Book Review: ‘Team of Rivals’ — it’s nothing like ‘Lincoln’

Tommy Griffiths,

WASHINGTON – In 2005, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” landed on the New York Times best seller list at number 10 and lingered for 10 weeks in the top 20. The book then dropped from sight.

Seven years later, the historical account of President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet showed up on the December 2012 Times list and ranked even higher at number six, thanks to Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis. Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” is loosely based on “Team of Rivals.” The key word is loosely. Very loosely.

I’ve seen the movie “Lincoln,” and as a voracious enthusiast of all Lincolniana, I’m certain Spielberg could have picked from any of the 15,000 extant Lincoln biographies to inspire his film. So why did Spielberg choose “Team of Rivals” from a pool of nearly unlimited literary resources? Spielberg likely believes that Goodwin’s work probes more deeply into the divergent political minds of the men who served President Lincoln than any biography.

If you can’t decide whether to read the book first or watch the movie, it doesn’t matter. You’ll barely recognize “Team of Rivals” in the movie’s plot. The book is an account of Lincoln’s foresight and genius for gathering a most improbable assemblage of adversaries to serve in his cabinet — not just rivals of one another, but of President Lincoln, too. Three Lincoln cabinet members ran against Lincoln the 1860 presidential race.

Spielberg’s movie zeroes in on the president’s pragmatically illicit incentives and back-room dealings to pass the 13th amendment — the death knell for slavery, but Goodwin goes further, reconstructing a most unlikely chemistry of characters who spring to life from the pages.

She contrasts Lincoln’s hardscrabble homespun humor. Lincoln declares, “I laugh because I must not cry,” with Secretary of War William Stanton’s stoic air. She also exposes Secretary of Treasury Salmon Chase’s raging jealously of Lincoln’s ascension to office, his callous condescension of the “rail-splitter” president and his miscalculation of Lincoln’s political cunning and intelligence. Of course, with this union of political foes, Lincoln ultimately won the Civil War. “Team of Rivals” may be the only biography that astutely attributes the Union victory to Lincoln’s pure political genius and his gift as a prescient presidential psychologist.

“Team of Rivals” won the 2005 Lincoln Prize, awarded for the best book about the Civil War, and the inaugural American History Book Prize. Goodwin also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.” She says she is now writing a book about the unusual friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

“Team of Rivals,” a hefty 750-page tome, is far broader in scope and detail than the movie it inspired, but well worth the read, particularly for the armchair historian. On a scale of one to five, I’ll give “Team of Rivals” 4.5 stove pipe hats.

Author Doris Kearns Goodwin on CBS:

Follow @WTOPLiving on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up