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Doris Kearns Goodwin On Lincoln And His 'Team Of Rivals'

This interview was originally broadcast on Nov. 8, 2005.

When Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg were working on the film Lincoln, they had many conversations with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Her book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, is about Lincoln's relationship with his cabinet. Both her book and the film showcase Lincoln's remarkable political skills.

When Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election, he appointed three men who'd competed with him for the Republican presidential nomination to his cabinet: New York Sen. William H. Seward, Ohio Gov. Salmon P. Chase, and Missouri's distinguished elder statesman Edward Bates.

In Team of Rivals Goodwin recounts the life and work of our 16th president and his relationship with these powerful men.

Goodwin won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, No Ordinary Time, about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. She has also written books about Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. When Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg were working on the film "Lincoln," they had many conversations with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, as she was working on her book "Team of Rivals" about Lincoln's relationship with his Cabinet. Both her book and the film showcase Lincoln's remarkable political skills.

When Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election, he appointed three men who'd competed with him for the Republican presidential nomination to his Cabinet: New York Senator William H. Seward, Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, and Missouri's distinguished elder statesman Edward Bates. Lincoln appointed Seward secretary of state, Chase secretary of the treasury and Bates attorney general.

Doris Kearns Goodwin Chronicles Lincoln's relationship with the men in her book Terry spoke to her in 2005, when "Team of Rivals" was published.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

What do you think Lincoln did to bring together this Cabinet of rivals?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, what he had going for him, which I think is so unusual in political life, is that he had a set of emotional strengths that today we might call emotional intelligence. So when all sorts of rivalries sprung up with these guys, and when they got hurt with one another, when they would call each other names - I mean if we ever heard what they were calling each other then in today's parlance - liar, traitor, thief - I mean and these things are being said in Cabinet meetings - but he was somehow able to be in the center of that storm. When one of their feelings would be hurt he'd be able to write a letter saying, if I hurt you in any way I did not mean to do so. Forgive me for things that I might do hastily. When he was upset with somebody he would write what he called a hot letter where he would write it all down and then he would put it aside until his emotions cooled down, and then write: Never sent. Never signed.

And there was a sense about him where he was just kind and sensitive to them. If one of them was feeling he was spending too much time with another one, he would call that one aside and give him a special time to walk together or to go on a carriage ride together. So what he essentially did is what a great politician does, which is to understand that human relationships are at the core of political success. And he somehow managed these people, who as I say, oftentimes hated one another, wouldn't even go into the same room with each other after a while.

Stanton and Blair, his postmaster general and his secretary of war, said such terrible things about each other that Blair would never even go to the War Department, even though he wanted to find out what was going on in the battles. It's almost unimaginable that he was able to keep this group together. But the success in keeping it together meant they also represented very different spectrums of political opinion from very conservative to moderate, to radical. And as long as he could keep that coalition together by keeping these people inside the tent, he was actually keeping those strands in the country together as well.

GROSS: What was considered radical then?

GOODWIN: Well, what was considered radical then was the idea that early on you wanted to make emancipation the central focus of the war. And then later on, even after emancipation was made the focus, the radicals were more desiring to make the South pay for having gotten us into this war in their judgment, and to wreak vengeance on them in order to be able to make sure that the old social structure would not come back in the South. Whereas, the conservatives were thinking that the Union was more important than emancipation. And also, at the end of the war they wanted to make sure that the South came back in a more gentle way so that the Union would be preserved, even if it meant not punishing the leaders of the South, who had been part of the Confederate cause.

GROSS: And where did Lincoln stand?

GOODWIN: Well, Lincoln stood in the middle of all these things - I mean naturally in the middle - not because he was positioning himself in the middle. At the start of the war he thought that the Union was the most important thing, and that emancipation, he wasn't sure was something that he as president could do anything about, much as he might have wanted to because it was in the Constitution protected, so he thought the most important thing was to get a constitutional amendment to eradicate it, which he eventually did. But by the middle of the war, he came to understand that, as president, he would have powers as commander-in-chief when a military necessity was at issue to be able to do something about the slaves. And the slaves were being used to help the South. They were digging the trenches. They were acting as cooks. They were protecting the home front when those soldiers went off to war. And they just unbalanced, gave so much benefit to the Confederacy as opposed to the North, that he finally was able to decide legalistically that if he issued a cry for the emancipation as a military necessity he would have that power to do it. Eventually, you'd need a constitutional amendment, so he moved toward what might have been the radical side.

