LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
"Team of Rivals" is the title of a new biography of Abraham Lincoln and the men who helped him preserve the Union written by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book begins with a four-part biography tracing the lives and careers of Abraham Lincoln, William Henry Seward of New York who was Lincoln's Secretary of State, Salmon Chase of Ohio who was Treasury secretary and then chief justice, and Edward Bates of Missouri who was attorney general in the first Lincoln Cabinet. All four men were rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, the year that Lincoln won. Doris Kearns Goodwin joins us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. She's on a book tour.
Ms. DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN (Author, "Team of Rivals"): Thank you. I'm glad to be with you.
WERTHEIMER: First of all, why write about the team, weaving together the history, the letters, the diaries of all four men, not just Lincoln?
Ms. GOODWIN: I knew that if I approached him flat, it would be very hard to come up with some sort of new angle. And as I started reading about these other guys, I realized that they, unlike Lincoln, had kept diaries and wrote thousands of letters, and they had insights into Lincoln that hadn't been used in a lot of the Lincoln biographies. So it gave me a comfort in a certain sense that maybe I could have a different angle on this most written about character.
WERTHEIMER: Now the other three men you write about were far better off financially at least in their childhoods. They were better educated, had better opportunities. As young men, they made happier marriages than he did. All of them seemed to have a brighter future than Lincoln did.
Ms. GOODWIN: Absolutely. In fact, that's what so interested me. Even though we know about Lincoln's log cabin, reading by candlelight at night, to just put it comparatively against the other guys, it makes you realize how more extraordinary it is that he was able to eventually be the one who won that Republican nomination. They were Phi Beta Kappa. They had read law with prominent people. They were surrounded by books when they grew up and somehow he was able to not only come up to them but to equal them in learning in the deepest sense of learning.
WERTHEIMER: The account of the nomination and Lincoln's election and waiting for the results and all that is fascinating in the book, but I'm going to fast forward here to the transition. He brought all three of his rivals into the Cabinet, plus later, Edwin Stanton, another brilliant man who had no very good opinion of Lincoln. Why did he do that? Why did he bring his opponents in, instead of reaching out for good and trusted friends, as presidents usually do, or for cronies even?
Ms. GOODWIN: Well, I think there were two reasons. One was the positive reason. He told somebody, `These are the strongest men in the country, the country is in a perilous state. I cannot deprive the country of their talents.' But I think he also knew that his own fledgling Republican Party was really scattering in terms of opinions. There were radicals, there were old Whigs, there were Democrats, there were conservatives, there were Liberty Party people. And these Cabinet guys represented various strands on that political spectrum. So he figured, `If I can get them to somehow agree within and if I have face-to-face time with them within, maybe I'll be able to control this coalition outside. So, again, it was one of those things where he was doing the right thing, but it was also politically very smart.
WERTHEIMER: He ultimately convinced most of them that in fact he should have been president instead of them, but he never convinced Salmon Chase.
Ms. GOODWIN: That is for sure. Chase is one of the most ambitious men that I think I've read about in history. And throughout Lincoln's term, even as he stayed a secretary of the Treasury, he would say terrible things about him, try to mobilize the radical community against him and did indeed try to run against him in 1864. Then the amazing thing, however, is that there's a vacancy on the Supreme Court after Lincoln's won that second nomination. And everyone comes and suggests various people, but Lincoln said, `No, I'm putting Chase on the court.' And they say, `How can you do that? He's said such terrible things about you.' `I know meaner things he said about me than anyone,' he said. `I'd rather swallow a chair than put him on this court. But he will be the best man for the emancipated slaves, and that's what's important as chief justice.' And it truly--he turned out to be that.
WERTHEIMER: I guess if we reason back from the result, the Union was preserved so this team of rivals was a success. It seems so impossible to me, given our current poisonous atmosphere among political rivals, that something like this could work. But, of course, then the country was literally torn apart.
