Doris Kearns Goodwin discusses Lincoln, Bush and Team Of Rivals.
HH: It’s a double first for me today. It’s the first time I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Doris Kearns Goodwin, who was to me Professor Kearns for my first class in government many years ago with James Q. Wilson at Harvard. And it’s the first time I’ve interviewed Doris Kearns Goodwin, an author whose book I listened to, as opposed to read. I have never done this before, so it’s a little bit different for me. Congratulations on Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln. It’s just done tremendously well. Why do you think it is resonating with the public today? Is it because of the Iraq war?
DKG: You know, I think what it is, is that what Lincoln represents to our country is somebody who had an extraordinary integrity, and a willingness to show what it was like to deal with people of all different opinions, to bring into his cabinet people who were his rivals, to be able somehow to cross party lines. We’re so divided in the country right now, that I think the story of Lincoln is not only the emotional story of somebody who rose from the log cabin to become president, but it’s the story of a political genius who was able, and in a much rougher time even than ours, to bring people of all different dimensions together. And I think the country is yearning for that kind of a force right now, so that Lincoln is able to give them inspiration that it could be done before, maybe it’ll happen again.
HH: What surprised me about this book so much is that…I’ve read a lot about Lincoln, a lot about the Civil War. But I had never focused on his political expertise, or particularly on the 1860 campaign, and the Chicago convention. Even though we’re approaching the 150th anniversary of that, I don’t think many people know that he entered the convention fourth among four contenders.
DKG: You know, I’m not sure how much I knew that, either. I think most of us are so aware of Lincoln’s great statesmanlike qualities, and there’s a great respect that we accord to him, that the fun thing for me was to find out what a canny and a shrewd politician he was. When he entered that race, as you say, clearly the darkest of the dark horse candidates, but he had the best strategy of all four of them. He didn’t disparage any of his three rivals. While they were all busy attacking one another, he then never said a word against them, so that when…and then he had never made enemies along his long career. He had turned former enemies into…or former opponents, rather, into allies, so that when the other guys all got tripped up by the enemies they’d made, and they were all figuring out their delegates, where do we go now, Lincoln was the only one who hadn’t hurt their man. So in a certain sense, there’s something quite clear to people, I think, in advice for that as they look toward 2008. And at the same time, when he gave his speeches, unlike the other three, they were all northerners, they’re all anti-slavery, obviously, at the Republican convention, but the others would castigate the southerners as evil, unchristian men, whereas he was much more empathetic. They are what we would be in their situation. And he talked sort of gently about their problems, which he understood. Again, I think that voice that we’re looking for now, that can see things from different people’s points of view, and not be so partisan as to close one’s heart to the other side.
HH: Doris Kearns Goodwin, one of the aspects of your book, which I think has resonated with me and most of my audience, is how relevant it is to some of the controversies of today. And in fact, when President Bush dismissed Donald Rumsfeld, a decision I deeply disagreed with, I thought in contrast to Lincoln’s steadfast support for Edwin Stanton against all sorts of calumny, etc. Did that cross your mind that throwing Rumsfeld overboard was a mistake in that term?
DKG: Well, clearly, you’re right, and I did think about the contrast with Stanton, because there was a drumbeat in the press, much as there was against Rumsfeld, to get rid of him, because at that time, the war in the north was going badly, and there was also a conservative coalition at that time that was against Stanton. In that case, it may have been the opposite for Rumsfeld. But Lincoln took the responsibility, actually gave a huge speech to the Capitol steps, in which he said you know, if people are to blame anybody for what happened in the war, it’s not Stanton’s fault. We just simply didn’t have the troops for this particular battle that had been lost. So I think, though, what has happened in President Bush’s case, I’m not sure he was responding simply to the drumbeat of criticism as much as knowing that if he were going to try and chart a new course, that he needed some new people there, some fresh ideas. And I suspect that he talked it over with Rumsfeld, and somehow, it may not have been as sad as it may seem on the surface for Rumsfeld. Maybe he was even anxious after this long, hard time, to just be able to get away, and hope that the war can have a different course and come out better.
