Heather Michon

Heather Michon
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Virginia,
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June 25
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Editor’s Pick
NOVEMBER 16, 2008 9:32PM

Team of Un-Rivals

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Doris Kearns Goodwin must be a very happy lady these days. Not only did her candidate of choice win the presidency, he's carrying her book with him as sort of a political bible. Largely thanks to President-Elect Barack Obama's frequent reference to her "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," her three-year old magnum opus is now sitting at #14 in the Amazon.com sales ranking.

Obama has taken to heart her thesis that Abraham Lincoln showed tremendous sagacity by seeding his Cabinet with political rivals. He had indicated a willingess to reach out to his own political rivals, with rumors last week that he might offer Hillary Clinton the State Department, or consider a Republican for some other Cabinet-level post.

"The lesson is to not let your ego or grudges get in the way of hiring absolutely the best people," Obama told Newsweek's Joe Klein. "I don't think the American people are fundamentally ideological. They're pragmatic ... and so I have an interest in casting a wide net, seeking out people with a wide range of expertise, including Republicans."

If Obama follows this line of reasoning, he might end up forming a pretty interesting Cabinet. But it wouldn't really be Lincolnesque.

It is true that Lincoln appointed three of his chief rivals for the 1860 Republican Party nomination to his Cabinet: William Seward as Secretary of State, Edward Bates as Attorney General, and Salmon P. Chase as Secretary of the Treasury. But it would be wrong to think that the 16th President put aside his ego and grudges to select the best and the brightest or ideological opposites.

William Seward turned out to be a fine Secretary of State, as well as one of Lincoln's closest friends and allies in Washington. Edwin Stanton was an efficient Secretary of War, and Gideon Wells was an admirable Secretary of the Navy. But the Cabinet as a whole was short on superstars.

Secretary of the Interior Caleb B. Smith, for example, had seconded Lincoln's nomination at the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago -- Lincoln's managers had promised him a juicy appointment in return for this service. His first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, represented everything that was corrupt and sleazy in 19th Century politics....but he also represented the crucial state of Pennsylvania. He was later replaced by the incorruptable Edwin Stanton of the equally important state of Ohio.

In fact, eight of Lincoln's thirteen Cabinet members hailed from the biggest states in the Union: Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Indiana. Together, those states comprised almost 11 million of the 27.5 million residents of the United States, and a total of almost 100 electoral votes. Three others came from the critical "border" states of Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri.     

While Lincoln might have made many of his selections based on prudent readings of electoral votes and party factions, one thing he didn't do was choose true ideological foes. Like himself, his Cabinet was was anti-slavery, pro-Union, and dedicated to a vigorous prosection of the War.

This is not to say they were "yes men" -- far from it -- but divisions tended to arise from differences over timing and tactics, rather than core principles. It is hard to envision any scenario under which Lincoln would have choosen a pro-peace Democrat, or even a Radical Republican, to serve on his Cabinet. He might choose a Hillary Clinton, but he probably wouldn't select a Dennis Kucinich or a John McCain.

Abraham Lincoln was a masterful politician. He knew who the power-brokers within the young Republican party were. He understood that there were men he would have to tolerate until he could replace him with someone else. He knew there was value in keeping some of the more ambitious of his party where he could see them. Maybe this counts as "genius," maybe just common sense.

There is no real harm in President-Elect Obama playing around with new concepts in the design, care, and feeding of the Cabinet. Let's just hope he makes the right choices for the right reasons.

  
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Comments

Type your comment below:
"There is no real harm in President-Elect Obama playing around with new concepts in the design, care, and feeding of the Cabinet. Let's just hope he makes the right choices for the right reasons."

DAMN!!
I thought we were ridding ourselves of this arrogance by cleaning the vermin out of the white house.

I respect MY president~~Barack Obama as a man who is much more intelligent than I am and, I actually do have a fairly high IQ.

That was an arrogant comment which is clearly belittling.
Was it intentional?
"Arrogant"? "Belittling"? "MY President." Please.

My goal here was to point out that Barack Obama, thought Doris Kearns Goodwin, is interpreting Lincoln's so-called "Team of Rivals" in a way that is not supported by the historical facts. If he's going to make Cabinet selections based on a misinterpretation of one of his political heroes, fine, whatever. Like I said, it could be an interesting team. I think we all hope he makes good choices and that his team will serve us well. I didn't say I could make BETTER choices.

As for YOUR President, you know what: he's my president, too, but that doesn't mean I have to the next four to eight years kissing his ass.