On the issue of Reconstruction, I think even by the time of his death however, he did not want to have vengeance against the South, but he would have been worried about protecting the rights of blacks, which they were also worried about. So he probably would have been in the middle on that ground as well.

GROSS: What did he do to hold together this group of people within the Cabinet who had such differing views about what the fate of the South should be and what emancipation should look like?

GOODWIN: Well, I think partly what he did was to move step-by-step toward emancipation. You know, just as Franklin Roosevelt moved step by step toward getting us more involved in World War II even before Pearl Harbor by Lend-Lease, by the peacetime draft, Lincoln began to move toward certain steps that would allow the Army, for example, if slaves came into the Army camp, to take them into the camp and keep them protected from the Southern slave owners.

And these steps allowed him to move some of the conservative members to see, well, we did that, and it didn't produce some sort of race war. Because the conservatives were always afraid if you emancipated, there'd be this incredible servile war in the South - so that it got them accustomed to the idea.

And finally, however, the interesting thing is when he finally made the decision to emancipate the slaves, he called his Cabinet together and he told them: I want to tell you what I've decided, and I will listen to your comments, but I want you to know I've made this decision. I think he finally knew that if he put it up to a vote or a discussion, then it might make it harder for these people to understand that this was his decision.

And the only thing he did was he accepted their thoughts on the style of it. He accepted Seward's advice that he not issue it - he was going to issue it in the summer of 1862, and the war was going very badly for the North. And Seward said he thought it would look like he was just desperate, and that it wasn't an act of considered opinion. Why not wait for a victory to issue it?

And Lincoln took that into consideration, agreed with Seward, and waited until the battle of Antietam was fought and successfully resolved before he finally said he was going to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

So I guess, in some ways, what it meant was he listened to them as he was going along, but he finally had to decide for himself what he was going to do and then just tell the Cabinet in a very forceful way: This is what I'm going to do. I'd like you to think about it, but it's my decision.

GROSS: Now that we know so much more about depression than we used to, historians are starting to examine how, you know, depression may have affected important figures, including Lincoln. Do you have any new thoughts about what you describe as his, you know, melancholy temperament and how that affected him as a leader?

GOODWIN: I came away feeling that rather than suffering from chronic depression, that Lincoln did have a melancholy temperament from the time he was born. There's a writer named Jerry Kagan who studied children from the ages of zero to 20 and argues if you look at them even three months, six months old, you can divide them into whether or not they have a melancholy or a sanguine kind of optimistic temperament.

And clearly, I think Lincoln had that melancholy temperament. But he also had enormous resources all the way along to figure out how to get himself out of his sad moods, humor being one of them, conversation. During the Civil War, he would go to the play when he wanted to. He went to the theater a hundred times during the Civil War, if not more.

He would go to the battlefront when he felt sad over the loss of a battle to talk to the soldiers. He had an acute awareness, I think, of his own needs. And except for two depressions which we know about - one when his first love Ann Rutledge died, which it's natural for somebody to fall into a depression - and secondly, there were a series of events that took place when he was in his 30s.

His best friend Joshua Speed was leaving town. His political career had suffered a blow. And he had broken his engagement to Mary Todd Lincoln. And he really did feel overwhelmed then by depression, and we have letters that he wrote saying that he was the most miserable man on Earth, and that if everybody felt like he did, there would not be one cheerful face on Earth.

And he actually was so frightening to his friends that they removed all razors and scissors from his room, fearing that he might take his life. But his best friend Joshua Speed came to his side and said, Lincoln, if you do not rally, you will die. And he said I would just as soon die now, but I haven't done anything yet to be remembered by.

He had this dream from the time he was young that he was so fearful of just dying and turning to dust that somehow if he could accomplish something great - this is the way the Greeks used to think - your name would be remembered after you die. And that powered him through the early losses of his childhood. It powered him through his early days in the state legislature, and it helped get him out of this depression.

And the great thing is that many years later, when he finally signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Joshua Speed came to see him, and he said, well, Speed, remember that conversation we had when I was in my depths? Well, maybe at last, my fondest wish has been realized. I will be remembered after I die.

DAVIES: Doris Kearns Goodwin's book about Abraham Lincoln is "Team of Rivals." Her interview with Terry was recorded in 2005. Coming up, John Powers reflects on the fact that the Rolling Stones and the James Bond film series have both turned 50. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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