No Ordinary Tome

Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin's much anticipated book about Abraham Lincoln, marks her return to the arena after a devastating scandal. Throughout her personal trials, Goodwin says, Lincoln himself proved to be a major source of consolation. "His whole philosophy was not to waste precious energies on recriminations about the past"
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The books into which Goodwin has put these presidents, at the rate of one a decade, have been decidedly different from one another. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream remains interesting for the one-of-a-kind, up-close-and-personal access that produced it, but it's a ramshackle production, an uneasy blend of journalism, biography, memoir, and political-science study, much of it reflective of Goodwin's graduate training in Harvard's government department, where Richard Neustadt (Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents) was "like a second father" to her. Conversations with Erik Erikson during that same period, and participation in a seminar on the application of psychoanalysis to biography, make themselves overapparent in analyses of Johnson's dreams and "repetition compulsion." Goodwin now muses that she was "always, I think, underneath," a historian, but in the LBJ book she hadn't yet learned to dramatize the particulars; it's surprisingly abstract and unanecdotal about Johnson's Senate career and persuasion strategies.

The Kennedy book may, as she says, have taught her to write narrative, but its cast is so big and its decades so numerous that one can only call it sprawling, with that word's double edge. It's No Ordinary Time that marked an exceptional advance in technique. Confined to a chronology of five years, Goodwin gave taut shape to a small ensemble cast, opening with artful alternations between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on May 10, 1940, while the Nazis are overrunning the Low Countries. Freudian technique is enough subordinated that the Roosevelts emerge as characters, not case studies. The president's cigarette holder is just a cigarette holder, and it flashes with the rest of the small specifics that the author has learned not only to gather but to set in motion.

No Ordinary Time was the first of Goodwin's books to offer real literary satisfactions, and it is more or less the template for Team of Rivals. If the Roosevelt White House's second floor sometimes resembled a zany rooming house, Lincoln's Washington seems a kind of game board over which the president rushes, smoothing the feathers of his exasperating subordinates, his feet or carriage taking him from Seward's Lafayette Square house to Chase's new mansion at 6th and E and back to Stanton at the War Department's telegraph office. There's a cozy, episodic quality to much of the narrative.

Goodwin's best thematic achievement may be to give us a clear, accruing sense of why saving the Union—which even the most casual student of American history is taught was the real reason for the war—actually stood as a more transcendent goal than freeing the slaves. Lincoln's faith in the Declaration of Independence as an international document, one with global promises, is apparent in his utterances long before the Gettysburg Address—including his debates with Douglas in 1858, when he spoke of the Declaration's bearing on "countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages." Four years earlier still, noting that the word "slavery" had been excluded from the Constitution, "just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer," Lincoln makes evident his view of slavery as something not just shameful but small—at least in comparison with the possibility of universal freedom, which depended upon American success. This theme is hardly Goodwin's discovery, but she has infused it into her book steadily and well, giving us a Lincoln appropriate to the present hour and our much proclaimed, much doubted obligation to bring liberty to the whole world.

Goodwin sold the television rights to her Kennedy and Roosevelt books before each was completed, and for the past several years she has been actively involved in Steven Spielberg's plans to make a feature film (probably starring Liam Neeson) from Team of Rivals. Her husband, Richard Goodwin, joked to me last fall that his wife needed to speed up, lest Spielberg's movie reach theaters with the credit line "Based on the forthcoming book."

With her wedding to Goodwin, thirty years ago, Doris Kearns married into the first era of history that she wrote about. As a presidential assistant to John F. Kennedy, Richard Goodwin found himself, weirdly, the New York Times's featured "Man in the News" on the morning of November 22, 1963. He stayed on at the White House to write Lyndon Johnson's best civil-rights speeches; a pen that LBJ used to sign the Voting Rights Act in 1965 is displayed in the Concord house not far from the Bronze Star that their son Joseph received for service in Iraq.

No book about either of the Presidents Bush seems likely in Doris Kearns Goodwin's future. Theodore Roosevelt is probably the only twentieth-century Republican within her political pale (one had a sense that her heart wasn't fully in her MSNBC commentary on Ronald Reagan's funeral), though she admits to thinking about Ulysses S. Grant as a possible new subject.

Whether or not she follows through with that, she is almost certainly not done with a genre that severely exasperates many academic historians. Presidential biography is the only history that many Americans read, but they read it avidly, pushing the books of David McCullough, Edmund Morris, and Goodwin up the charts, and raising the blood pressure of university scholars marooned in more arcane specialties. In 2001, in a review of McCullough's John Adams titled "America Made Easy," Princeton's Sean Wilentz denounced a series of big-selling biographers for supplying "pleasant uplift" instead of reality and rigor. Wilentz tends to equate iconoclasm with seriousness, but it is worth asking if there isn't in fact something inherently sentimental in this presidential genre—an inevitable need to show its protagonist, whatever his mistakes and travails, triumphing on the nation's behalf.