HH: Now, you also detail the political right hook that Lincoln suffered in 1962, a pretty devastating rebuke from the country. How did he respond to it? What’s the lesson in that for George Bush after the November vote?
DKG: Well, what Lincoln realized in 1862 was that he had to figure out how to keep his coalition in the north together, because what was happening was that some of the people were already losing patience with the war. Some of them were upset with the fact that he seemed to be moving more toward emancipation, and they weren’t ready for that. They simply wanted the war to be fought for the Union. So he had to figure out what are the convictions that I’m going to stick with anyway? But how am I going to be able to somehow keep this coalition, which was made up of moderates, radicals, conservatives together? And he managed, eventually, to do that. So in the next election the following spring, he began to gain power back to his coalition. And then by 1864, though nobody thought again that he would win that second term, he was able to bring that about, in part because the war’s fortunes took a better turn. That made all the difference when Atlanta was captured in September of 1864.
HH: I am talking with Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team Of Rivals, a book that if you haven’t bought it for your best friend or family member for Christmas, you should. They will love you for it. I am also struck by the fact that we have a number of McClellans around in the country these days, Doris, with the generals who came back to criticize the war, and to urge the Murtha position. How did Lincoln deal with the political challenge of McClellan? And is there a lesson in that for George Bush?
DKG: Well, it seemed that this is the one area where my thought is that he kept McClellan too long in his position. The problem with McClellan was that he had organized the army brilliantly. He was…he made them love him. He was a great force for the soldiers. And I think Lincoln overvalued that. He was so happy to see the soldiers organized and disciplined after there had been no army, essentially, to start the war with. But then, McClellan never brought these troops into battle. And finally, Lincoln said he’s created a great army, but it was a stationary army. But he kept giving him another chance, and another chance, and another chance, and McClellan just simply didn’t respond to the challenge. He would say you’ve got to bring them into battle. We have to do something. And finally, he knew his own weakness, that he was keeping him on too long, so he finally said to himself, if he doesn’t move them into battle by this particular date, then I will finally fire him. But also, McClellan was trying to be a political general, and he was arguing with Lincoln that he didn’t think the soldiers would fight for emancipation. They would only fight for Union, and speaking out on that regard, rather than just fighting the war as he was supposed to be fighting it as a commander. So…
HH: But how ought the President today respond to retired generals who are arguing with him now that he’s not…pulling a McClellan in retirement, arguing that the war is mismanaged?
DKG: It’s really an unusual situation that these generals are doing this. I mean, it hasn’t happened all that much in our history. I mean, mainly, probably because the access to media today is so much greater for these retired generals than there would have been before. It might have been a letter that somebody might have written to a newspaper before…
DKG: But now, they’re appearing on cable television, they’re remarks are much more widely distributed around the country. And I think the only thing that President Bush can do is to just not deal with it. I don’t think it helps him to get into a debate with them. He has to just say, and I think that’s what he’s doing. I mean, whether one agrees with him or not, President Bush is going to come out, it seems to me, in these next couple of weeks with his plan. He will have listened to the Baker plan, he will have listened to these retired generals. He’ll be talking to his commanders in the field, and seeing what they’re saying over there, and he’s going to say what he wants to say. I mean, that, I’m sure of with him. He doesn’t seem to be swaying with all these opinions that are going on.
HH: Does that parallel how Lincoln in the worst days of the war, after bloody setbacks, or even bloodier victories, is that how he conducted himself?
DKG: I suspect it does. You know, again, whether one agrees with the content of what President Bush is doing, during the worst days of the war in 1864, when a lot of people were telling Lincoln you’re not going to be able to win this war, the only chance is a compromise peace, and you’re going to have to give up emancipation, because there’s no way the south will come to a compromised peace if you force them to emancipation. And there were a lot of people in the north who were saying to him this war’s gone on too long, it’s never going to be won. And at that point, he said I have made my pledge to the black Americans for emancipation. I cannot go back on that.
