Bad Historical Analogy Watch: They Had Hitler/Munich, We Have Lincoln/"Team of Rivals"

by: Paul Rosenberg

Wed Nov 19, 2008 at 13:00

In an LA Times op-ed, Historian Matthew Pinsker rips apart Doris Kearns Goodwin's pretty little picture of Lincoln's "Team of Rivals" story--that he brought his political rivals :together in his war cabinet, and through his political genius managed them into the team that won the Civil War.  That's her story.  Reality?  Not so much:

Consider this inconvenient truth: Out of the four leading vote-getters for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination whom Lincoln placed on his original team, three left during his first term -- one in disgrace, one in defiance and one in disgust.

It may not be nearly as heinous as calling everyone you don't like "the next Hitler," but as a bad historical analogy it could be just as destructive for our side as the Hitler/Munich analogy has been for Republicans.  Indeed, there's a striking underlying parallel that Pinsker--who sticks strictly with Lincoln side of things--doesn't even touch:  Just as the neocons were inclined to compare anyone who looked at them cross-eyed to Hitler, Obama seems to have no limit to those he'll include in his "team of rivals" approach, despite the very limited circle of those that Lincoln included.  Thus, even if the original idea were historical accurate, Obama's application seems as indiscriminate in its way as that of the neocons, who see a world populated with Hitlers--anyone, in essence, who doesn't play ball with us, and doesn't fit the role of Neville Chamberlain.

Paul Rosenberg :: Bad Historical Analogy Watch: They Had Hitler/Munich, We Have Lincoln/"Team of Rivals"
As DDay notes at Digby's place:

The Village has a more of a sense of bumper stickers than history, and Goodwin, whose scholarship is not exactly spotless, is a Villager in good standing, so this will probably pass through the Beltway without comment. But I hope someone in the office of the President-elect is paying attention. Pinsker doesn't even tackle the false equivalence between the Civil War and our day - the real rivals were seceding from the Union and massing an Army at the time. This was a moment that called for unity between anyone who wasn't a Confederate, necessitating Lincoln's choice - and it STILL DIDN'T WORK VERY WELL....

....Obama is talking about this "fully bipartisan government," and he's even exploring options for Republicans in major posts, and that ought to have you worried if he's basing that on a work of what amounts to fiction. If you want to broaden out the analogy, is there that big a difference between the Republicans and the Confederates, in this scenario?

DDay's conclusion then hits the nail squarely on the head:

Is it odd that the traditional media keeps parroting this concept when its application was fatally flawed and nearly sunk the Union? Or is that the point, a kind of back-door way to mandate bipartisan, "center-right" leadership on the new Administration?

Of course, that's it precisely.  The concept itself is ludicrous.  Its whole point is to impose an equally ludicrous orthodoxy of "thought"--if it can even be called that.

Consider the Hussein/Hitler narrative as a prototype. At the time of Munich, Adolph Hitler had the worlds most modern, powerful, and fast-growing military machine in the world.  At the time we began the Iraq War, Saddam Hussein's military was more than matched by our two allies on his borders, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the northern third of his country was under de facto autonomous rule, he was hemmed in by "no-fly zones" in place for over a decade, and UN inspectors had been crawling all over his country, until we forced their withdrawal in order to attack.  Yet, the sheer absurdity of the Hitler/Hussein comparison was never seriously questioned by the Versailles media.  Indeed, it was damaging to one's credibility to try to point this out. Instead, the level of thinking that seemed to prevail came close to simply noting that Hitler and Hussein both wore mustaches, while their names both started with "H".

It's one thing to throw up one's hands at such brain-dead babbling.  But in this case, there are enough working parts that we can examine in detail how the "thinking" involved is flawed at every stage.  I'll be writing about this in some detail this weekend, but here I just want to quickly present the outlines of what's wrong, without the supporting arguments, or additional levels of detail:

  1. As noted by Pinsker, the original history is badly misrepresented.  No valid reasoning from historical analogies can rest on false versions of history.

  2. As noted by DDay, the analogy between the political situation in Lincoln's time and our own is poorly drawn.  Even if the "Team of Rivals" myth were true, it's not at all clear how it would apply today.  In particular, Lincoln's reasoning did not include those outside his party--such as Northern Democrats, much less the traitorous Confederates--while precisely the opposite seems to be the point of employing the narrative today.

  3. History abounds with potential analogies, many of which contradict one another.  In order to avoid be blinded by one analogy, one must have some sort of disciplined way of considering alternatives, and it's especially valuable to intentionally seek out clashing analogies, in order to probe potential weaknesses or blind spots inherent in the prime analogy.  At a bare minimum, one would seem to need to consider at least three sharply different analogies, for tie-breaking purposes so that one is not simply caught between conflicting historical analogies without adequate perspective to compare them.  It's also helpful to consider historical analogies that are similar to the favored one, but that contain important differences as well. However, the "Team of Rivals" myth is employed to drive out other alternatives.

These three points can be summarized as concerns about (a) the accuracy of the source of the analogy; (b) the accuracy of the mapping from the source to the present situation, and (c) the critical evaluation of the analogy and alternatives to it.