Ms. GOODWIN: And maybe it seemed that the kind of divisions that were within the Cabinet were not as extreme as they would seem today. But could you imagine if we heard various Cabinet members today, as these guys did, talking about each other--`unmitigated scoundrel, liar, thief.' One of them wouldn't even go to the War Department, Blair, because he hated Stanton so much. But you're probably right because the larger country is falling apart and hundreds of thousands of people are dying. This might have seemed mild.
WERTHEIMER: So the team of rivals worked, do you think?
Ms. GOODWIN: It absolutely worked. I mean, interestingly, each one of them did become historically very good at their jobs. Secretary of State, it was said that Seward helped us to avoid war with England. Secretary of Treasury Chase kept the North afloat when the South had much more trouble keeping its bond and its economics understructure going. The attorney general did a very good job. Stanton is considered one of the great war secretaries of all time. Now the fact that they couldn't get along with each other, as long as they could get along with Lincoln, who made sure to spend as much special time with each of them so they wouldn't feel jealous, then it absolutely worked.
WERTHEIMER: Lincoln and Seward were very close after about the first year of the first term, and they continued to be close as long as Lincoln lived. You describe in some uncomfortable detail the death of Lincoln, also the attack on Seward which happened at the same time.
Ms. GOODWIN: There was a real intimate relationship that developed between those two; indeed, such an intimate relationship that when Seward was nearly killed himself with a Bowie knife, cutting his entire cheek off, they didn't want to tell him that Lincoln had died. They were afraid the shock would make him die, as well, but he knew it. He knew that Lincoln would have been the first person to see him after his near massacre that night. He saw a flag at half mast, great tears came down his cheeks, saying, `I know my president is dead. My friend, my captain, is dead.'
WERTHEIMER: Now I wanted to ask you about the writing of this book. Three years ago, when The Weekly Standard wrote a story about your book about the Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds, which included the revelation that portions of the text came directly from the work of another scholar, Lynn McTaggart, you settled that case with her years before that. But then, eventually, you just withdrew the book, and then you had the whole storm of public opinion to deal with, which I gather cost you something.
Ms. GOODWIN: Well, sure. And you accept that that's going to be a part of the price you pay for being a public figure. But I acknowledged the error at the time. The book was corrected in exactly the form that the author asked me to do it. But then when it came to the public attention again three years ago, there was some criticism about the form of correction, so I decided to just withdraw the book until I could rethink whether or not it needed another edition or not. But the interesting thing is, you know, when you go through something like that, the best thing you can do is what I'd like to think Lincoln did time and again. You acknowledge that you made a mistake, you make sure that you work as hard as I have on this book, to make sure that everything is checked and double-checked, and I'm absolutely certain it is, and you get through it.
WERTHEIMER: You spent 10 years on this book on Lincoln, and you indicate that, obviously, he was a skillful politician but he was eloquent. He made brilliant speeches. He told folksy stories. He was funny. He was a reading man but he was, obviously, a talking man.
Ms. GOODWIN: Was he ever a talking man. I don't think I had fully absorbed how critical his gift for storytelling was in his political rise. And his stories were hilarious.
WERTHEIMER: You want to tell one?
Ms. GOODWIN: Lincoln used to tell this story of the Revolutionary War hero, Ethan Allen going over to Britain after the war was won. And the British people were still smarting over their loss, so they decided to humiliate him by putting a picture of General George Washington in the outhouse where he would have to see it. He went in the outhouse, and he came out smiling. And they said, `Well, didn't you see George Washington there?' `Yes,' he said. `Well, what did you think?' `Well,' he said, `I think there's nothing to make an Englishman (censored) faster than the sight of General George Washington. Perfect place for him.'
WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much for coming in.
Ms. GOODWIN: Oh, I appreciate it, Linda, very much myself.
WERTHEIMER: Doris Kearns Goodwin's book is called "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." To hear more of our interview, go to npr.org.
You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.