Thursday, September 04, 2008
Book Review: Team of Rivals
There is a myth prevalent nowadays that this epoch of partisan gridlock, interpersonal rivalry, and venomous criticism is a phenomenon peculiarly unique to this age and this age alone. It is fashionable these days to critique our times as more polarized, more intense, more nasty than at any other point before in our nation's history. History is, as we know, written by the victors, and time has a way of smoothing out the more unpleasant details of an era. As strife and turmoil gives way to placidity, so too are the unpleasant realities of difficult days obscured by a broad brush of accolades and triumphs. Any but the most obscene vestiges of internecine strife or popular upheaval often find themselves unreported in the final tally. To wit, anyone who thinks these hyper-partisan times are the worst ever in almost 300 years of the existence of the United States would be wise to consider a close examination of the way things were during the Lincoln Administration.
That a person routinely considered one of the most effective, most competent Chief Executives of all time could have withstood withering attacks from all directions, even among his most trusted advisers, escaping with his sanity firmly intact is a marvel unto itself. Then, as now, the President faced a variety of difficult challenges and was required on a constant basis to make a wide variety of snap judgments and often painful decisions. Then, as now, the President endured an almost constant barrage of criticism from the presses and bully pulpits of several influential newspapers. If you think the media bias in this day is excessive, you would be wise to consult how things were in the decade of the 1860's, nearly two hundred years ago.
Reading Team of Rivals provides an excellent opportunity to contemplate just how little has changed between then and now. Pressure on the President on all sides from a frequently hostile Congress? Check. Petty rivalry among cabinet members? Check. Embarrassing and unflattering details about the inner workings of the government leaked to the press for political reasons? Check. Rude, unflattering comments made to tarnish the reputation of the First Lady? Check. A high level official tendering his resignation, only to later withdraw it under heavy Presidential pressure? Check. Crucial decisions second-guessed by every press in existence and then promptly analyzed exhaustively for weeks afterward? Check.
I'm sure you get the picture by this point. It's a wonder that Lincoln was able to govern as effectively as he did when one takes into account the tremendous pressure and nearly constant drama which raged unabated in his own inner circle. Lincoln's saving grace was his ability to be slow to anger, quick to forgive, and loathe to hold a grudge. Honest Abe's nearly infinite patience and his skill at pulling together people of different political stripes and allegiances--many of whom hated each other passionately--showed an ingenious knack at mastering the minutia of human nature and interpersonal conduct. Lincoln had an innate talent as a master politician and benevolent peacemaker which, though it was the saving grace of a nation in the midst of a great Civil War, runs contrary to the innate temperament of who we are. Though we often take pride in our tempers and our fevered passions---though we lash out and fight back and speak fondly of uncompromising, bombastic, at times fiercely confrontation public figures, Lincoln knew instinctively that this kind of behavior and emotional display was as isolating and divisive as it was cathartic. This instinctive skill is how Lincoln secured the nomination of his party in the first place and then maintained his grip on power so successfully.
I know this much. I don't have the Lincoln-esque power of restraint, nor am I inclined to be magnanimous in the face of a slight or a defeat. The politicians I admire most are are occasionally caustic, frequently combative brawlers. This is how I was raised to be. In my family if you didn't hold strong opinions you'd find yourself unable to have a voice in the debates. My childhood was a prize fight and I had no desire to be counted out.