It should be very clear that the election just held symbolized a much greater change for the voters and the great mass of activists involved than it did for those on top.  This gap in perceived significance has multiple dimensions, but one of them is clearly implicated here: At most, those on top see the election as heralding a change from one narrative frame to another, but with no appreciable difference in how the narrative frame is uncritically embraced and repeated ad nauseum.

This is not at all what the netroots in particular either wants or expects as a whole.  Many Obama "true believers" are certainly just fine with this, but they represent Obama's own online organizing far more than the traditional netroots.  Furthermore, the "true believers" faith is largely predicated on their belief that Obama will cultivate the sort of critical dialogue I am talking about.  They simply do not perceive its lack at this early point.

Regardless of what Versailles does, it is incumbent on the netroots to further our own understanding of what constitutes a healthy democratic debate, based on sound critical thinking as well as--not instead of--an inclusive attitude that takes diverse viewpoints seriously.  As a dominant narrative framework shaping the Versailles discourse at the dawn of Obama's term in office, nothing could bear more critical scrutiny than the "team of rivals" myth, how it is employed as well as deployed, and what it hides as well as reveals.

It's one thing to throw up one's hands at such brain-dead babbling.  But in this case, there are enough working parts that we can examine in detail how the "thinking" involved is flawed at every stage.  First, we need to realize that what we are witnessing here--reasoning by historical analogy--is a specific example of a much more general and pervasive form of reasoning, the use of analogy in general.  We use analogical reasoning at many different levels, we are constantly comparing one thing to another, often without even realizing it.  Indeed, the conscious use of analogy is much smaller than the tip of the iceberg in the grand scheme of things, and this simple fact can help us understand how analogical reason can go astray, since unconscious analogical reasoning generally works quite well, and only becomes conscious when it starts to break down.

As George Lakoff has argued since the publication of Metaphors We Live By in 1980, a great deal of our most basic reasoning involves the use of metaphorical mappings, understanding more abstract, distant or unknown areas of experience in terms of more concrete, proximate or known examples.  Lakoff, who had a background in mathematics before turning to linguistics, understood this in terms of a basic mathematical concept--mapping of one domain of experience onto another.  Because metaphors are so pervasive in language

As with mathematics, there are some very general principles that apply to how this works.  One is that only part of the "source domain" gets mapped onto the "target domain".    Another is that more than one source domain can be mapped onto the same target domain.  Sometimes the alternative source domains are radically different, highlighting very different aspects of the target domain.  Other times, alternative source domains can be integrated to produce a more rigorous mapping.

and Western leaders like Chamberlain saw him as potentially dangerous, but less dangerous than the Soviet Union, an avowed enemy of the capitalist system.

Is it that wise to put people in positions of power, after a triumphant election, who want the country to be "avowedly with them," as Lincoln put it?

Lincoln and the myth of 'Team of Rivals'
President Lincoln's Cabinet was far more dysfunctional than Doris Kearns Goodwin's book would have us believe.
By Matthew Pinsker
November 18, 2008

People love Doris Kearns Goodwin's book on the Lincoln presidency, "Team of Rivals." More important, for this moment in American history, Barack Obama loves it. The book is certainly fun to read, but its claim that Abraham Lincoln revealed his "political genius" through the management of his wartime Cabinet deserves a harder look, especially now that it seems to be offering a template for the new administration.

"Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet," is the way Obama has summarized Goodwin's thesis, adding, "Whatever personal feelings there were, the issue was how can we get this country through this time of crisis."

That's true enough, but the problem is, it didn't work that well for Lincoln. There were painful trade-offs with the "team of rivals" approach that are never fully addressed in the book, or by others that offer happy-sounding descriptions of the Lincoln presidency.

Lincoln's decision to embrace former rivals, for instance, inevitably meant ignoring old friends -- a development they took badly. "We made Abe and, by God, we can unmake him," complained Chicago Tribune Managing Editor Joseph Medill in 1861. Especially during 1861 and 1862, the first two years of Lincoln's initially troubled administration, friends growled over his ingratitude as former rivals continued to play out their old political feuds.

In fairness, Goodwin describes several of these more difficult moments, such as when Secretary of State William Seward tried to seize political command from Lincoln during the Ft. Sumter crisis. But she passes over their consequences too easily.

Though Seward, the former New York senator who had been the Republican front-runner, eventually proved helpful to the president, the impact of repeated disloyalty and unnecessary backroom drama from him and several other Cabinet officers was a significant factor in the early failures of the Union war effort.

By December 1862, there was a full-blown Cabinet crisis.

"We are now on the brink of destruction," Lincoln confided to a close friend after being deluged with congressional criticism and confronted by resignations from both Seward and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. Goodwin suggests that Lincoln's quiet confidence and impressive emotional intelligence enabled him to survive and ultimately forge an effective team out of his former rivals, but that's more wishful thinking than serious analysis.

Simon Cameron was the disgraced rival, Lincoln's failed first secretary of War. Goodwin essentially erased him from her group biography, not mentioning him in the book's first 200 pages, even though he placed third, after Seward and Lincoln, on the first Republican presidential ballot. Cameron proved so corrupt and inept that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives censured him after he was removed from office in 1862.

