I’m fascinated by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s study of Lincoln’s presidency, Team of Rivals. But since I am trying to write a novel, a part of me also wants to get back to reading fiction so that I have some models and inspiration.
That said, the book illuminates the motivations and consequences of human actions, and the warps and triumphs of human character, in ways that novelists should envy. Lincoln is a hero both saintly and strategic and also fallible. It is amazing to trace the incredibly complex process by which ideals get translated into reality. Lincoln understood popular opinion as a kind of character–flawed, sometimes base, but capable of growth.
It is also interesting to note how the book is talked about in the press, where it is usually reduced to a prurient view of its title: oh goody, the cabinet might fight with each other. The phrase “team of rivals” is spoken in the tone of voice usually used to announce that there’s a fight going on behind the gym.
I’ve still got 100-some pages left in the book, but while there is infighting, Lincoln decided many questions himself, cancelled many cabinet meetings, and consulted his Secretaries of State and War while ignoring (but placating) lesser Secretaries. What Lincoln really seemed to want was a) high competence in the important tasks of fighting the war, funding the war, containing the war, and connecting the troops and their loved ones and b) a coalition which would keep both conservative Democrats and radical Republicans engaged. He was also strong to hear opposing views without being threatened by them.
Lincoln and Seward, his closest confidante, understood that the highest matters of state–in this case, whether the state would survive, whether slaves would be freed–were shaped by the jealousies and flaws and vitalities of frail individual humans. The two men regularly escaped to the theater, which was then experiencing a golden age. They invited leading actors and actresses to their homes and quizzed them on their interpretations of characters. They especially loved Shakespeare, perhaps because it so resembled their daily life.