ORONO, Maine — For Pulitzer Prize-winning author, historian and baseball fanatic Doris Kearns Goodwin, a great leader is someone who can put aside personal strife, make friends of enemies and work with rivals to improve the standing of others.
For Goodwin, no one embodied that better than U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln’s legacy was front and center as Goodwin delivered Wednesday night’s keynote speech at the Collins Center for the Arts during the University of Maine’s Leadership Week.
Goodwin’s speech was scheduled on the eve of the inauguration of Paul Ferguson, the 19th University of Maine president. That ceremony is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday in the Collins Center for the Arts.
Goodwin said she has spent her career “living with dead presidents.” She has written books following the triumphs and tribulations of presidents from Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy.
While she said she enjoyed living and breathing the pasts of these men while writing about them, Lincoln stands out among the leaders.
After Lincoln’s surprise victory in the 1860 presidential election, Lincoln filled his Cabinet with one-time adversaries. Some disagreed with him on most issues, some disliked him and others wanted his job for themselves.
When friends asked Lincoln why he did this, he responded: “It’s simple. The country is in peril. These are the strongest men in the country. I need them by my side,” Goodwin said.
Edwin Stanton, who eventually became Lincoln’s secretary of war, once called Lincoln a “damned, gawky, long-armed ape” when the two were practicing lawyers. When Lincoln won the presidency, Stanton took his job offer, but desired the presidency for himself, according to Goodwin.
Stanton soon became one of Lincoln’s closest advisers. During the Civil War, the two would wait in the telegraph office — grimly holding hands — for the day’s death tolls to come in.
After Lincoln’s assassination, Stanton famously uttered, “Now, he belongs to the ages.”
Lincoln appointed Edward Bates, another former adversary, as attorney general.
“[Bates] eventually concluded that [Lincoln] was as near perfect a man as he’d ever met,” Goodwin said.
By bringing adversarial viewpoints and personalities to the table for discussion, Lincoln opened the door to reasoned — though sometimes heated — debates. The willingness to be questioned and confronted and knowledge of his weaknesses was one of Lincoln’s strongest qualities, Goodwin argued.
Director Steven Spielberg is filming a movie titled “Lincoln” based on Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals,” which follows the relationship between Lincoln and his Cabinet.
In response to an audience member’s question of whether the political scene is more dysfunctional now than it was in the 1850s and 1860s, Goodwin said things are actually more civil now. Before the Civil War broke out, lawmakers often brought guns with them to chambers or assaulted one another with canes.
However, “the corruption of the money in politics has got to be stopped,” Goodwin said, drawing applause from the audience.
She said the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has pumped more funding into already expensive campaign efforts. She argued that politicians are so busy raising funds so they can run for another term that they don’t have time to form friendships across the political aisle or focus on policy.
“The citizens know it’s wrong,” Goodwin said. “We all hate it, but haven’t done anything about it.”
Good leadership and the voice of the public can turn things around, she argued.
“We’re never down and out in this country.”