Chase was the defiant rival. As Goodwin acknowledges, the Treasury chief never reconciled himself to Lincoln's victory, continuously angling to replace him. Lincoln put up with this aggravation until he secured renomination and then dumped his brilliant but arrogant subordinate because, in his words, their "mutual embarrassment" was no longer sustainable.

Atty. Gen. Edward Bates was the disgusted rival. The elder statesman -- 67 when he was appointed -- never felt at home in the Lincoln Cabinet and played only a marginal role in shaping policy. He resigned late in the first term. His diary reflects deep discontent with what he considered the relentless political maneuvering of his Cabinet peers and even the president.

"Alas!" Bates wrote in August 1864, "that I should live to see such abject fear -- such small stolid indifference to duty -- such open contempt of Constitution and law -- and such profound ignorance of policy and prudence!"

Only Seward endured throughout the Civil War. He and Lincoln did become friends, and he provided some valuable political advice, but the significance of his contributions as Lincoln's secretary of State have been challenged by many historians, and his repeated fights with other party leaders were always distracting.

John Hay, one of Lincoln's closest aides, noted in his diary that by the summer of 1863, the president had essentially learned to rule his Cabinet with "tyrannous authority," observing that the "most important things he decides & there is no cavil."

Over the years, it has become easy to forget that hard edge and the once bad times that nearly destroyed a president. Lincoln's Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.

Lincoln was a political genius, but his model for Cabinet-building should stand more as a cautionary tale than as a leadership manual.

Tags: , , , , , (All Tags)
Print Friendly View Send As Email

Obama's "rivals" (4.00 / 3)
What is kind of strange about this whole discussion is: does Obama really have any rivals? There's Clinton, and it looks like she may end up in the cabinet. But epic primary notwithstanding, I don't really see a huge potential for conflict between two politicians who, at the end of the day, are ideologically similar and whose self-interest would lead them both to work well together.

Besides Clinton, if the rivals are just the people Obama "ran against," then that means, what, Joe Biden? Bill Richardson? Chris Dodd? Bringing those guys into the circle of power (as he's already done with Biden) is not exactly a bold gambit. I mean, these aren't exactly old foes with scores to settle.

At the end of the day, I think it's true that the analogy to Lincoln's cabinet doesn't work; but I also think it's a pretty benign conceit for Obama which, in practice, shouldn't have any particularly deleterious consequences.

Exactly (4.00 / 1)
All the "rivals" Obama seems ready to appoint agreed with Obama something like 90% of the time.  Only the highly inflated  campaign rhetoric made the differences seem more major.  No one wanted to succeed from the union, unless, of course, he appoints Palin to something.

[ Parent ]
I agree (4.00 / 1)
Whether Lincoln's "team of rivals" is a good model to follow is beside the point, since there is no "team of rivals" to assemble at present.  It's nothing more than a lazy media shorthand, a catchy phrase that is essentially meaningless.

[ Parent ]
Valuable points - although (4.00 / 1)
There is a somewhat strong parallel, I suppose, between Hillary Clinton and William Seward.  The concept is probably better expressed by LBJ's remark about "better inside the test pissing out" than the other way around.

You're right on the money, though, that even if the "Team of Rivals" parallel was completely accurate, it doesn't justify what they're using it to justify - the idea of total unilaterally-disarming bipartisanship.

sTiVo's rule: Just because YOU "wouldn't put it past 'em" doesn't prove that THEY did it.

The point of the narrative (4.00 / 1)
It's come up a lot since Hillary was mentioned for SoS last week, and in that sense it's at least nominally accurate: bringing your chief rival from within the party into a top cabinet post.  Although the narrative has been around for months now, and I don't remember anyone applying it to Hillary until last week, so I guess your point about it being mis-applied to members of a different party is still largely correct.

Of course, there's the whole "you know, the team of rivals didn't work all that well" thing, as per the op-ed...yeah.  

People who care about making accurate historical analogies might want to shift to FDR, who had two Republicans in charge of running the war: Henry Stimson as Sec. of War and Frank Knox as Sec. of the Navy.  Although there are probably limits to that analogy as well, since I think the military chiefs had more operational control at the time than they do now.  Also, Knox ended up having less influence than his deputy, Forrestal, who was closer to FDR (and was a Democrat).  

Kearns Goodwin is not all wrong, Pinkster is not totally right. (4.00 / 3)
Ok, Kearns Goodwin's book did not bring to light much that was new in Lincoln scholarship .. rather she rehashed already-known facts in an attractive and readable way.

I thought Pinkster went over the top in thrashing her book. "Team of Rivals" is a good read - I recommend it heartily.

Pinkster also bends the facts to suit himself. Paul, you should know that Lincoln DID appoint a Northern Democrat to his cabinet .. when he effectively banished Simon Cameron to Russia, he appointed Edwin Stanton in his place. Stanton had also been in James Buchanan's cabinet.

