Team of Rivals

I’ll admit it, one reason why I’m reading Team of Rivals is because Barack Obama read it. What can I say? I love Barack. I’d marry him if I could. Sorry, Michelle, but you’re probably used to it, right?

A year ago my friend had seen the tome on my bookcase, and asked me if I liked it, and I had to admit the thought of reading it hadn’t crossed my mind. My father had dropped the book off at my house, thinking my son might like it, but it remained on the shelf collecting dust. When I saw CNN use the caption, ‘team of rivals’ to describe Barack Obama’s emerging cabinet, I figured I’d bite the bullet. I had to find out why this particular history book appealed to Obama.

After fifty pages into the story of Abraham Lincoln and the four other politicians who were his rivals I thought, wait a minute, are you really going to finish this thing? I mean, it’s straight history, over 900 pages, and you don’t read history. It’s a subject that tends to repeat itself, you know?

But Doris Kearns Goodwin, who won a Pulitzer Prize for this volume, has compiled a compelling story of these five men, their friends and their wives during the years leading up to Lincoln’s presidency. Yes, I’ve found many similarities between Obama’s campaign for president and Lincoln’s, and I’m learning about the benefits of keeping friends close and enemies, or rivals, closer, but what interests me the most are the letters Kearns Goodwin uses to illustrate the relationships between the characters, and to reveal the social mores of the time.

Some of you might know about Lincoln’s relationship with hottie Joshua Speed, a wealthy young man who befriended a penniless Lincoln in the beginning of his career in Springfield Illinois. The two shared the same bed for four years, sleeping in Jacob’s room above his place of business.

The words they and many other men used to describe their longing for each other when apart sound like the most of torrid love letters. And it seems that this type of close bond between men was very common. Kearns Goodwin says there is no evidence to suggest that these relationships were sexual, that it was a sanctioned form of pair bonding for educated men, who developed strong ties of romantic love without the ensuing touch twenty-first century inhabitants enjoy or practice.

It’s hard to say what the truth about those relationships really was. Are humans so different now than we were 150 years ago? I prefer to think that people back then expressed love in a variety of ways, with the person who happened to be nearby, much as we do today. I know my opinion isn’t based on fact, but then I also know I’d make a terrible historian.