HH: Can you conceive of a Doris Kearns Goodwin a hundred and fifty years hence writing a book as respectful of Lincoln…of Bush as you have written of Lincoln?
DKG: I think…you know, what may happen a hundred fifty years from now is that somebody may be able to argue that what President Bush wanted to do in Iraq was the right thing. What doesn’t seem similar so far is that the responsibility of a president in a time of war is to keep the country on his side, and in order to make sure that he’s got enough mobilization of resources so that the fight can be fought as far as he…to me, this is where Lyndon Johnson failed in the end, by not keeping the country on his side. He thought he was right in Vietnam, but eventually, because he never got the country on his side long enough and hard enough, because he had told them it was going to be over quicker than it ever was, I think that’s going to be the problem for President Bush as well.
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HH: Doris, the picture that emerged of William Seward completely surprised me. I knew he got Alaska cheap, et cetera. And also, I was deeply disappointed, as a Buckeye, that Salmon Chase came off as such a prig.
HH: Were these surprises to you as well? Because as a historian, obviously, you deal with a lot of cabinet members. But these are two extraordinary men.
DKG: They were both larger than life men. I mean, Seward, especially, I think, developed my affection. I mean, here’s this man who was so sure he would be the nominee in 1860. It seemed an irrecoverable disappointment when he lost the nomination. 10,000 people waiting outside his home to celebrate. He said he felt like he was hearing his obituary as he walked around the next day. And yet, was able to accept the post of secretary of state. And after some initial skirmishing, hoping that he would be like a prime minister, he began to see what Lincoln’s strengths were, settled down to give up his own political ambitions, become his advisor, his partner, and indeed, his most intimate friend. I mean, it’s a wonderful story of an arc of two people’s relationship shifting. And in the end, when Seward finally finds out that Lincoln has died, you know, there’s such a sadness, and such a wellspring of emotions in him, that he himself is crying, even though he’s almost been killed that same night by the same assassin.
HH: Oh, what a dramatic retelling of that attempt of his life, and on the other conspiracy victims’ lives. And our Ohio governor, so deeply double-crossed by his own Buckeyes. Better man than most people think?
DKG: I think so. I mean, Salmon Chase, even though he had this relentless ambition to be president, which he could never damp down, which caused him to be jealous of Lincoln, to even try and wrest the nomination from Lincoln in the second time around in 1864. Nonetheless, he had an incredibly honorable career. Abolitionist when he was younger, a state governor, a Senator, a man of deep convictions, deeply religious, and a very intelligent man. And he just had lost three wives, all of whom died young. So I think in that vacuum of his private life, this personal desire to be president became so strong. And sadly, he should have felt he had an honorable life anyway. And the amazing thing is that Lincoln makes him Supreme Court Chief Justice, even after he had tried to run against Lincoln in 1864, knowing he will be the best man for the rights of the emancipated slaves. His friends say how can you do this? He said all these horrible things about you. And Lincoln says I know worse things Salmon Chase has said about me than any of you do, but he will be the best man for the free slave. He was always able to have things in priority…
DKG: That was what was so great about old Abe.
HH: Now I also have to pay you the compliment of having been out running, and having to stop and actually amazed at the sorrow that Lincoln has to go through with the death of his son. How difficult was that to write? That was totally unexpected. I knew it intellectually, but I just had no idea.
DKG: No, I don’t think I had any idea, either. I mean, of the children that he had, four sons, one had died at three years old earlier, Robert, who was at Harvard, had a very different temperament from Lincoln, much more cool and not as warm and open-hearted. The youngest son, Tad, had a speech defect, and couldn’t be understood outside the family. So Willie, the one who died, everybody said he was like Lincoln. He wrote poetry, he was sensitive, he was compassionate, he took care of his little brother, Tad. And when he died, I mean, Lincoln saw that Mary, his wife, never recovered from that depression, and he missed that kid enormously. There had been a bond that had been created between those two, that you really had the feeling if ever there were anyone who could have carried on for Lincoln in the decades that followed, it would have been Willie. And sadly, he died at ten years old.
