Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Team of rivals?

Abe Lincoln: How the [Cheney] did the Confederates take over my Republican Party?

The boys and girls of our press corps have adopted the phrase "team of rivals" to describe Obama's Cabinet nominees. It comes from the title of a book by Big Pundit/popular historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

This isn't the ideal description, for more than one reason. Joe Conason argues that it's Not a Team of Rivals at All New York Observer 12/02/08. Conason is more bullish on the prospects for Bob Gates to keep with Obama's program than I am. I'm also concerned that being head of Bush's Pentagon for the last two years, he may be implicated in criminal acts, or feel some incentive to cover up such acts. But in Gates' particular case, there's a general worry, not a specific one. Unlike Rummy, who definitely should be indicted and put on trial.

Conason reminds us how well the "team of rivals" narrative fits the media's gossipy, tabloid focus on personal quabbles. My favorite moment in Obama's press conference Tuesday was when he called the reporters on the fact that they were "having fun" by looking for Clinton gossip as opposed to focus on substantive foreign policy issues. Conason writes:

But as Mr. Obama learned many months ago, our leading media minds tend to be far less interested in real ideas and policies than in a fixed narrative about personalities. So his decision to nominate primary rival Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, with all the friction that would supposedly generate, became the focus of the news. All his other appointees somehow had to be crammed into the same imaginary framework.
Conason also seems to have the same impression as I, that Obama grew very much more skeptical about the quality of our national press corps' work as the Presidential campaign went on.

Also, the "team of rivals" script has a bit of a problem in that it's not really a good description of Abraham Lincoln's Cabinet. He brought other Republicans into the Cabinet who largely shared his views of the most pressing issue of the day, the fact that his most serious rivals were getting up a civil war against the US government.

Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory links to several articles debunking various aspects of the notion of Lincoln's "team of rivals" in a memorable named post, The Use and Abuse of Popular History - Goodwin Style 11/21/08:

What’s So Special About a Team of Rivals? by James Oakes New York Times 11/19/08

Lincoln and the myth of 'Team of Rivals' by Matthew Pinsker New York Times 11/18/08

Seward, Clinton and the Team of Rivals by Brian Dirck, A. Lincoln Blog 11/19/08

Kevin writes:

We are being barraged by various commentators and so-called authorities who are either reflecting on or pushing Barack Obama to follow in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln in choosing a cabinet. Well, not quite. They are actually utilizing an interpretive theme that dominates Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling book, Team of Rivals, which argues that Lincoln intentionally chose cabinet members who would both reflect very different political positions and challenge his policies. Almost no one is questioning whether this accurately reflects Lincoln’s approach, whether it was unusual, or whether it makes any sense at all in comparing our own political climate and party organization with the 1860s. No doubt, the pervasiveness of this line of thought is in part the result of Obama’s own continual references to the sixteenth president as well as his best-known speeches.

... Goodwin’s book deserves to be treated as a study of Lincoln and the politics of the 1860s. The pervasiveness of recent commentary surrounding this theme of cabinet rivals, however, is more about what we want to see in the past and much of the country’s frustrations and anger over the past few years.
But, you know, it would be too much for our overpaid pundits to both to do a few minutes research to find out whether the "team of rivals" script makes any sense at all.

So, other than the fact that it's a concept that would sloppily derived in the first place and in any case doesn't actually apply to Obama's team, the "team of rivals" is a great metaphor!

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