A post I wrote for American Public Media’s “On Being”:
This spring I’m finally reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterful work, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It’s been instructive to read her historical account in the midst of this season of political folly — from Newt Gingrich’s rapid freefall to Rep. Weiner’s embarrassing Twitter pics to John Edwards’ alleged criminal cover-up. But of course when is politics not a display of the follies of men? And I mean “men” here: rare is the female politician caught with her pants down, lawyering up to combat sleaze or scandal.
Published in 2006, Goodwin’s book chronicles the lives of Lincoln and three of his famed political adversaries — accomplished men who later became trusted members of his cabinet and fiercely loyal friends. (The film rights were secured by Steven Spielberg years before the book was finished; Daniel Day-Lewis plays the title role next year).
In America’s popular and poorly exercised historical imagination, Abraham Lincoln is mostly a cardboard caricature, but in Goodwin’s narrative he emerges as a compelling, complex figure. Not really a surprise, I know, but the person and his politics — Lincoln’s private ambition and public comportment, his personal burdens and professional brilliance — are irresistibly rendered.
So it’s never helpful (or truthful) to characterize earlier eras like Lincoln’s as more respectable or dignified than our own, top hats and high collars notwithstanding. The historical record is clear that politics has always been cutthroat and politicians have always been capable of the worst of human behavior. Nor should we assume that Victorian prudishness about sex curtailed the exploitation of women as disposable objects for the amusement of powerful men. Prostitution abounded in Lincoln’s America.
But there is something about the inherent contradictions regarding sex in our own age that seems to contribute to a perpetually adolescent outlook on human relationships. Americans are famously puritanical in our views about sex yet perversely voyeuristic about the sex lives of the famous.
We complain when CNN spends hours of air-time covering Anthony Wiener’s underpants problem, but seasoned media researchers know that such stories are the bread-and-butter of higher ratings and revenues. We gripe, but we can’t turn away.
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