Not since the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Fanny Lou Hammer touched the American conscience and led a movement that began to erase more than 250 years of slavery have we as Americans been blessed with effective leadership.

I was reminded of this recently as I plowed my way through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” Goodwin’s almost 900-page opus is a careful study in the art and science of effective leadership in what was decidedly the most critical time in the history of the republic. The republic was almost lost in the bloodiest war we have ever fought. Through it all, the wisdom of Lincoln was a calming and guiding hand. He brought to the task a remarkable mix of common sense nurtured on the prairie among the common folk and a sophisticated understanding of history and letters that gave him a profound understanding of the human condition. He interacted with people with relish, and read books with abandon.

Lincoln set high standards. Speaking to a group in Illinois in the early 1850s, he lamented that the founding fathers had left a “meager yield after their ‘field of glory.’ While there was no shortage of good men, whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle.”

Lincoln goes on to say that “such modest aspirations … would never satisfy men of towering genius who scorned a beaten path.”

Lincoln was too modest to consider himself a “towering genius,” but he always believed that public service called people to reach for that level in leadership.

All aspirants to political office in this election year would do well to read Goodwin’s study, if they can take time away from raising money for their campaigns. There is much about effective and wise leadership that can be garnered.

One of the key points that comes through is that Lincoln appreciated diversity of opinion around him. He did not suffer “yes men” lightly. Indeed, he brought into his Cabinet all of his major opponents. He engaged them all constantly in discussions that led to his decisions. He was not afraid of being challenged and proven wrong. He believed that the public had the right to a government that represented the diverse opinion that was present in the country.

And he was a master of managing that diversity. It is remarkable to read of the ways in which those strongly opposed to him came to appreciate his understanding of complex issues. Indeed, sworn enemies became great admirers. He always treated his Cabinet with respect and dignity, particularly when they disagreed. Salmon Chase cavorted against him, tried to resign a number of times and was always trying to stir up opposition in the country. But he was a very good secretary of the Treasury. Lincoln believed the nation needed him. He continued to engage Chase and treat him well, even though he knew he was plotting against him often. When he finally accepted his resignation, he appointed him to the Supreme Court, a gesture of respect and support.

Haven’t you noticed how tolerant the current administration is of divergent views? George Bush just loves to have a “Team of Rivals” around him!

Lincoln had a fundamental confidence about himself, distinct from arrogance. He worked hard at the policy decisions he made. He was sure a variety of divergent voices were heard. He never lost his faith in himself. And he had reason to do so. The Confederates were very close to Washington on a number of occasions, and the war did not go well for many years. Yet he never wavered. He knew that he was about the supremely important business of saving the Union. And never did his confidence descend to arrogance.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our leaders today understood the difference between arrogance and self-confidence? There was no swagger in Lincoln.

Lincoln’s leadership was direct and hands-on. He wrote his own speeches. He walked to the War Department almost every night to receive word directly from the fronts of the war. He talked with the telegraph operators late into the night as he weighed the reports. He made himself directly available to the people. He saw those who wanted to see him. There was no pre-screening for partisan agreement. He knew the difference between campaigning and governing. All knew that Lincoln was directly involved in all major decisions. This hands-on approach gained him great respect and contributed in major ways to victories in the Congress and with the American people in the second-term election. Would that Mr. Bush understood that governing is more than giving speeches he has not written to carefully selected audiences to produce a news clip for the evening news.

I was very much impressed with Lincoln’s grasp of the classics. He was constantly quoting Shakespeare. He read poets of his own time as well as the classics. Literature and history were his windows into the human spirit, and he understood it much better than most occupants of the White House, surely in a different league that Bush in this regard.

Three quick final points. He was a man of great humor. He loved to tell stories, usually humorous, but with a message. He also had a great sense of timing. His issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation was delayed until it would have the maximum effect on the war and would be welcomed by citizens of the North.

His handling of a civil liberties incident is revealing, notwithstanding his limited suspension of habeas corpus. The Copperhead Clement Vallandingham was arrested and charged with treason by General Burnside. When the Chicago Times stirred the pot with its coverage, Burnside unwisely suspended the newspaper. There was uproar. Lincoln resolved it by commuting the sentence on Vallandingham and reinstating the Times, while at the same time comforting Burnside. In response to a plea that he suspend the Chicago Times permanently for its subversive writing, he said, “I fear you do not fully comprehend the danger abridging the liberties of the people. … A government had better go to the very extreme of toleration, than to do aught that could be construed into an interference with, or to jeopardize in any degree, the common rights of its citizens.”

Leadership – American style. There is precedent for something much better than we have today. It is up to us to create the modern Lincolns.

Jim Carignan is a retired educator who lives in Harpswell and is chairman of the state Board of Education. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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