Goodwin admits that confrontation "is not my style at all" (she may be the first person ever to praise both Sandburg's Lincoln and Vidal's), but she insists that she knows how to be hard on presidents when they let you down, by, say, interning the Japanese or bombing North Vietnam. Her book on Johnson taught her, in fact, to be extra critical of a subject: "At a time when I'm at Harvard, the antiwar movement is going on, all the people surrounding me—all my friends and colleagues—hate this man, I feel an empathy for him. On the other hand, I'm probably bending over backwards, even though I'm showing the empathy, to talk about his flaws, because that's my other self that's out there …"

In the case of her current subject, she would point out that she has put Lincoln up against strong men, not straw men. That the man she depicts is "uncommonly tenderhearted" may be emotionally convenient for the strikingly warm Goodwin, but it has a basic truthfulness nonetheless. I'm not sure I would want to turn Goodwin's sympathies on, say, Woodrow Wilson, lest personal feeling claim a larger portion of her focus than the long-term calamitous consequences of a president's good intentions; but cynicism doesn't get anyone very far with Lincoln. If his kindnesses were often shrewd, they were no less kind: "All the things that he did that are the marks of a good man," Goodwin says, "turned out to be those of a great politician." There simply "aren't as many flaws with him as there are with other people." To make an effortful hunt for them is to introduce another kind of distortion: "You wouldn't be true to at least the Lincoln that I saw. That's just reality."

Wilentz dismissed popular historians as purveyors of what he disgustedly called "narrative, narrative, narrative." But that is Goodwin's natural element. Lyndon Johnson, she once argued, equated votes with love; in her own life a connection got made early on between love and storytelling. In the late 1940s, when her father would get home from work, young Doris would reconstruct the Dodgers games she'd heard on the radio. As she explains in her memoir, Wait Till Next Year (1997), her recitations instilled in her the "naïve confidence that others would find me as entertaining as my father did." A "Note on Sources" to No Ordinary Time delights in her "favorite details" of the Roosevelt saga, and for a historian she uses the word "incredible," at least in conversation, to a peculiar degree. Her editor seems finally to have broken her of a tendency, notable in the Kennedy and Roosevelt books, to dapple the page with exclamation points, but even so, enthusiasm remains evident in the mature style she's achieved, one that's unpretentious and companionable.

Narrative, narrative, narrative: it was one of Lincoln's natural elements too. When he told a story, Goodwin writes, "a rapid illumination of [his] features would be observed." His little tales, tiresome to those who, like Chase, felt guilty reading fiction, were more than parables designed to persuade. The journalist Henry Villard grasped the power of these stories to "heal wounded feelings and mitigate disappointments" among people who heard them. Their telling is so much a part of Goodwin's book that a reader also begins, perhaps for the first time, to appreciate their compulsive, self-medicating quality for Lincoln himself.

"There was something mysterious in his persona that led countless men, even old adversaries, to feel bound to him in admiration," Goodwin writes. Attempts to pry Lincoln up from his eternal throne in the nation's capital are as shortsighted as they are fruitless. All who would engage with him have to traffic in his semi-divinity; writers on Lincoln get taken in by resisting it, not by surrendering. In 1866, as Concord was putting up its stone tribute to the war dead, John Hay—a kind of mini-Seward in his merriment and sophisticated tastes—concluded, not implausibly, that "Lincoln with all his foibles is the greatest character since Christ." According to the biographer Daniel Mark Epstein, even Walt Whitman, one of nature's smothering huggers, "hung back in awe and from a keen artistic instinct" on a number of occasions when he might have shaken Lincoln's hand.

In his days as a trial lawyer Lincoln argued in favor of holding on to Jefferson's idea of George Washington as the perfect American: "It makes human nature better to believe that one human being was perfect, that human perfection is possible." But Washington's was a perfection of citizenship, a stiff achievement within human limits, comporting with the smooth but blank perfection of his monument—which Daniel Chester French's statue of Lincoln gazes out upon, across the Mall. On February 12, 2009, the next president of the United States will rededicate the Lincoln Memorial as part of the bicentennial celebration of Lincoln's birth. The occasion will call for the first big post-inauguration speech by the forty-fourth chief executive. The new president, standing on the memorial's east steps, will be facing the Washington Monument, but he (she?) will be praying that Lincoln has his back.

In the coming months will Lincoln have Goodwin's? As she travels the country, smiling her way past the knives that are out, one can almost imagine him protecting her with his capacity for seeing transgression in proportion to something better—what he once might have used to shield the returning wayward states from the implacable radicals of Reconstruction. Goodwin in fact may be saved by Lincoln's sheer magnitude, if critical fascination with him trumps schadenfreude over her own still-recent excoriation.

"I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress," Lincoln wrote at the end of 1862 to the daughter of a friend who'd been killed in battle. His consolations, his urgings, his epistolary loss-cuttings, have been stacked and shelved around Goodwin, nearly walling her in, for years now. When I sat with her in Concord last summer, she showed me, one by one, copies of the pictures that would go into the book, clearly eager to push it over the finish line, just as clearly hesitant to let it go. Abraham Lincoln is a subject to which she's done justice, and he is a subject she needed more than she first knew.

Thomas Mallon is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His most recent book is the novel Bandbox.
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Thomas Mallon’s books include the novels Two Moons and Aurora 7, as well as Rockets and Rodeos, a collection of essays.

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