A Perfect President

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Lewis

Team Of Rivals

By Doris Kearns Goodwin Penguin e13.75 ****

This American bestseller comes over to us encumbered with praise as 'the book that inspired Barack Obama'.

He is quoted as calling it 'a remarkable study in leadership' and the book that he could not live without in the White House.

There are obvious parallels between Lincoln and the new president, who used Lincoln's Bible to be sworn in at his inauguration. Both outsiders from humble beginnings; both makers of superb speeches working by themselves; both calmly facing crises on the largest scale.

The chief difference is in education. Obama got the best; Lincoln had to educate himself.

He was born in a log cabin, son of an illiterate, itinerant hired hand on the farms of Kentucky.

His mother, apparently a clever woman, died when he was nine. Luckily, his uneducated stepmother encouraged him to read. Books, especially Shakespeare, were his schooling - he was never without one.

By the age of 51 when the newly formed Republican Party chose him as their presidential candidate, Lincoln was a seasoned circuit lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, best known for his string of droll, folksy stories with which he would entertain his fellow lawyers on circuit for hours.

His three rival candidates were national figures: two as senators and state governors, the other an elder statesman. Lincoln had twice run for the senate and twice been defeated. But he had made his mark as an orator in debates on slavery. When he won, to his great surprise, in 1860, he unhesitatingly appointed his three rivals to leading cabinet posts.

'We needed the strongest men in the party. I looked and concluded these were the very strongest men.

Then I have no right to deprive the country of their services,' he explained in a typically simple, down-to-earth Lincolnian statement.

He chose William Seward, New York's renowned senator, for the prime post of secretary of state, in the same spirit that Obama gave the job to his rival, Hillary Clinton.

Doris Goodwin devotes almost as much attention to Lincoln's rivals and their families as to Lincoln and his. These men were all intensely able and ambitious.

She explores at length the competitive strains and jealousies that were bound to result and how skilfully Lincoln kept them and his quar- relling generals united in the cause of saving the Union from break-up in the Civil War. Lincoln did it by a mixture of straightforwardness and diplomacy, modesty and humour, an ability to defuse tensions by telling apt but funny stories and by his obvious good fellowship..

He made them all into personal friends.

Lincoln had no vanity. When he called on his army commander, General McClellan and was kept waiting for more than an hour, he waited uncomplainingly.

When his explosive treasury secretary,

Salmon Chase, sent him a letter of resignation once too often, Lincoln deflated him by announcing his successor to Congress - but then, because of Chase's ability, made him chief justice instead. …