Just last week, a student in my class wrote a paper arguing that he could “gain little” from reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and that he “would prefer to use [his] time to further [his] understanding in more pressing matters.” Viewed more broadly, this complaint is often lodged against history itself: many view the discipline, by definition concerned only with the past, as being of little relevance to contemporary concerns. Such an interpretation should hardly be surprising in an age in which the History Channel focuses with unholy fascination on the military hardware of World War II, and the most public faces of history are Renaissance Faires and Civil War re-enactments.
In response to this criticism, historians too often rely on some version of Santayana’s quip that “[t]hose who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Students and others who hear this idea are, in my view, justifiably skeptical of it: not too many of us will ever have to consider whether to attack Russia with winter coming on. The more powerful justification of history, though, is a bit more subtle, and consequently harder to get across. This is that the present is comprehensible only in light of the past, and that history consists of much more than the amassing of fact-sized chunks of information. Though such gathering is an important part of history, the facts it reveals are of little historical value until they are placed into some interpretive frame. To the extent that these interpretations are successful, they inevitably color our vision of how we see our own lives in the present.
In that light I have been struck by how frequently president-elect Barack Obama’s decision-making process in assembling his incoming cabinet has been characterized in terms of the selection of a “team of rivals.” Obama owes this concept to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning study of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. In May, before even securing the Democratic nomination, Obama himself cited “a wonderful book written by Doris Kearns Goodwin called Team of Rivals, in which [she] talked about [how] Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet because whatever, you know, personal feelings there were, the issue was, ‘How can we get this country through this time of crisis?'” The then-candidate even mentioned at that time the possibility of naming John McCain to be the Secretary of Homeland Security.
As cabinet speculation heats up, references to the book are everywhere. Friday evening on MSNBC, I watched David Gregory discuss the book as an framework within which to understand the Obama cabinet, only to switch the channels to find Goodwin herself on CNN. Maureen Dowd, in her New York Times column this morning, argued that selecting Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State would demonstrate that Obama will be a “president who’s willing to open up his universe to other smart, strong people…a big dog who shares his food dish.” Its title: “Team of Frenemies.” Jacob Heilbrunn recently wrote a Huffington Post piece called “Team of Rivals,” and the Associated Press reported this morning that “both Obama and New York Sen. Clinton share a reverence for Team of Rivals.” Other examples abound.
Regardless of whether Obama chooses Clinton, or even McCain, to serve in his Cabinet, it is apparent that Goodwin’s book has not only significantly influenced Obama’s thinking about how he wants to run his administration, but also defined a prominent lens through which the press–and consequently the public–will interpret and understand his presidency. Obviously Lincoln deserves much of the credit for inspiring the president-elect, but Goodwin’s contributions as an historian should not be overlooked. The facts regarding the members of Lincoln’s cabinet have long been known, but probably would have made little impact in 2008 without Goodwin’s book. It took a talented historian to, in the phrase of Studs Terkel, “make them sing.” Goodwin, in choosing to write a book on this particular topic, constructing a framework that highlights certain aspects of Lincoln’s decision-making over others, and presenting that interpretation to the public in a compelling fashion, has done us all a great service by showing just how relevant history, and historians, can be.