HH: I want to play for you a question from today’s press conference, which has to do with the burdens of the presidency, and sorrow, and have you reflect on it with Lincoln and your former boss, Lyndon Johnson, in mind. Cut number eight, please:
Reporterette: Mr. President, Lyndon Johnson famously didn’t sleep during the Vietnam War, questioning his own decisions. You have always seemed very confident of your decisions. But I can’t help but wonder if this has been a time of painful realization for you, as you yourself have acknowledged that some of the policies you hoped would succeed have not. And I wonder if you can talk to us about that. Has it been a painful time?
GWB: Yeah, thanks. Most painful aspect of my presidency has been knowing that good men and women have died in combat. I read about it every night. And my heart breaks for a mother or father or husband or wife or son or daughter. It just does. And so when you ask about pain, that’s pain. I reach out to a lot of the families. I spend time with them. I am always inspired by their spirit. Most people have asked me to do one thing, and that is to make sure that their child didn’t die in vain, and I agree with that.
HH: Doris Kearns Goodwin, does that echo your experience with Johnson, and your learning about Lincoln?
DKG: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think none of us can fully absorb what it must mean for a president who sends young men, and now young women, into battle, knows he’s responsible for their losses, and knows that he wants to, just as President Bush said, that’s why I think they stick out these wars maybe even longer than maybe they should, because they do want there to be a reason why these young men did not die in vain. That’s why Lyndon Johnson said how could I say to the country that 50,000 people died, and it was a mistake? So little wonder that they go through much more anguish than I think we imagine sometimes. And I think back about the anti-Lyndon Johnson, hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today…I mean, that was simply not understanding that he probably was feeling as much anguish as anybody on the outside was.
HH: Doris Kearns Goodwin, you’ve spent a lot of time with me. Thank you. Last question, where are you going next in your profiles and studies of great Americans?
DKG: Teddy Roosevelt, and the Progressive Era, and the muckraking journalists. And so I’m doing 1900-1912, Teddy Roosevelt and Taft, their friendship that gets broken when Teddy runs against Taft in 1912. And I think I’m really liking it. I thought after Lincoln, it would be hard to fall in love again. But it’s a great, great era.
HH: Well, Merry Christmas to you. Thank you for a wonderful book, Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius…
DKG: You’re so welcome. Thanks for having me.
HH: Great. We’ll have you back again soon.
DKG: Absolutely. I’d be delighted.
HH: And I want to recommend to everyone, you really do…you’ll fall in love with this book. You’ll just be stunned by how quickly you’ve got to absorb it, how much you want to read about it. And the portraits…and I was telling someone the other day that…I’ve been working on this Romney book, and I wish I had the time to more fully develop for you the people around him. I don’t know…I have met, but I don’t know well, Mrs. Romney. I have met, but I don’t know well, sort of the first pal, Bob White. I have met a couple of the sons, don’t know them well. But the people who surround you…the political people as well. I’ve gotten to know members of his staff, had conversations with them. And you begin to understand how a presidency, even far, far more than a governorship, especially in a time of war, depends upon this team that you pull together. And that’s why every president, whether you like him or not, deserves a Doris Kearns Goodwin, who will go back there…and you don’t get it for a hundred fifty years, unfortunately, because Lincoln was so reviled, oh, so hated. Bush has got nothing like the hatred that Lincoln had, but it is eerily, eerily familiar as you read through the political agony of Lincoln. You get a sense of what Bush has been enduring when you read through the revolt of the generals, when you see the political intrigues, the decisions to try and break away, the villainous and vicious press that makes the blogosphere look like kindergarten. That’s why…and I always get hate mail after I do this segment, when I say Bush is Lincoln. It’s just a replay, and the Iraqis and the Afghanis are going to be as grateful to his memory as African-Americans are to Lincoln’s. That’s a lock, it’s what they call in the gambling world a mortal lock, and it’s not going to take a hundred and fifty years for that to be obvious. In fact, it’s already obvious in many parts of both of those countries.
End of interview.