Archive for Sunday, October 30, 2005

Beyond regrets

Author returns from scandal with Lincoln book

October 30, 2005


— For the casual tourist or college student, the Great Hall in Cooper Union might seem little more than an ornate auditorium, with its oil paintings, white columns and bright wooden stage.

But for Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Great Hall is a landmark graced by history: Abraham Lincoln was here. He stood on that stage and spoke in early 1860, an address that established him as a national candidate, not just an Illinois lawyer and orator, and helped get him elected.

"You can't imagine what it's like for somebody who has tried to bring him to life to know he was actually here," she says, looking toward the back of the room, where a portrait of Lincoln hangs.

For the past decade, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian has dwelled with the spirit of Lincoln, the most scrutinized of all American presidents. It was a needed break for Goodwin from a time when she herself was scrutinized. Her new book, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," has just been published.

Three years ago, well into the Lincoln book, Goodwin acknowledged a Weekly Standard report that her 1987 release, "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys," contained sections of text taken without attribution from another author, Lynne McTaggart.

Goodwin, 62, has said the copying was accidental, the result of a longhand note-taking system that didn't distinguish between her own observations and passages from other texts. Both she and McTaggart said they had reached a settlement years earlier that included an undisclosed payment and revisions to Goodwin's book.

For the past decade, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has dwelled with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, the most scrutinized of all American presidents. Her new book is "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln."

For the past decade, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has dwelled with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, the most scrutinized of all American presidents. Her new book is "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln."

But the controversy grew. After discovering additional passages that closely paralleled the original sources, Goodwin ordered the book removed from stores and promised a new edition, which has yet to be written.

"I just got right back to this (the Lincoln book), which was more important," says Goodwin, who has no plans to revise her work until after her tour.

Remains respected

Once the most public of historians, especially after winning the Pulitzer in 1995 for "No Ordinary Time," a portrait of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II, she became untouchable. Numerous colleges withdrew offers for speaking engagements. She resigned from the Pulitzer board and stopped appearing on PBS' "Newshour With Jim Lehrer."

She apologized, defended herself and relied, more than ever, upon history. If the scandal didn't actually affect the content of "Team of Rivals," it did make her that much happier while writing it.

"All along I felt an enormous attachment to the book, and, more important, an attachment to him," she says. "And being able to have that, and to know I was proud of what it was becoming, was the best way of dealing with it."

Whatever damage she caused herself, it has not lowered expectations for her new book, which contains more than 100 pages of source notes. Simon & Schuster announced a first printing of 400,000 copies, and "Team of Rivals" quickly entered the top 10 on Steven Spielberg has acquired film rights.

She remains highly respected among her peers, with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sean Wilentz and Robert Dallek among those who defended her. Some top Lincoln scholars, including Harold Holzer, Michael Burlingame and Goodwin's friend, David Herbert Donald, have praised her new book.

"You don't want to keep a person with her talent in perennial handcuffs," says Holzer, author of 23 books on Lincoln and the Civil War. "To have someone with her dazzling writing ability turn to Lincoln is a great boon to the Lincoln field."

'Great political resources'

Besides reaffirming the public's trust in her integrity, Goodwin's greatest task is reaffirming interest in Lincoln, the subject of more than 1,000 books. Her approach was a group biography in which his rise is set against the lives of three former political rivals who became cabinet members after the 1860 election: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Edward Bates.

As Goodwin notes, all three foes were better known and seemingly more qualified to be president than Lincoln, who had never held high political office. But Lincoln overlooked competing ambitions, past insults and other political sins and assembled a cabinet unusual for its depth of experience and diversity of opinions.

"The qualities of decency and compassion and empathy and kindness are, in the hands of a great politician," she says, "great political resources."


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