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.
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.
But Obama's aspirations to become Lincolnesque are hardly original. Many presidents have tried to summon up the man.
Theodore Roosevelt, who as a young boy witnessed Lincoln's funeral, was such a fanatic that when he won the presidency in 1904, historians said, he procured a lock of Lincoln's beard and put it in a ring that he wore at the inauguration.
"It's very natural, it seems to me, that Lincoln would be a model for any president who has the slightest historical consciousness," said Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis. "If you are going to identify with a president, you're probably not going to pick Millard Fillmore."
Franklin D. Roosevelt quoted Lincoln to justify the New Deal. Two decades later, Dwight D. Eisenhower quoted Lincoln to justify a smaller federal government. Of course, there was Richard M. Nixon, who at times of despair would retreat to the Lincoln Sitting Room in the White House, and once ventured to the Lincoln Memorial in the dark of night to stand beneath the towering statue of Abe.
George W. Bush has read at least three histories of Lincoln, including Goodwin's. "Lincoln is one of his fascinations," said Gaddis, whom Bush summoned along with other scholars to the White House in 2005 for a private afternoon discussion of Lincoln.
Lincoln, who steered the nation through its darkest days, preserved the Union and emancipated the slaves, holds a particular appeal for presidents governing in times of national crisis.
"Every president in the Oval Office sits and thinks about Lincoln," said historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University, "because no matter how bad you've got it, he had it worse."
Obama, however, seems to have begun thinking about Lincoln long before he got to the Oval Office.
His favorite image of Lincoln is of a frail, "rough-faced" president looking sorrowful, except that his mouth "is turned ever so slightly into a smile. The smile doesn't negate the sorrow. But it alters tragedy into grace," Obama wrote in an essay published in Time in 2005. "On trying days," he said, "the portrait, a reproduction of which hangs in my office, soothes me; it always asks me questions."
Obama compared Lincoln's rise from poverty, and mastery of language and law, to his own biography, but he also noted that Lincoln was an imperfect man. He often had a morose demeanor and indecisive temperament. "It is precisely those imperfections -- and the painful self-awareness of those failings etched in every crease of his face and reflected in those haunted eyes -- that make him so compelling," Obama wrote.
After reading "Team of Rivals," Obama called Goodwin. The senator wanted to talk about Lincoln, so the author met him in Washington. "You really could see even then a kind of confidence and a thoughtfulness," she said of Obama. (Goodwin's book is back on the paperback bestseller list, although she wonders whether it would have caught on in 2005 had she chosen one of the other titles she was considering: "The Great Unifier," "The American Colossus" and "Master Among Men." She said she always wanted a title more poetic than "Team of Rivals," and was fond of "Master Among Men," but quickly realized "we couldn't use 'Master' because of slavery.")
Former congressman and judge Abner Mikva, a friend and early political mentor of Obama's, said the president-elect identifies more with Lincoln in private than he lets on in public. "He doesn't talk about that because it would sound like he's aggrandizing himself in comparing himself to one of our great presidents," said Mikva, who urged Obama to speak of Lincoln in his announcement speech in Springfield by declaring, "Seven score and four years ago." But he said Obama's campaign advisers nixed the idea.
In recent weeks, Obama has talked with advisers about Lincoln's as a model administration. "All of our latest discussions about Lincoln centered around diversity of thought and vigorous debate on issues and being able to surround yourself with people you disagree with without being disagreeable, because you feel that it's going to lead to a better answer, the best answer," said Marty Nesbitt, one of Obama's closest friends and basketball companions in Chicago.
So why are so many parallels being drawn between Obama and the last president to call Illinois home? Let's consult David Herbert Donald, a Harvard professor emeritus and author of the comprehensive biography "Lincoln."
Both men "came out of nowhere," said Donald, who is such an exhaustive scholar of the Civil War president that he lives in the tiny Colonial town of Lincoln, Mass. "They came with great talent in oratory and in writing. They were able to reach out to voters and to people who had not taken much thought in the election prior to that, to say, 'This is important.' "
Richard Carwardine, a Lincoln scholar at Oxford University, said Obama's Lincoln connections go deeper than that. Obama has shown through the long campaign of gains and reverses that he is someone who "is extremely grounded, has a sense of his own strengths and capabilities and who is not afraid of surrounding himself with able people -- which was exactly Lincoln's temperament and personality."
In January, Obama will take the oath of office during the bicentennial celebration of Lincoln's birth. When Lincoln departed for his inauguration, he rode a train from Springfield to Washington, stopping in Philadelphia to deliver a speech at Independence Hall.
Yale historian David Blight has "a crazy idea" for Obama's inauguration: "Why not have Obama retrace the train route of Lincoln's journey to Washington? Why not a whistle-stop train ride to Washington? I think that would be an interesting symbolic step."
Obama, of course, already has given a historic speech, on the nature of race in America, in Philadelphia, just steps away from Independence Hall.