The Suburbanite
  • Put a little history under the tree

  • Apparently some viewers of the new Stephen Spielberg movie “Lincoln” have been stunned to see our revered 16th president portrayed as a ruthless political strategist and deal maker.

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  • Who’d have thunk it? Abraham Lincoln was a politician.
    Apparently some viewers of the new Stephen Spielberg movie “Lincoln” have been stunned to see our revered 16th president portrayed as a ruthless political strategist and deal maker.
    It’s absolutely true. And frankly, would you have wanted a political amateur steering the country through a civil war and beginning the process of emancipating more than four million Americans who were being held in bondage?
    I was bowled over by “Lincoln,” and last week, I emailed Bruce Kauffmann, who writes a syndicated column about history that The Rep and several other newspapers use, to ask if he had seen it. Not yet, he said, but added: “I am being deluged with emails from readers asking me how accurate it is — apparently Spielberg paints Lincoln as a politician, which seems to have shocked some of my readers, who have learned to their horror that Lincoln engaged in horse-trading, political favors, etc.
    “As you know,” Bruce wrote, “Spielberg based the book on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s ‘Team of Rivals,’ and Doris doesn’t shy from pointing out the many instances of that during Lincoln’s administration, in particular his wheeling and dealing to get the 13th Amendment passed.”
    Inquiring minds who want to know more about Lincoln, thanks to “Lincoln,” can’t do better than “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”
    The 2005 bestseller also topped the list when I asked around The Rep’s newsroom last week for holiday book giving ideas that I could share with you.
    “It was intriguing,” The Rep’s own historian, Gary Brown, wrote back, “to see how Lincoln was able to bring his political opponents to his side, then use his incredible leadership skills to keep men of large ego and strong ambition — but also great ability and influence — on track toward achieving the ultimate goal of preserving the Union. By doing so, he was able to earn the admiration of many of the men who had doubted him.”
    Our colleague Jim Hillibish said there are two reasons to read Goodwin’s book: “Marvel at the finest hours of our presidency and compare compromise politics then to the politics of today.”
    Here are other ideas for books that give a revealing look into our presidents and their times.
    In December, I’ll share some other gift ideas from The Rep’s newsroom, and we’re hoping you’ll tell us which books — and movies, and music — you’ll be giving or enjoying yourself this holiday season.
    I’ll start with my own Civil War journey, which includes looking for books that focus on a single year. So far, I’ve found three:
    Page 2 of 3 - • “1861: The Civil War Awakening,” by Adam Goodheart
    This wonderfully eclectic book sets the stage for the war by looking at what is happening in several parts of the country — from California, with its portrait of Jessie Fremont, the brilliant wife of adventurer-politician John Fremont, to Northeast Ohio, where Goodheart finds a true story about Salem’s abolitionists saving a runaway slave girl.
    • “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year,” by David Von Drehle
    Like the movie “Lincoln,” this month-by-month account of 1862 focuses on the president, recounting how his political and military decisions kept the Union and its fighting forces together through the darkest months of the war.
    • “April 1865: The Month That Saved America,” by Jay Winik
    This is the book that fueled my passion for the Civil War and Lincoln because it made me realize how little I knew. The decisions carried out by Lincoln, U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in April 1865 kept the Confederate army from devolving into guerrilla warfare and started the nation on the path to reconciliation. Like Von Drehle, Winik is a master storyteller.
    • “The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage,” by Daniel Mark Epstein
    Reading this, you feel as if you’ve gone behind closed doors, from the couple’s first meeting to their final hours. Mrs. Lincoln was as volatile as she has been portrayed; Epstein finds more conclusive evidence, for example, that she hit her husband in the face with a piece of firewood during one of her rages. She also was an astute political observer and as ambitious for him as he was for himself.
    Rep columnist Charita Goshay and I share a fascination with Teddy Roosevelt as well as Lincoln. Here’s a suggestion from each of us:
    • “Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner that Shocked a Nation,” by Deborah Davis
    The author looks at how a true friendship between two of the most influential Americans of the 1900s was undone by racism and politics, all because of a single dinner.
    • “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America,” by Timothy Egan
    In 1910, when a wildfire destroyed 3 million acres in Idaho, Montana and Washington and killed 87 people, America’s wilderness was thought of as “scenery.” This detailed account of the tragedy also is a political history of the U.S. Forest Service, which began as a dream of two rich kids and fast friends named Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.
    Finally, here are accounts of two more contemporary presidents:
    • “Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot,” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
    Though every American of a certain age is intimately familiar with the Kennedy assassination, O’Reilly and Dugard have ferreted out the kind of minuscule but fascinating details that makes the book worth your time.
    Page 3 of 3 - • “Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man,” by Garry Wills
    An oldie (1990) but a goodie, this meticulously researched biography fits Nixon into the political and cultural times in which he lived.

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