November 2005

Doris Kearns Goodwin

The president’s men
Interview by
Share this Article:

Doris Kearns Goodwin pinpoints Lincoln's political genius Vigorous research has a way of toppling a scholar's most reasonable expectations. When Doris Kearns Goodwin decided more than 10 years ago that her next book would be about Abraham Lincoln, she assumed it would roughly parallel the approach and structure of No Ordinary Time, her Pulitzer Prize-winning study of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt confronting World War II.

But as Goodwin delved into the wealth of primary sources, she became convinced that the story she really needed to tell was that of Lincoln's close and productive relationship with his three rivals for the Republican presidential nomination of 1860. At Lincoln's insistence, these men William H. Seward of New York, Salmon Chase of Ohio and Edward Bates of Missouri all became key members of his cabinet and went on to serve him well throughout the bloodiest years of the Civil War. He appointed yet another former adversary, Edwin Stanton, as his secretary of war. In recognizing, recruiting and relying on talent, Lincoln held no grudges.

Speaking to BookPage from her home in Concord, Massachusetts, about her new book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Goodwin says her awareness of Lincoln's political talents emerged slowly. "I thought at first that I might focus on Abraham Lincoln and [his wife] Mary, just as I had done with Franklin and Eleanor. You tend to get a certain comfort from knowing what you've done before. But then, [during] those early months and months of reading, I realized that [Lincoln] was spending even more time with these colleagues in the cabinet . . . than he was with Mary. And he was sharing emotions with them. Unlike with Franklin and Eleanor, where Eleanor was a central figure in the [World War II] home front, the story of Mary would be important, but it would be a private story." Apart from Mary Lincoln, Goodwin also casts her attentive eye on several other forceful and fascinating women within the Lincoln milieu, notably Seward's politically radical wife, Frances, and Chase's beautiful and socially astute daughter, Kate. The author's depictions of the Washington social scene are photographic in both detail and dramatic impact.

Goodwin admits that she knew relatively little about the 19th century when she began her work. "All the other history that I've done has been in the 20th century. I wondered, will I be able to feel what it was like to live on a daily basis in an earlier time? Unlike the book on Roosevelt, where I was able to interview people, and certainly [the one on] Lyndon Johnson [Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream], where I knew him, I knew I wouldn't be talking to anybody [from that era]." Instead, she relied on primary source material. "They wrote so many letters and kept those extraordinary diaries. I could feel them living day by day, even more intimately than I understood Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt." Virtually perching on Lincoln's shoulder as he navigates through incompetent generals, battlefield setbacks and warring factions within his own administration, Goodwin portrays him as a master manipulator although never for petty or destructive causes. She illustrates how he led his cabinet, the military and the country with a light and sensitive rein, even as he endured a succession of personal crises. Oddly enough, the theater, where he would meet his death, became a principal source of solace in his final years.

In Goodwin's estimation, Lincoln has had no political equal. "Roosevelt understood timing, as Lincoln did. He had a feeling for the country as a whole, I think, so that he knew when to get Americans involved in [World War II], even before Pearl Harbor. And that's similar to Lincoln's understanding of timing with when to do the Emancipation Proclamation and when to bring black soldiers in." But, Goodwin points out, it was Lincoln's "decency and morality" and his ability to turn these virtues into political instruments that ultimately set him above other leaders. "My husband [Richard Goodwin] worked in the Kennedy administration," she says. "He remembers this great dinner one night with the great British philosopher, Isaiah Berlin. . . . Anyway, they were having a discussion about whether you could be great and good at the same time, and the only people they came up with were Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln." Integrating the personalities of Seward, Chase, Bates and Stanton into the Lincoln chronicle was especially time-consuming, Goodwin observes. "I think the reason that it took so long was that it was like doing a biography on each one of them. It's the only way you could get the best stuff. You could have done this book, I suppose, by just reading secondary sources on the guys and then doing all the original research on Lincoln. But [you had to do more] in order to get the best stories and to emotionally connect with all these other people. . . . I had to have these huge chronologies of each one, and I would actually put them on a wall so I could see where they overlapped." In 2002, a number of critics accused Goodwin of plagiarism or, at minimum, insufficient documentation, particularly in her book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. "The main thing about this book [on Lincoln]," Goodwin offers, when asked about the controversy, "was that I was able in this whole research really from the beginning to have everything on a computer, which made all the difference. It meant that all the notes that were taken on books could be scanned into the computer, not handwritten, and all the footnotes could be inserted simultaneously, instead of doing it after the chapter was done. So I had, all along as I was doing this, absolute confidence that there would be no [documentation] problem." The problem Goodwin faces now is withdrawing from Lincoln's world without having another project to fall back on. "I miss it already," she laments. "It's weird, because especially in the last couple of years there was such pressure to finish it. You knew how to focus your day. It feels strange now, not having that. I wake up and I feel sort of scattered." Edward Morris writes from Nashville.

Get the Book

Team of Rivals

Team of Rivals

By Doris Kearns Goodwin
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9780684824901

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.

Trending Interviews

Ayana Mathis’ The Unsettled is a gripping novel about mothers and children, past and present, and the private hells in which we often find ourselves while searching for utopia. With its chorus of intergenerational voices and its themes of love, loss and legacy, it contains many of the things her loyal readers most enjoy, along with a story that is heartbreaking yet hopeful.