A few days ago I finished Doris Kearns Goodwin's massive cinderblock of a book, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." A biography of Lincoln, it also explores the lives of his main rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination, and then moves into a study of how Lincoln included these intelligent, ambitious men in his Cabinet, shrewdly managing their skills and egos to create a strong presidency fueled by intelligence, compassion, rivalry, and, ultimately, loyalty. I don't know if I've ever written a sentence with nine commas before, but Lincoln is worth it.
One of the remarkable things about this book for me was that it truly humanized Lincoln. He was no longer the marble deity in Washington, or the severe portrait on our currency; Goodwin portrayed him as a real man, who suffered loss in his life yet found strength through his own self-confidence and natural abilities. When he was young he would listen intently to his father telling stories to other adults, and then he would ponder these stories and figure out how to relay them to his young friends, and later enthrall them with his anecdotes and humor. This knack for language and narrative remained with him his entire life and prepared him to be an amazing orator, someone who would use analogies, simple language, and folksy humor to convey profound ideas about freedom, the Constitution, the importance of liberty.
He was truly a self-taught man, studying the Bible and learning Shakespeare to make up for the elite education he never received. He lost his mother, his sister, his first love. Yet from age 23 he knew he wanted to leave his mark on the world -- although he was ambitious, he was never corrupted by the lure of power. He spoke of his political enemies with respect, and was honored by his peers for his wisdom and patience. He did not act impulsively, or out of anger.
To me one of his most remarkable characteristics was his reliance on humor. The few bawdy jokes Goodwin reproduced in the book were slightly crass, slightly tasteless, and surprisingly funny. Even in the darkest days of the Civil War, he would begin meetings with jokes and funny stories. Although some of his colleagues frowned on this, he needed to laugh in order to face the seemingly impossible tasks ahead of him.
And here's the thing: even when he was president, Americans knew that they were in the presence of a truly great man. His reputation of honesty was well-forged by the time he entered the White House. His Cabinet members constantly remarked on his wisdom and gifts as a leader, and many writers pointed out that the nation was lucky to have him at the helm during those violent years.
Can you imagine a president renowned in his own time for his wisdom, patience, compassion, humor, and conciliatory nature? A self-taught man, a brilliant orator, a man who could rise to the nearly impossible challenges of his day. People used to say that someday Lincoln would join the pantheon of great American leaders, and that his reputation may someday surpass that of even Washington. In a very small way, despite the anger and lack of charity in our political culture today, I feel proud to live in an America that honors Lincoln as the leader and statesman he aspired to be. He would not bask in the praise and glory our country has draped around his name -- around the very idea of Abraham Lincoln -- but he certainly earned it.