Honest Abe to the Rescue— Goodwin Needs Him; Nation, Too

One score and nine years ago, Doris Kearns Goodwin launched her career as a Presidential historian with Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, a shrewd look at the oversized Texan she’d observed closely during his Presidency and post-Presidency. In the years that followed, she built a stellar reputation as a writer and TV commentator on subjects ranging from baseball to the Kennedys to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. With her wholesome good looks and tomboyish charm, she brought a breath of fresh air and gender balance to the stale world of political talk shows, dominated since the beginning of time by middle-aged men with bad hair.

But this Norman Rockwell story was nearly thrown off track in 2002, when serious allegations of plagiarism were leveled at Ms. Goodwin. She wasn’t the only high-flying historian brought down to earth over ethics—Stephen Ambrose also borrowed from the work of others, and Joseph Ellis lied about his past. But that didn’t make the charges any less painful. Like Mr. Ellis, who profiled George Washington last year, Ms. Goodwin has scraped away some of the tarnish by writing a book about the most virtuous American. When your honesty is in doubt, there’s really only one person to turn to. Where else would George W. Bush have unfurled the “Mission Accomplished” banner but on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln?

The 19th century was terra incognita to Ms. Goodwin, darker and less telegenic than the era of the Roosevelts and the Kennedys. But she went after Lincoln with her usual pit-bull tenacity, and now, a decade after beginning the project, it’s here, all 916 pages of it.

Typically, she’s already drawn far more attention than any ordinary historian could expect. The film rights have been acquired by Stephen Spielberg. Liam Neeson (once described, disturbingly, as a “sequoia of sex”) is slated to star—and a good thing, too: In a recent interview with USA Today, Ms. Goodwin gushed over a photograph of Lincoln at age 48, cooing that he looked “vital, alive, even sexy … I don’t want to sound embarrassing, but he looks sensual.” You can be sure that when someone begins a sentence with “I don’t want to sound embarrassing,” that the rest of the sentence will do exactly that.

There will be other moments of discomfiture. Because she sits on the board of Northwest Airlines (to the tune of $25K a year), a union of striking airplane mechanics has vowed to picket her, handing out leaflets that read “The Great Emancipator Meets a Great Prevaricator.” This kind of thing simply doesn’t happen to your average historian.

But above all the background noise, there’s still a book to be read, and for admirers of Ms. Goodwin, the news is good. This is a serious biography that ranges across an immense territory. It has flaws, to be sure, and there may not be many surprises if you already know Lincoln well—although I was pleased to learn that our 16th President enjoyed bowling. Ms. Goodwin has read widely and deeply, and retains her ability to write about complicated events with a pleasing narrative that will draw in readers by the swarm.

As its title suggests, Team of Rivals is a group portrait of sorts, an 1860’s version of The Wise Men or Rise of the Vulcans. Ms. Goodwin has tailored her plot around four contenders for the throne—specifically, the 1860 Republican nomination. In addition to Lincoln, who conveniently appears at the outset as the least likely to win the prize, the book details the careers of New York’s William Seward, Ohio’s Salmon P. Chase and Missouri’s Edward Bates. All were important power brokers in the decade leading up to 1860, all failed to stop Lincoln’s rise, and all joined him as essential cabinet officers (serving as Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury and U.S. Attorney General, respectively).

In theory, it’s a nice idea, and it gets us away from the well-trod path of traditional Lincoln biography. But in practice, it’s difficult to pull off, for the simple reason that Lincoln overwhelms his rivals on the page, as he did in politics. Ms. Goodwin gamely tries to engage the reader with long sections on Bates and Chase, but the more effort she puts into it (with Bates especially), the more narcotic the effect.

Seward is a different story: Here, to be sure, is a ripe subject for a future biography—one of New York’s all-time greats, a visionary of foreign policy and a profound thinker whose guidance was an essential spur to Lincoln’s greatness. Henry Adams wrote that Seward would “inspire a cow with statesmanship.” Reading the story of how Seward and Lincoln composed the stunning final paragraph of Lincoln’s first inaugural is intensely moving.