Stanton was a political foe, and once he and Lincoln had once been jointly hired to defend a law case. Stanton not only ignored Lincoln and forced him off the team, within his hearing he called him an "ape". For Linoln to appoint him as his right-hand man in pursuing the war effort is the greatest act of political magnaminity I have heard of. Not only that, Stanton became a friend and admirer of the man he had once insulted.

William Seward is another case in point. Seward did cut across Lincoln at the Fort Sumter crisis, but afterwards the two men became bosom friends. Pinkster exaggerates to say that Edwin Bates resigned "in disgust" - the man was old, cranky and tired - he simply wanted to get home to Missouri.

Which brings us to Salmon P. Chase, the last rival. He did initiate intrigues against Lincoln trying to gain the nomination in 1864. However, Chase was an extremely effective Treasury Secretary and Lincoln did get a lot of good out of him. But eventually, he had to go. Again, Lincoln bore no grudge and appointed him Chief Justice.

I liked Kearns Goodwin's book as narrative history, but in practice Lincoln was a "people manager"; as a "process manager", he was less effective. No one can deny that Lincoln did appoint some higly talented individuals who did not like each other much (or him, initially). But by tying each one to him by bonds of friendship, he did create an effective team (except for Chase). Even in that case, Chase did produce solid wartime achievements, like funding the enormous expenditiure required to keep the war going.

Generally, Lincoln let each member run his won department, reserving war-related issues to himself as final arbiter.
And, by the way, show me any Presidential cabinet that was without internal conflict and disaffection. Lincoln's was little different in that respect; to read some of the above makes you amazed the war was won at all.

Analogy is great to illustrate the present. The "team of rivals" trope is good and interesting, and might help Obama, but I agree that not too much can be read into it.

Just To Clarify (4.00 / 1)
(1) Pinsker doesn't say there's no truth to Goodwin's account.  Paragraphs #2 & 3 from his op-ed:

"Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet," is the way Obama has summarized Goodwin's thesis, adding, "Whatever personal feelings there were, the issue was how can we get this country through this time of crisis."

That's true enough, but the problem is, it didn't work that well for Lincoln. There were painful trade-offs with the "team of rivals" approach that are never fully addressed in the book, or by others that offer happy-sounding descriptions of the Lincoln presidency.

And this is my point precisely--that one needs a critical assessment, not happy talk.  A critical assesment means seeing both the bad and the good, not simply inverting the happy talk.

I think you may be reading Pinsker a bit unfairly, not taking into account the limits of the op-ed format.  He might well agree with you substantially more than you imagine, given the space of a 3-4,000 word article, for example.

(2) I didn't mean to say the Lincoln didn't reach out to others beyond his Republican rivals.  Clearly, he reached out to everyone he could to save the Union--just as he did later, to try to restore it. (Andrew Johnson, anyone?)  All was saying was that the "team of rivals" concept referred specifically to his intra-party rivals and was conceptually distinct from his relationship with Northern Democrats--much less with Southerners, whom he had also hoped to dissuade from secession--which, in part, was why they didn't wait around to let him make the first move.

(3) Completely missing from all of this--but not from what I plan for this weekend--is the fact that the Republican Party was a relatively new, not-yet-fully-formed entity at the time, which made the individual actors at the top far more important than they would otherwise be, had there been long-established structures of power that Lincoln could have turned to instead.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
The sad thing (0.00 / 0)
is that no one who really needs to read this sort of analysis, is likely to. The Village bloviators will continue to stroke each other over their brilliant "understanding" of history, and the "lessons" that it "teaches" us today. The real question is whether Obama & Co. buy into it, or if it's just make-nice dogs and ponies to misdirect the Village, while the real stuff is coming together behind the scenes.

Is it possible that someone as smart and relatively experienced as Obama is actually falling for this crap? He'd have to be massively vain and foolish to do so. Is he?

I mean, there ARE times when you take counsel from your rivals, and it even makes sense to have some of them close by, for such occasional advice, and to keep an eye on them. But make them an integral part of your team? Sounds great, but I doubt that it works much in reality. Sounds like Dream Team '92, but probably operates more like Dream Team '96-'04.

(Did we win it this year? I forgot.)

No doubt now every second-rate corporate consultant will start selling this to their clients as the latest and greatest corporate strategy for success, and the eedjuts will fall for it. Carly Fiorina, are you listening? Your new career is mapped out for you by Doris Kearns Goodwin!

I hope to god that Obama knows what he's doing, and if he doesn't, is a quick and non-vain study, capable of changing course as soon as it's clear that things aren't working, and that this Team O' Rivals crap is just for show, or his way of selling the team that he was going to pick anyone, on merits, not Village appeal. Because if he's really buying into it, hooboy, welcome to 1993 all over again. And we REALLY can't afford that now.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

The historical lessons of basketball (0.00 / 0)
The US men's Olympic team still won the gold in '96 and 2000, although they almost lost in the semifinals in 2000.  The nadir of US international hoops was 2002 and 2004, when they lost at the World Championships and then again at the Olympics.

The wise lesson they learned from that was that you have to develop a team over a period of time, instead of just slapping together a bunch of all-stars at the last second and hoping for the best (insert sage political analogy starting here).  Their new longer-term program started with the World Championships in '06, and while they lost there again, they kept the same group of players together for the most part over the next two summers, and it paid off with a gold at the Olympics in '08.  

