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Published: Sunday, 11/13/2005

Goodwin sticks to standard Lincoln fare

BY BOB HOOVER
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

TEAM OF RIVALS: THE POLITICAL GENIUS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN. By Doris Kearns Goodwin. Simon & Schuster. 944 pages. $35.

Doris Kearns Goodwin opens her massive account of Abraham Lincoln's presidency with one of the most overused techniques to set a historical scene: newspaper ads.

"Breakfast was being served at the 130-room Chenery House on Fourth Street. Fresh butter, flour, lard and eggs were being put out for sale at the City Grocery Store on North Sixth Street."

It's an uninspired way to begin her first historical book since the Pulitzer Prize-winning No Ordinary Time 11 years ago. A casual reader contemplating 754 pages of similar prose might be tempted to set the heavy volume aside for something more compelling.

Those with more determination to endure the first third of the book will find that it eventually grows more interesting.

In her opening chapter, Goodwin was making the point that May 18, 1860, appeared to be a day just like any other in Springfield, Ill. Who would realize, she stage-whispers, that it would prove to be a momentous date in the life of the nation?

That day, the Republican Party nominated the Springfield attorney as its candidate for president. He defeated three more-accomplished opponents for the nomination - William Seward of New York, Salmon Chase of Ohio, and Edward Bates of Missouri - and went on, as we all know, to become one of America's greatest presidents.

In her other histories, Goodwin has focused on personal relationships - the Kennedys and Fitzgeralds and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. She now turns that focus on Lincoln and his associates who governed the Union during the Civil War. As evidence of his political acumen, Lincoln appointed his defeated rivals to key Cabinet posts:

The patrician Seward (secretary of state) would prove to be Lincoln's equal in the story-telling department as well as his closest confidante; the stern Chase (secretary of the treasury) would be a spur to Lincoln's waffling on abolition, and the conflicted Bates (attorney general), whose son fought for the Confederacy, would represent the sentiments of the divided land.

The other major figures in the Cabinet - Steubenville, Ohio's Edwin Stanton (secretary of war) and Gideon Welles (secretary of the navy) - were not Lincoln's political rivals, but played major roles as well. Lincoln's two vice presidents, Hannibal Hamlin and Andrew Johnson, receive less attention.

They all wrote letters and many published diaries and memoirs of the Lincoln years. Goodwin must have struggled mightily while pouring through the wealth of material assembled by her three research assistants to find something original to say about one of the most studied presidents in history. The sources are so extensive that the book includes 120 pages in small print of notes.

Goodwin and company have little new to tell us and stick to the standard fare. Most of the familiar Lincoln stories are here - from the suggestion from a young girl that he grow a beard to his attitude about Ulysses Grant's drinking.

We hear yet again of his tolerance, kindness, and gravity, of his grief over the mounting dead, his generosity toward the South, his affection for wife and family, and his conversion to the eradication of slavery. If Lincoln did have a flaw, it was his reluctance to use his authority and power early in his presidency, particularly with the dithering Army Gen. George McClellan. His failure to replace McClellan sooner with a more decisive commander might have lengthened the war. The author has no opinion or explanation for Lincoln's own dithering.

Goodwin's extensive telling of how Lincoln worked with his cabinet, particularly Seward and Stanton, to push the war forward while cultivating political support among Republican factions is her strength.

"Saint Abraham" becomes more human when we see him making deals, pulling strings, including providing soldiers with furloughs so they could vote for Republican candidates and making things tough for his opponents.

The material, though, gets the better of Goodwin, who devotes far too much space to the family lives of the Sewards and the Chases. Daughter Kate Chase, apparently the "hostess with the mostest" with her Washington parties, rates as much space as Mary Todd Lincoln and her father.

Her soirees, however, appeared to have no impact on the war.

Also, in a book of this length, pedestrian prose and cliches are bound to show up - and they do, perhaps too much. Carelessness sets in as well.

Goodwin describes the scene when an aide to Stanton visits Lincoln's office to ask a question:

"Lincoln greeted him. 'What's up?' "

Really? What's up with that? No way, Doris.

Team of Rivals is impressively researched, thorough in its grasp of the events of the presidential years and most of all, safe.

The sources are confined to the tried and true - Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, George Templeton Strong, John Hay, and the other usual suspects.

The conclusions are carefully drawn from the historians who preceded her. Goodwin has left nothing to chance.

Yes, Abraham Lincoln was a great president, but we didn't need 754 pages of well-tracked ground to remind us.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bob Hoover is book editor of the Post-Gazette.



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