My Christmas present to George W. Bush is a copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s splendid study of Lincoln and his Cabinet, ”Team of Rivals.” President Bush believes in redemption, and so do I. Here are just a few things Bush might profitably learn from our first Republican president.
Lincoln assumed the presidency at a time when the nation was horribly divided, not into culturally warring ”blue” states and ”red” ones, but into a real civil war between blues and grays — the states that stayed in the Union and those that seceded. Even among the unionists, Lincoln’s own Republican Party and Cabinet were bitterly rent between those who wanted to accelerate emancipation and punish the South and those who gave top priority to keeping the Republic whole.
Lincoln’s priority, always, was to preserve the Union and to reduce the sectional and ideological bitterness. As Goodwin brilliantly shows, he did so by the force of his personality and the generosity of his spirit. Lincoln had an unerring sense of when public opinion was ready for partial, then full abolition of slavery, and he would not move until he felt he had the people behind him. He governed by listening and persuading.
By contrast, Bush’s entire presidency is about eking out narrow victories, not about building national consensus. Even when he prevails, Bush wins by manipulation and stealth. His legacy is deepened division and bitterness.
Bush is said to live in a bubble. His tiny inner circle protects him from realities that might upset him or challenge his dimly informed certitudes. Lincoln, by contrast, had the confidence to reach out to critics and seek out widely divergent viewpoints.
Goodwin’s unusual title, ”Team of Rivals,” refers to the fact that Lincoln deliberately included in his Cabinet the prominent leaders of different factions of his party who had opposed him for the 1860 nomination. Some, like his treasury secretary, Salmon Chase, a fierce abolitionist, wanted Lincoln to proceed much more aggressively. Others feared that Lincoln was moving too fast and alienating border states like Maryland and Kentucky that permitted slavery but had voted not to leave the Union.
Goodwin, improbably finding something wholly new to illuminate this most heavily researched of historic figures, relies partly on the diaries of his contemporaries to reveal Lincoln’s sheer genius at winning the trust and affection of rivals.
Can you imagine Bush including in his inner Cabinet such Republicans as John McCain, who opposes Bush on torture of prisoners, or Chuck Hagel, who challenges the Iraq war, or Lincoln Chafee, who resists stacking the courts with ultra-right-wingers? Not to mention Democrats, a group Lincoln also included among his top appointees.
Bush, despite today’s ubiquity of media, doesn’t read newspapers, much less the Internet, and he settles for carefully filtered briefings. Lincoln was a voracious reader; he haunted the War Department’s telegraph office to get firsthand reports from the battlefield.
Lincoln gained incomparably in wisdom over four years. Does anyone think George W. Bush is wiser now than in 2001?
Despite civil insurrection, Lincoln resisted broad intrusions on democratic rights. Bush runs roughshod over liberties.
Bush’s visits to Iraq are choreographed media events. Lincoln often went to the front on horseback or by ship, almost alone, shunning news coverage, to confer at length with his generals, thank the troops, and educate himself.
Bush relies on secondhand inspirations of a speechwriting staff. He blathers when he wanders off script. Lincoln wrote his own words, including the timeless eloquence of the Second Inaugural or the Gettysburg Address. More often, his eloquence was extemporaneous.
Lincoln was magnanimous almost to a fault. His personal generosity and numerous acts of kindness helped him win over critics and, too briefly, to ”bind up the nation’s wounds.” Salmon Chase, who never gave up his dream that he should have been elected in 1860, allowed his allies to seek to push Lincoln aside and nominate Chase in 1864. Urged to break irrevocably with the faithless Chase, Lincoln instead appointed him chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Critics of the more moderate William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, claimed that Seward functioned as acting president. Goodwin makes clear that this was fantasy. Dick Cheney, however, really does operate as de facto president.
When Lincoln was assassinated, three days after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, the nation lost the one man who might have spared America the awful years of inconclusive struggle between radical Reconstructionists and segregationists who wanted to restore slavery in everything but name. Much of today’s red state versus blue state bitterness has its roots in the struggle for black liberty versus the wounded humiliation of the white South, something Lincoln wanted to avoid at all cost.
The crippled presidency of his successor, Andrew Johnson, who ended up a pitiful captive of radical reconstructionists in Congress, was one of the bleakest chapters in our history. But this Union of the people did not perish from the earth. Reading Goodwin’s magnificent book, one has to believe that our nation, in a new birth of freedom, will survive even George W. Bush.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.