[ Parent ]
The larger lesson (0.00 / 0)
was that whether they ultimately won or lost, I thought that there was an arrogant sense of not having to work too hard at it to win, because they felt that they were going to win anyway, so why sweat it out? I.e. a team of slackers. Which, I suppose, is highly unlikely to happen under Obama, so perhaps it was a bad analogy. Still, slapping together a "dream team" of "rivals" who are individually well-regarded might sound good, but for it to work, they have to get along and be in sync. Some team tension is good. Too much is counterproductive.

We'll see. None of this speculation from the sidelines will likely affect what they do. It's just us being nervous.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

[ Parent ]
I don't think it had much to do with arrogance or slacking off (0.00 / 0)
That's actually a Versailles-type narrative common in the sports media about NBA players competing internationally for the US: that whenever they lost, it must have been because they were too arrogant or too lazy.  It had far more to do with international players and teams having gotten WAY better in the past decade, making it harder for any collection of American stars to waltz to international victories.  Especially since the Americans were usually relatively unfamiliar with playing together, as opposed to other international teams, who will usually have been playing together in worldwide competitions since they were teenagers, even if they play professionally in different countries.

This meant that the US was going to have to get really serious about putting together the best talent available AND getting them acclimated to playing together over a period of more than one offseason, which only came to complete fruition this past summer.  The political analogy here probably has something to do with the importance of developing teammwork, as opposed to just haphazardly assembling a group of high-powered names.

[ Parent ]
Doing Our Own Thing (4.00 / 1)
We may not be able to directly change the Versailles discourse around this right now.  But we damn sure can develop our own counter-narrative about what a bunch of hooey it is, and why.  Over the long term, trusting in our own capacity to do this is the foundation for doing more.

Over the short term, it provides backup for those who do have media visibility.  It's entirely possible a healthy deconstruction of this nonsenes could get picked up by Rachael Maddow, for example.  And since it's so damn silly, once you stop to think about it, we might even see Steven Colbert weigh in.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Public discourse has been silly in the US since the day after election day, 1980 (0.00 / 0)
Once the Great Comediator was elected--and unlike Bush he actually won it fair and square--all bets were off, and surreality became an acceptable form of reality (it was perhaps no coincidence that the great surrealists were all dying off by this time, punctuated by the assassination literally a month later of a later generation's own version of a surrealist, Lennon). I can almost literally trace the point at which idiocy, insanity and triviality became acceptable modes of public and media discourse. Paddy Chayevsky was so prescient.

I sense that we MIGHT finally be emerging from his idiotic period in world history, a detour to the bizarre side where nutty meets stupid meets evil and calls itself modern conservatism. So yeah, we should absolutely keep talking about stuff that matters in ways that don't make you want to go all Tim Leary. But it's going to be a while before some semblance of sanity and intelligence and even virtue (in a non-Bill Bennett BS sort of way) make an appearance in public discourse. But it is nice to see a select few push for it every day (and I'd include Olbermann in that group, because as over the top as he can be, he is painfully sane).

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

[ Parent ]
Correct (0.00 / 0)
Tobyj is correct, that Pinkser is distorting the Kearns book, using its title to falsely serve his own narrative.  I almost wonder if Pinkser actually read it, or is working from second-hand reports.

The book, in spite of the use of the word "Team" in the title, never suggests that the so-called team ever liked each other, or fully trusted each other, or quit scheming behind Lincoln's and each others' backs.  It only posits that, in fact, this common tension did more good for the nation than harm at a time and under conditions the country has never seen again.

Chase, in particular, never ceased scheming against Lincoln, and was almost sociopathic in his single-minded pursuit of replacing Lincoln.  But as Secretary of the Treasury, he managed the financing of the Civil War, and Kearns effectively makes the argument that no other individual could have done as good a job.  Three times he submitted his resignation, and Lincoln finally accepted it on the third try after he realized Chase was no longer useful to him.

Cabinet secretaries angling for the presidency was not unusual in that era, either, as it was the fashion in that time for no president to serve more than one term.

I agree (4.00 / 1)
Goodwin does very well showing how dysfunctional Lincoln's cabinet was. Pinsker or his headline writer get off a cheap shot implying that Goodwin glosses over the conflicts with nuttin' but happy talk.

More relevant to this post, Team of Rivals explains why Lincoln had to draw his opponents close to him. The nation in 1860 was ripping apart, right after Lincoln was elected South Carolina seceded from the U.S. and Lincoln, the presidency, and the U.S. were near the fail point, a very weak position.

Lincoln's cabinet was a suboptimal solution to a thorny problem, Lincoln's greatness was that he made it work in spite of lots of setbacks and obstacles.

There is no reason for Obama to copy Lincoln, Obama is in a position of strength, just won the biggest popular vote in US history, is leading a values makeover of the US electorate, has global goodwill. Obama shouldn't use a weak president's strategy, that's just more "center-right" concern trolling.

[ Parent ]
Thanks (4.00 / 1)
As I've said before, I haven't read Goodwin's book, and my primary reaction is to how her narrative is being used.

