Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Banality of "Teams of Rivals"

There's this excellent book by Dorris Kearns Goodwin, called Team of Rivals; The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It really is a fun book, and I warmly recommend. Barack Obama recommends it too, apparently, to the extent that much of the buzz these days, when the pundits know nothing and can merely speculate, is that it's going to serve as the template for the next administration.

It's a beguiling idea, and it's easy to see why everyone's so agog. The thesis is that Lincoln, one of America's two or three most important presidents ever, built his winning administration by collecting all of his major political rivals, the fellows who thought they were more worthy than him; this wasn't only an act of generosity, it was great politics, since his adversaries really were highly capable men, and so his administration was best structured to serve the needs of the country. Lincoln was so great, so intelligent, so wonderful, that he was able to pull it off.

You see where folks are going with this. Gotta keep that Obama-is-the-successor-of-Lincoln-and-also-the-best-ever thing going, even though the election has already been won, and the hard part hasn't started yet. (No, the politics of setting up an administration are not the hard part. That comes after the inauguration).

As I've said already, we all hope Obama really will prove to be all that great, or even only half that great. Irrespective of what any professor once wrote.

In the meantime, however, since we can't yet kvetch about the Obama administration, we can go back and look at the Team of Rivals thesis. Oops! Seems it isn't quite as immaculate as they told us!

By the way, seen from afar - and I'm quite afar - the entire discussion seems odd. Only an American public could see a stable of political rivals as an act of genius. Anyone who has ever lived in a parliamentary democracy, as most of the democratic world does, will tell you that something like approximately 100% of all coalitions ever created were made of teams of rivals. It's a lucky political leader who enjoys such stature that he (or she) can control the rivals. Most of the time, he can't.


john capistrano said...

Casey Stengel once said:
“The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.”
Might be true of a president as well.


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