Nov 29, 2008

Bad History and Obama's Team of Rivals

As someone who studies and teaches history it's always a bit frustrating to observe the popular discourse on matters historical, particularly when such discourse is so often informed by bad history books by people who are at best barely historians.

The recent discussion surrounding various appointees to Obama's administration as a would-be "team of rivals" is a case in point, and no doubt if Hillary Clinton is indeed appointed Secretary of State next week we will be hearing more about this.

One of the low points for me in my personal relationship with Barack Obama was when I found out he was reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. As he was wrapping up the primary fight Obama referred to it as a "wonderful book," and in recent weeks the "team of rivals" trope has been all over the airwaves and intertubes.

Goodwin is the author of a number of bestselling books, and is widely regarded as an eminent historian despite the fact that she has not produced any noteworthy scholarship. She began her career as an assistant to Lyndon Johnson and then produced a quasi-official biography of the man which was followed by several books about presidents and their families (an extremely, extremely limited field of historical inquiry). She has plagiarized (Goodwin claims mistakenly, though that hardly matters) whole passages of at least one other author's book and apparently settled that matter out of court. To be blunt, her work is not respected among professional historians, though no doubt most are jealous of her book sales—testament to her skills as a writer and storyteller if not as a scholar.

The point of this post is not to pick on Goodwin—it's not her fault that she wrote a likable but not very serious book about Lincoln which Barack Obama read and many are now discussing as though it contained important truths. But it's worthwhile to consider the whole "team of rivals" thesis and whether it is actually historically accurate and could serve as a model for President Obama. Luckily some serious Lincoln scholars have been weighing in on this issue. Matthew Pinsker of Dickinson College notes in an LA Times piece:

...Out of the four leading vote-getters for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination whom Lincoln placed on his original team, three left during his first term -- one in disgrace, one in defiance and one in disgust....

Lincoln's Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.

Lincoln was a political genius, but his model for Cabinet-building should stand more as a cautionary tale than as a leadership manual.
James Oakes of the CUNY Graduate Center strikes a similar theme in his recent Op-Ed in the NY Times:

There is little doubt that Abraham Lincoln was a great president. But not much of what made him great can be discerned in his appointment of a contentious, envious and often dysfunctional collection of prima donnas to his cabinet.

Both articles flesh out some of the specific problems with Goodwin's book in a polite and collegial fashion, but suffice it to say that most historians who work with Lincoln would view the "team of rivals" thesis as rather wrongheaded. Personally I agree with Pinsker and Oakes that Lincoln was as fine of a politician—and president—as this country has ever seen, but making a big to-do about his clever cabinet appointments is odd.

Moreover, as Goodwin essentially admitted in an interview with Politico, even if the "team of rivals" portrayal of Lincoln's administration was at least somewhat accurate, its applicability to contemporary American politics is rather dubious. In 1860 the Republican Party was just a few years old, and the positions of Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of State, Attorney General, and President of the United States were radically different from what they are today.

To take just one example, consider that no American president had ever left the country while in office until Woodrow Wilson went to Paris in 1918. For a variety of reasons the executive branch of 2009 bears little resemblance to that of 1861, to the point where Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln basically have completely different jobs.

It's perhaps inevitable but nonetheless unfortunate that this "team of rivals" notion will be with us for awhile, though it's heartening that dissenting voices questioning the historical basis for that idea are getting some press. I just hope Obama does not take it too seriously, and that he finds someone to rework his "Good History Books" list in the very near future.


  1. As far as administration comparisons go, Obama seems more like Kennedy than Lincoln. He's a "we're the change we've been waiting for" = 'ask not what your...' kinda guy I guess.

    Despite the Press fascination with Team of Rivals, the Lincoln similarity is limited to the Illinois connection and the Clinton - Seward choice. Perhaps as SOS, Clinton will offer the Russians a few $Billion for Kamchatka, Chukotka, and Koryakia?

  2. Yeah, if the United States could buy Kamchatka maybe we could finally get past the first round in the global Risk (tm) tournament.

    I certainly hope Obama is closer to Lincoln than Kennedy, since as far as I'm concerned the latter's presidency was utterly mediocre. Lincoln proceeded with extreme caution and care in the political sphere, to the point that it would not be unfair to call him conservative in terms of his approach to politics. But in the end he achieved what was and is by far the most radical change in American history - the end of slavery.

    I see a bit of that in Obama, i.e. a conservative temperament combined with a masterful understanding of politics and public opinion (I think he'll only get better with that).

    If Obama pulls a Lincoln and uses rather conservative means to achieve radical (or progressive) ends then I'll be very happy, but I have no idea whether he will actually be inclined or able to walk that path.

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