As you describe it, she is far more realistic than she's portrayed as being--by her fans as well as Pinsker.  But if one were to pay attention to the realism, then there's no point in paying attention to the example, as there's no analogy whatsoever, as you yourself so succinctly point out.

I used to be a book reviewer, and would often read other reviews--after mine was finished, of course. (Particularly when writing for Publishers Weekly, which comes out long before anyone else but Library Journal and Booklist.)  It was quite commonplace for me to not just disagree with other reviewers, but to not be able to recognize the books they were reviewing as the ones I had read.  So I'm well aware that depending one someone else's gloss of a book inolves taking a risk.

However, to the extent that Pinsker's account is mislead, it does reflect how Goodwin's book is being read (or, more precisely, being referred to) and I'm unaware of Goodwin raising any strong objections to this characterization.  Of course, were she to object, it would undercut her own celebrity.  But, really, she's celebrity enough already.  She could do the nation a real service by saying, "Look, I know this is a captivating idea, but it's really not applicable today, because the circumstances are very different."

It's the difference between being a public intellectual vs. a celebrity intellectual.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
you are right (4.00 / 1)
Goodwin is not out there saying that. Really she is doing everything she can to imply her book thesis is applicable today.

Inviting such in-house dissent may indeed pose greater challenges today than in earlier times, but it's hard to see that we have any other choice. Polls show that Americans wish to move beyond the combination of extreme partisanship and ideological rigidity that has for decades prevented Washington from addressing the serious problems facing our country. They have seen the damage caused by the creation of like-minded "echo chambers" in Washington. Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain would do well to keep this in mind as they choose their vice president and cabinet members.

but .. the examples she gives are Lincoln 1860 and FDR 1940, emergencies when the survival of the nation was doubtful. And .. she says times are tough now but we have had it much worse in the past.

I think her book has a solid viewpoint .. but the way she plays it in the media these days is inconsistent and incoherent. Cabinet members who are bitter political opponents .. that's what Lincoln had. Cabinet members who aren't yes men .. that's what Obama wants. Goodwin tries to make these the same thing, they're not.

[ Parent ]
Huh? (0.00 / 0)
On the one hand, you are trashing Pinsker, questioning if he even read the book, but it seems you haven't even read his review.  His bone picking is not about the issue of people liking one another.  It's about the rosey-hewn success of the venture:

In fairness, Goodwin describes several of these more difficult moments, such as when Secretary of State William Seward tried to seize political command from Lincoln during the Ft. Sumter crisis. But she passes over their consequences too easily.

The best defense of her thesis is--arguably--that not to have taken this path would have made matters even worse.  But if one takes this view--which does have a certain appeal--then one has to acknowledge just how much the strategy was linked to the particular historical moment and the unique political conditions at the time, which makes it a decidedly bad candidate for guidance about how to govern now.

Finally, your parting gloss is simply mistaken:

Cabinet secretaries angling for the presidency was not unusual in that era, either, as it was the fashion in that time for no president to serve more than one term.

The only voluntary one-term President from that time was Buchanan, and he was succeeded by his Vice President, Breckenridge (with the Northern Dems splitting to support Stephen Douglas).  Cabinet members were nowhere to be found.

Indeed, cabinet members had ceased to be much of a factor following John Qunicy Adams.  He was the last of a succession of Democrtatic-Republican Secretaries of State to become President in clockwork order.

No other cabinet post had ever appeared as a likely path to the White House.  What was different here was that the Republican Party was a relatively new party (Lincoln was only their second presidential nominee), and thus party structures were quite fluid, and personal ambition even higher than usual.  Thus, Seward imagined he could revive an old tradition, in very altered circumstances.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Buchanan, Lincoln, etc. (4.00 / 3)
It was Buchanan who should rightly be picked as having a team of rivals.  In his case having a mix of southern/pro-secession and northern/unionist politicians in the cabinet worked horribly.  Buchanan tended to edge towards the middle with a tilt towards the south.  The resdult was half and quarter measures that failed to satisfy either the north or the south and failed to do his constitutional duty of preserving and protecting the union.

Buchanan was picked because he was out of the country during the "bleeding Kansas" period and other sectional wrangling of the 1850s.  His befuddlement was best put by his famous quote. "All my enemies are now my friends and all my friends are dead."  

Strangely enough, I saw more Obama signs in Buchanan's home town (not birth place) of Lancaster, PA than anywhere else this spring or summer.  There was a big one across the street from the Buchanan estate, "Wheatland."  The man seemed to have good taste (based on the house and grounds)but not a strong enough hand to function in those extremely perilous times.  Buchanan went home with a popularity that, if polled, would have been below the lows of W.

I would argue that Lincoln's great success came by making the important decisions himself and by hiring a series of controversial but effective individuals for key positions.  

Grant really, by direct personal testimony, was clearly a binge drinking alcoholic who contributed mightily by virtue of his character.  He worked hard and never gave up.  