In the long run, even Seward is swamped by Lincoln’s wake. Ms. Goodwin’s story, in a nutshell, is that Lincoln was a master politician who used these hard-charging rivals for his own purposes. That’s not exactly news, but she tells it well, and in so doing, echoes some of her earlier work. In particular, Lincoln towers above the landscape as a primordial L.B.J., coming out of the West to tame Washington and play its most skillful politicians off each other. She spends a lot of time with his raw physical presence, and dwells at length on his strange combination of ugliness and animal magnetism.

Her other books are in here as well. Diagrams of the White House and stories about visitors echo the domestic architecture she painted with verve in her portrait of F.D.R.’s Presidency, No Ordinary Time (1994). And her interest in family relationships suggests some of the tribalism that flavored The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (1987). For all of these politicians, children and spouses were essential props, and her account of the deep bond between Salmon P. Chase and his precocious daughter Kate sounds like Ms. Goodwin’s own memoir of learning to keep score at baseball games with her father.

Wait a minute, she’s plagiarized again! From herself!

In retelling Lincoln’s familiar story, Ms. Goodwin has probed a vast trove of contemporary sources. The frontispiece includes comments from two New York newspapers: an 1860 article from the Herald that calls Lincoln “a fourth rate lecturer, who cannot speak good grammar,” and a 1909 piece that Tolstoy wrote for The World insisting that “he was bigger than his country—bigger than all the Presidents together.” The journey from that first quotation to the second is more or less the plot of the book.

Most of the arguments and information unearthed are familiar to Lincoln historians, so it would be wrong to call Team of Rivals profoundly original. There’s no feeling of new voices speaking—the feeling that Douglas L. Wilson created with Honor’s Voice (1998), his enthralling account of the young Lincoln. There are no arresting new theories, and, in fact, Ms. Goodwin dismisses all unorthodox attempts to get at Lincoln, from the gay-Lincoln school to the new work on Lincoln’s severe battles with depression by Joshua Wolf Shenk.

That’s her prerogative—and her wide-eyed reverence for the past is part of her popularity. But if something is gained by her readable, even-keeled account, something is lost as well. I found Lincoln’s bottomless complexity as intact after reading this as before, mainly because her exuberant rush to get at everyday events didn’t leave room for deep analysis of the human being at the center of them. Now and then, she quotes from a contemporary (John Hay, for example) who ruminated deeply about this gigantic paradox of a man—but she doesn’t reveal her own innermost thoughts. She concludes her introduction with this: Lincoln “has unequalled power … to inspire emotion.” That’s it?

I’m not sure that anyone has succeeded in capturing the essential Lincoln—a fact that many of his colleagues complained of as well. Hay wrote that his contemporaries “know no more of him than an owl does of a comet, staring into his blinking eyes.” It’s true that Team of Rivals is more a chronicle than a biography, and that Ms. Goodwin is more in love with politics than metaphysics. But she does politics very well, and no story of Lincoln should stray too far from the roar of the crowd. Her account of the 1860 Republican convention is spellbinding. It was there that her four contenders squared off (Seward’s supporters had the champagne on ice), and there that they all learned the full measure of the man we’ve come to venerate, justifiably, above all others in our history.

The Thanksgiving season seems a good time to welcome Lincoln back into our homes: not just because he invented the holiday, but out of gratitude that a President this capable ever existed at all. At every stage, Lincoln chose his strongest rivals as his closest advisors—precisely because he valued truth over expediency. If some melancholy pervades this book, it’s not merely Lincoln’s depression, or the carnage he presided over, or the knowledge that he’ll once again lay his life on the altar of the Union when the story ends. It’s all that—but also the guilty knowledge that the republic he worked so hard to save hasn’t lived up to the standards that he exhorted Americans to understand and to live by. Still, we’re a resilient people. As Lincoln’s career proves—and perhaps Ms. Goodwin’s as well—redemption often stalks very closely behind tragedy.

Ted Widmer is director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. Honest Abe to the Rescue— Goodwin Needs Him; Nation, Too