Lincoln / Team of Rivals (Reviews)

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Lincoln
Gore Vidal, 1984
672 pp.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
Doris Kearns Goodwin, 2005
944 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
September 2013
Lincoln's presidency is one of the great Washington political stories of all time. It's also a classic underdog story, made all the more riveting because it's true—and because so much was at stake.

You could read both books, but given their combined weight of 1,600 pages, you'd be at it till kingdom come. Either book is an extraordinary read (one fiction, one history), and they both cover similar ground—how Abraham Lincoln continually outfoxed his political rivals.

The starting point for Gore Vidal's novel is Lincoln's arrival in Washington shortly before taking office. It is hardly an auspicious beginning for the president-elect, who sneaks in by train, alone and in disguise (threats are already being made on his life). Meeting him at the depot is William Seward, the most eminent of his rivals and his soon-to-be Secretary of State. But as a rumpled Lincoln climbs down from the train, poor Seward inwardly despairs: how could this rube have beaten me for the presidency?
 
Never mind, he thinks. If I stick close, I'll maneuver him into doing my own bidding; of course, it is Lincoln who maneuvers Seward. Nor will this be the last time a Lincoln rival fools himself into thinking he can become the power behind the president's desk. These episodes—pompous men receiving well deserved comeuppances—are the book's most satisfying moments.

In Team of Rivals, it takes Lincoln 300 pages to make it to the capital. Goodwin's book feels epic because of its sweep of history and its copious biographical data on each of the players. Rivals or not, the author clearly admires them all. They represented the best of America, men of brilliance and conscience, all with a lifelong hatred of slavery. Giants in their own time, Goodwin has the grace to make them so for history.

She saves her greatest admiration—and affection—for Lincoln. He was first among equals not just because he was president but because of his vision and magnanimous spirit. Lincoln seemed incapable of vitriol or resentment. Time and again he soothed his fractious cabinet, rising above the petty sqabbles even when their chicanery was directed at him. He won not only their respect but, in some cases, their friendship and devotion.

Choose either book. Or choose both taking, say, 3 months to read and compare. Or split up: some reading Vidal and others Goodwin; then compare notes.

Do consider watching—after reading the books, of course!—the 2012 movie Lincoln with Daniel Day Lewis, based on Goodwin's book. There is also a 1988 mini-series with Sam Waterston based on Vidal's novel, but it fails to capture Vidal's wicked humor.

See our Reading Guides for Lincoln and for Team of Rivals.

 

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