped with his victorious campaign, he made these same three former rivals for the Republican leadership, who were still smarting from their defeat to this upstart outsider, his close cabinet members. He had obviously heard of the phrase ‘keep your friends close, and your enemies closer’.

And it is the way that Lincoln conducted himself when President which still serves today as a master class in leadership skills. He was generous and even tempered at all times, dealing with colleagues with kindness and trust. He encouraged colleagues to criticise his speeches, so that he could make them as good as they could possibly be. And he always waited before sending out a letter which he had written in anger, to see if his views changed when his emotions had settled down. In fact some of the letters written in this spirit were never sent by him, but stayed in their sealed envelopes for posterity, and future biographers, to discover. And in this age of instant communication, how many of us wish we had never pressed ‘Send’ on an angry e mail or two? We could certainly all learn a lot from Lincoln on that score.

And he had the small matter of the American Civil war to contend with, a conflict which nearly brought the young country to its knees, and caused heartbreaking splits between communities and even within individual families, as the Unionists and Confederates battled it out for four years between 1861 and 1865. Fierce battles raged all over America, and even came perilously close to the White House itself on occasion. Kearns Goodwin relates how Lincoln, who was not originally a champion of equality between the races at all, even giving speeches regarding the superiority of the white race over black people, led the Unionists to victory, and engineered the deployment of blacks into their armies, which was a major the turning point in the war. He was the author of the Thirteenth Amendment, to the US Constitution, which abolished the slavery which the Southern Confederates were so keen to preserve.

The long and detailed, but still page turning book, also gives fascinating details on the personal lives of Lincoln and his colleagues, so it is not just a book about leadership and war stratagems. Lincoln was beset by tragedy, apart from his own obvious one, as his young and beloved son Willie died of typhoid fever, a loss than he never seemed to really get over. And his wife Mary was something of a shopaholic, running up huge bills to lavishly kit out both the White House and her own wardrobe, as she thought befitted her husband’s status.

Whether you are looking for some inspiration on leadership skills, or an account of the politics behind the American Civil War, or simply a cracking good history book, I can’t recommend this Pulitzer prize winning great book highly enough. Leo Tolstoy felt that Lincoln was ‘a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country – bigger than all the Presidents together.’ It feels like we could certainly use someone like him at the moment.

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