Obama Inspired by, Compared to Lincoln

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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

He was a boy with a distant father, raised in a family of modest means. He had a curious intellect, devouring history and memorizing passages from Shakespeare. He became a lawyer and settled in Illinois, where he was elected to the state legislature. With relatively little political experience, he decided to run for president. Few believed he stood a chance of winning a primary campaign against the party's heir apparent, a senator from New York.

But the gangly, bookish Illinoisan galvanized millions across a country in crisis with his soaring rhetoric, speaking in big strokes about transcending partisan politics and creating America as it ought to be. He rose from obscurity to clinch his party's nomination and the presidency. The New York senator returned home deeply disappointed and bitter, having fallen to a shrewd political tactician.

Sound familiar?

The year was 1860, and Abraham Lincoln had narrowly defeated Sen. William H. Seward to become the Republican presidential nominee. After winning the presidency, Lincoln disregarded personal animosity and took the unprecedented move of tapping Seward to be his secretary of state. He appointed two other political adversaries as well: Salmon P. Chase, a handsome widower and Ohio's governor, who resented losing to a man he considered inferior, as secretary of the Treasury; and Edwin M. Stanton, a long-bearded Democratic lawyer contemptuous of Lincoln, whom Lincoln inherited as his attorney general but later appointed as secretary of war.

Lincoln chose another foe, Missouri's distinguished elder statesman Edward Bates, to succeed Stanton as attorney general. Bates had considered Lincoln incompetent but eventually concluded that the president was "very near being a perfect man," historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in her 2005 book "Team of Rivals." As the United States splintered toward civil war, the 16th president assembled the most unusual administration in history, bringing together his disgruntled opponents and displaying what Goodwin calls a profound self-awareness and political genius.

As he has been for many of the nation's presidents, including the one now holding the office, Lincoln is a source of inspiration for Barack Obama, who will be inaugurated Jan. 20. On a chilly morning 21 months ago, Obama launched his long-shot bid for the presidency from the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. -- the same place where a century and a half earlier, Lincoln delivered his historic "House Divided" speech.

And now, Obama is contemplating Lincoln's particular model of presidential leadership as he moves toward assembling his own team of advisers and Cabinet officials. His overtures to his former foes have suggested he may be mulling his own team of rivals, perhaps led by a certain senator from New York as secretary of state. Obama met with Hillary Rodham Clinton in Chicago last week.

Since winning the election two weeks ago, he has been reading Lincoln's writings again, Obama said Sunday on CBS's "60 Minutes." "There is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful."

Offers Goodwin: "You can't find a better mentor than Abraham Lincoln."

"Lincoln said, 'The country's in peril. These are the strongest and most able people in the country and I need them by my side,' " she said in an interview. "At first, people wondered whether or not Lincoln would be overshadowed by Seward. But in the end, Seward ended up becoming his closest friend. . . . He went on in history in a more profound way than he ever would have had he stayed just a senator from New York."

If Lincoln is the president against whom all others are measured, it is in no small measure because he was the greatest politician to occupy the White House, said presidential historian Richard Norton Smith. "Lincoln is a crossroads of character and political shrewdness," said Smith, a scholar-in-residence at George Mason University. By appointing his former rivals, he "displayed a remarkable generosity of spirit. On the other hand, it's a very shrewd attempt to co-opt your potential enemies."

Obama may let it drop that his proverbial desert-island book is Goodwin's 916-page tome, and Garry Trudeau may decree Obama is "The Second Coming of Lincoln" in his "Doonesbury" comic strip, and the president-elect may grace this week's Newsweek cover standing in Abe's long shadow.


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