Sherman was dubbed "insane" by that early cabinet failure Simon Cameron.  Sherman at the time suggesting that he could win the war (in late 1861) by being given an army of 200,000 men.  He'd use 100,000 to garrison key points and protect the north and the other 100,000 to slice through the heart of the south and eventually move on to capture Richmond.  That's amazingly close to what he did in 1864 and 1865 when his move from Tennesse through Atlanta, Savannah, Columbia, SC and the Rahleigh area was destined for Richmond (but Lee surrendered too soon).  Cameron shelved Sherman, got him into a depressed and inactive mood and would have permanently destroyed him except for his own political connections (brother John was an influential congressman and later in the war a US Senator from Ohio who is best known as the author of the Sherman anti-trust act; his foster father was a former US Senator and Secretary of the Treasury; his father was Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, and on).  Sherman was more than a great tactician, he was an original and innovative strategist who invented the concept of total war and "living off the land" and rewarded the black constructuion workers and scroungers with 40 acres an a mule over the vigorous protests of Stanton.  He also, most likely, was afflicted with Aspberger's Syndrome. Sherman, in an interlude of about a dozen years before the civil war was a banker and financial executive in SF,a lawyer in KS, and the first President and builder of what is now LSU (the school avoids mentioning him on their web site).  He was good to great at all these jobs but considered himself a failure.

Compared to that pair, some of the cabinet choices and others were pretty restrained individuals.  The generals, especially the politicals, were another matter. McClellan, for example, gave attitude a new meaning.  Although a fabulous organizer he was a terrible fighting general and not so hot at strategy overall.  He did run for President against Lincoln in 1864. Fremont, the losing Republican candidate in 1856 was a terrible general who created controversy and loss wherever he went.  Ben Butler was a walking scandal in New Orleans where the natives of the south's largest city dubbed him "Beast Butler."  Nathaniel Banks lost so many troops and left behind so many supplies that his enemies dubbed him Commissary Banks.  Hey, the Union even had one general (supported by the Governor Of Indiana) who shot and killed his overbearing commanding general on the streets of Louisville.  And he kept his job.

I would take other lessons from Lincoln than Goodwin saw.  Innovation.  (Lincoln forced the development of the ironside ship, the moveable naval turret gun, the machine gun, the repeating rifle and lots more) Leading the nation continually going a little further than the public wanted and prodding it still further.  The use of real talent and not just pleasant people.  Trial and error till he found the right people and then sticking with those people.

No modern President would have promoted a Grant or a Sherman.  Lee sure.  He was smart, a great general, and presentable.  Instead we have the modern day McClellan, David Petraeus.

Petraeus AS McClellan (0.00 / 0)

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Good points (0.00 / 0)
Although I still can't see Grant as a great general. He grasped the right strategy, but carried it out with a distinct lack of flair. Not exactly up to the standard of what the Prussians were doing a few years later (although to be fair, with an army that was nowhere near as competent as the Prussian one and without Prussia's half-century of authoritarian lunatics organising their military until it shone).

Actually, I'd say that the only commander on either side who really seemed to come close to Sherman in ability was Longstreet. Sure, he wasn't as great a tactician as Lee, but Lee's beau hussar tactics could only take the rebels so far. It's worth noting that even when Lee won he tended to lose a greater percentage of his men than the enemy did. Longstreet was a prideful general and a tactician of only middling ability. But he could count and he realised that the tactical offence was not a workable tactic.

These are the kinds of individuals Obama should be looking for. No, not secessionists, Todd Palin is not qualified to run the Interior Department. But people who think differently and people with an evidence-based approach to problems, rather than a lot of flair and positive press.

Forgotten Countries - a foreign policy-focused blog

[ Parent ]
Longstreet and Grant (0.00 / 0)
    I admire Longstreet very much, but it's difficult to compare him with men who were actually commanding armies. Longstreet spent the entire war in subordinate positions, except for the few weeks he was in North Carolina, which caused him to miss Chancellorsville.
    Grant did very well at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, and finally cracked Vicksburg. In Virginia he did what had to be done, and saying he wasn't as good as von Moltke is rather beside the point, as Prussia's war aims were far different from those of the United States in the Civil War. What was missing for nearly three years was a Union commander who was willing to fight repeated battles with the Army of Northern Virginia so that the Union's advantage in numbers and resources would be decisive. Grant had to be willing to be a butcher in order to succeed.

[ Parent ]
Casualties (0.00 / 0)
Grant took fewer casualties than his opponent in every campaign although usually more dead and wounded but a lot fewer captured or missing.  The one piece of out and out butchery was Cold Harbor.  Even Grant admitted that was a big mistake.

At his best, Stonewall Jackson was up there with the best.  The Valley Campaign and Sherman's marches from Tennessee to North Carolina were the most impressive campaigns of the war.  Jackson's 16,000 men defeated 3 Federal armies totaling 55,000.  Then he stunk the joint up in his next campaign (Seven Daysunder Lee).  When Stonewall was good, he was very very good but when he was bad he was awful.  

[ Parent ]
Not a modern general (0.00 / 0)
Jackson and Lee were essentially good Napoleonic generals - they were adept at the war of movement but didn't hold up as well in more static conditions.

