Book Review: Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals

To understand the new administration, the book that has inspired Barack Obama deserves a second look

TVR Books | Susan Winter Balk | February 2009

Barack Obama reads Lincoln (Photo: Democratic National Committee)

When Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln was published in the United States in 2005, neither the reviewers, nor early readers, nor Kearns Goodwin herself could have known that just three years later, the book would become a touchstone for the presidential campaign, victory and administration of Barack Hussein Obama.

Upon publication, reviewer James McPherson in The New York Times praised the author’s analysis of "how Lincoln’s political ‘genius’ enabled him to ‘herd political cats and keep them driving toward ultimate victory….

"How did he do it? Goodwin deals with this question better than any other writer. Part of the answer lay in Lincoln’s steadfastness of purpose, which inspired subordinates to overcome their petty rivalries. Part of it lay in his superb sense of timing and his sensitivity to the pulse of public opinion as he moved to bring along a divided people to the support of ‘a new birth of freedom.’ And part of it lay in Lincoln’s ability to rise above personal slights, his talent for getting along with men of clashing ideologies and personalities who could not get along with each other."

A century and a half after anti-slavery candidate Abraham Lincoln became the 16th president, Barack Obama, as everyone in the world now knows, would become the first black President.

In 2008, months before he was to secure the Democratic nomination, Obama spoke in Boca Raton, Florida.

"I am a very practical-minded guy. And, you know, one of my heroes is Abraham Lincoln," he told ABC News. He told them about "a wonderful book" called Team of Rivals in which the author talked about how "Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet because whatever, you know, personal feelings there were, the issue was, ‘How can we get this country through this time of crisis?’ "

Obama’s inaugural address described the crisis of 2009, as "gathering clouds and raging storms" caused by "greed and responsibility on the part of some…and a collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." He was under no illusions about the situation.

"Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed."

Obama constructed his muscular cabinet to confront and repair the crises of our time, by following Lincoln’s lead and hiring his archrival Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The texture of his entire administration, in fact, is diverse in age and political bent. They are also very aware of what he expects of them:  The courage to argue against him and the loyalty to empower his decisions to repair, renew and reconcile the state of the world.

"Without the march of events that led to the Civil War, Lincoln still would have been a good man, but most likely would never have been publicly recognized as a great man," Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote. "It was history that gave him the opportunity to manifest his greatness, providing the stage that allowed him to shape and transform our national life."

The first day of his presidency, Barack Obama worked out at the gym.

He then telephoned Mamoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, King Abdullah of Jordan, and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt "to communicate his commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term."

He reviewed his possible $900 billion stimulus package with his bi-partisan council of economic advisors.

He reaffirmed his commitment to protecting abortion rights.

He issued an executive order to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay.

History has provided Barack Hussein Obama with "the opportunity to manifest his greatness." He’s off and running in the right direction.


Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln 

By Doris Kearns Goodwin

Simon & Schuster; 1st edition (2005)

ISBN-10: 0684824906

ISBN-13: 978-0684824901

Available at Shakespeare & Co.

1., Sterngasse 2 


Susan Margolis Winter Balk, a life long journalist and editor, has taught in the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.  She is on the Advisory Board of the College of Arts and Sciences at Webster in St Louis and is author, with Richard Winter and Webster’s Gregory Weeks, of Vienna’s Conscience: Close-ups and Conversations after Hitler.

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