I think, on a personal level, anybody who’s lived with Lincoln has been affected by that emotional strength of his. There was a great muckraker, Ida Tarbell, at the end of the 20th century — who I’m partly writing about now — and she wrote about Lincoln too. Somebody asked her, why do so many people write about Lincoln? And she said, because he’s so companionable. And I think somehow that’s been true for me.
The other thing, which already mattered enormously to me before I started Lincoln but got reinforced, was the importance of telling stories as a way of communicating to an audience. That’s such a huge part of leadership. He’d be in the middle of a terrible Cabinet meeting, and he’d tell this funny story and make everyone laugh. That’s the other part of what you learn from Lincoln. He said that you use laughter to whistle off sadness. There’s something about humor and laughter that’s so refreshing, that in difficult times if you can remember to look at yourself and laugh from the outside in, then I think it’s really helpful.
Do you think that the study of leadership is by definition the study of history? Are they inextricably bound?
I think to some extent they are. Even if you’re studying the leadership of a CEO, you’re studying his experience of leading that company over a certain period of time, even though it may not be 100 years ago, it may be five or 10 years ago. But certainly for presidential leadership, what’s rewarding for me as I move from one president to another is that you do see traits in one president that another president might share. Some universal traits I’ve seen in these leaders when I’ve looked at them over time are the ability to trust people within their inner circle, the ability to communicate with stories or metaphors or language that’s understandable, the ability to acknowledge errors and the ability to learn from mistakes.
Team of Rivals and now the film are both huge, national portraits of Lincoln that you’ve helped craft. I’d love for you to tell me what you see as the role of the historian in shaping our collective vision of time.
I guess what matters to me the most is, especially with someone like Lincoln, I mean here is a man who all of his life dreamed that his story would be told after he died in order to make him feel more comforted that death is not the end of you. Because he lost so many people when he was young — his mother and his sister and his first love — he really became for a while obsessed with the thought of what happens to us after we die. He came away with the thought that if he could accomplish something worthy then he would live on in the memory of others.
So to the extent that historians tell stories of these people who lived before, I think it does allow them to live on in our memories. That’s what’s so important about the oral tradition in families — if you can tell the stories of your parents and grandparents once they’re no longer alive, then you’re passing them onto your children. There always are lessons to be learned from their struggles and their triumphs. Otherwise we’d just come into the world with a blank slate, and that’s not true. Just as we as human beings learn from our parents and grandparents, also we as a country learn from the people who went before us. And to the extent that historians are the ones telling those stories, that shapes the sense of who we are as a country.