Sherman was a modern general, Grant was a modern general and Longstreet appears to have inclined towards that sort of approach, although Ron is right that we lack the evidence (except for his diaries, which I haven't read but have heard summarised). But Jackson and Lee were best at a simpler mode of warfare. It's no coincidence Lee's best year was 1862. The better the armies got, the less room he had to pull his tricks.

Forgotten Countries - a foreign policy-focused blog

[ Parent ]
A pair (0.00 / 0)
It's no coincidence, either, that Lee was far less effective after Jackson died.  His style needed an effective offensive general who pushed movement and Jackson was basically it.  It worked spectacularly when it worked (Chancellorsville) but without Jackson, no one was able to deliver a knockout blow at Gettysburg (and with an ineffective Jackson, the Seven Days battles were a muddle).

With both an offensive general (Jackson) and a defensive general (Longstreet) as his main suboardinates Lee had options.  As it was, southerners spent a hundred years post Gettysburg blaming Longstreet for being sluggish on the attack on July 1 and July 2 1863.  He was being used in a way he thought inappropriate and it really was unsuited for his talents.

Sherman was just fascinating as a general.  He got much better as the war went along and he got both more confident and was given a free rein.  Apparently he was one of those people who never stopped thinking and never stopped talking.  Grant was able to put up with him one on one because, unlike many, he religiously carried out orders even when he disagreed (although he'd verbally protest).  Yes, he was clearly a modern general.

[ Parent ]
Why Lincoln? (4.00 / 1)
     One of the many things I don't get about this is, why is the Lincoln experience considered more relevant than that of other Presidents? Why not look at other Presidents, successful and unsuccessful?
    Washington didn't work with a team of rivals--Washington had no rival.
    What about Saint Ronnie, the exemplar for the dimmest 30% of our fellow countrymen? He didn't bring in serious rivals. He appointed Al Haig, who was a failed candidate for the nomination, but got rid of him within 18 months. He had Bush as his running mate, but he didn't bring in any of the other candidates for the 1980 nomination, Dole, Howard Baker, John Anderson, John Connally or Phil Crane. Yet it's conventional wisdom among the Beltway Gasbags that Reagan was a successful President.
    The same is true of FDR. He appointed Sen. Cordell Hull to be Secretary of State, but Hull had not sought the Presidential nomination, and the rest of FDR's first cabinet was largely undistinguished, with the exception of Harold Ickes, Henry Wallace,, and Frances Perkins in the previously minor posts at Interior, Agriculture, and Labor. But in the top jobs--Treasury, War, Attorney General, the Navy, and Commerce: do you recognize any of these names? William Woodin, George H. Dern, Homer Cummings, Claude Swanson, Daniel Roper. Those are the people who held those positions inb FDR's first cabinet, in the order listed.
    Carter didn't hire Mo Udall, Scoop Jackson, Jerry Brown, Birch Bayh, Fred Harris, George Wallace, or Sargent Shriver. Clinton didn't hire Paul Tsongas or Jerry Brown. Eisenhower didn't hire people who supporeted Taft for the 1952 nomination. Kennedy didn't hire Humphrey or Symington, and his hiring of Stevenson as U.N. Ambassador was
    Was Jefferson a successful President? I think most people would say he was, if for no other reason than that his party won a record seven consecutive national elections. Can you name anyone in Jefferson's first cabinet, other than Madison? Who remembers Samuel Dexter, Henry Dearborn, Paul Hamilton, or Levi Lincoln? (Gallatin came later.)
    It's just so arbitrary. The Washington Kool Kids take a book written by one of thei own, and try to transport "what history teaches" us to a period 150 years later, without the slightest consideration as to what other historical experience may have taught us. That it was the only time such a thing was tried, and that it was largely a failure, doesn't seem to be relevant. It's not a serious attempt at historical analogy--it's an attempt to find an argument in history for a course of action the Elite want to pursue in November, 2008, but for which they never argued in 1976, 1980, 1992, or 2000.
    If anyone wants to learn from history (rather than learn from amateur historians), I'd respectfully suggest that the only cabinet officers in the last 40 years who left a lasting impression are the ones who screwed up so badly that they had to be replaced. Robert McNamara, John Mitchell, Earl Butz, Al Haig, James Watt, Don Rumsfeld, and Alberto Gonzalez. Cabinet government is a 19th Century concept; the President now controls everything, as has been the case since FDR. The only question for a prospective appointee is whether he or she can be effective in implementing the President's policies.

Best AG? None (0.00 / 0)
It says something that nobody did a great job as Attorney General over the last 40 years and Mitchell wound up in Prison.  Gonzo belonged there as well.  Arguably the two best in the period were Griffin Bell and, heaven help us, John Ashcroft (who at least tried to fight the neo-cons).

Powell embarassed himself as Secretary of State even though he tried.  Kissinger was a mixed blessing at best. Who else?

How much did Rubin and Reich make a difference?  Any?

Secretary of Commerce?  Didn't Brown die over in Bosnia?  

Nope, your right.  The increased size and power of the White House staff, data processing and communications have changed the game.  Lincoln after all had two assistants.  That's it.  He had to use the Cabinet.

[ Parent ]

Open Left Campaigns



Advanced Search

Powered by: SoapBlox