Mostly I read books first and then (maybe) watch the movie, later. This time I did it backwards: I recently saw the new movie Lincoln (with Daniel Day Lewis), and then began listening to this book on audio, on which the movie was based. Not that there’s any shortage of Lincoln histories out there; but this is the one Spielberg turned into film. So please forgive me if this review is a little heavy on comparisons to the movie…
Beginning with which, the movie begins on the eve of the battle to ratify the 13th amendment, but the book starts much earlier, with Lincoln struggling to get the Republican Party’s nomination for presidential candidate. We follow Lincoln through his nomination, his campaign, and the setting up of his cabinet. The title of the book, appropriately, describes its subject: not Lincoln himself so much (as in the movie), but his skillful political alignment of his rivals for the Republican nomination in his cabinet. We get to know these other characters much better in the book than we did in the movie (which was also appropriately titled. Its focus was different). As this book effectively communicates, one of Lincoln’s political strengths was in placing his rivals where their strong points could best play to his administration’s advantage, and where their animosity toward him could best be neutralized.
Just as with the movie, I worried a little about an overly patriotic, positive portrayal of Lincoln. As in the movie, he is depicted as being strongly concerned about the black man or woman’s natural right to liberty; and while this is a sentiment we applaud today, I am afraid it was not at the center of the Civil War or Lincoln’s personal priorities. In other words, it’s something we love to think about our lauded 16th president today, but it’s not entirely historically accurate. Along these lines, I noted repeatedly that Goodwin uses rather many superlatives, which decreased my confidence in her neutrality slightly.
These concerns aside, I enjoyed the story. Not only Lincoln and his wife and children, but the characters (along with their families) of Bates, Chase, and Seward are evoked, and it made this critical moment in my nation’s history come alive. It was an absolutely entertaining story to listen to; and Goodwin’s great reputation (she has a Pulitzer to her name) and the reasoned pace & structure give me confidence that this is a responsible piece of historical writing… but I still felt that there was some positive slant, as above.
The audio narration by Richard Thomas was everything it should have been. This is a fine book, very readable, which makes Lincoln’s White House history accessible and makes the story come alive. But it might not be hard-edged journalism, for what that’s worth.