David's Reviews > Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln by George S. McGovern
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May 28, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: prezzes
Read in May, 2010

Once upon a time, while driving to Chicago to meet some Goodreaders in the real-life, honest-to-goodness, corporeal flesh for the very first time, I happened upon Diane Rehm's interview with George McGovern on NPR (regarding this, his slender biography of Abraham Lincoln). As you might well imagine, any exchange of ideas between Rehm and octogenarian McGovern was destined for the lowest form of comedy -- not with respect to the content, of course, but in that the encounter sounded roughly like Jimmy Stewart (of the canine poetry writing era) being questioned by the Crypt Keeper's bride. Had the pacing of their speech been accelerated to normal levels and the haltingness been goosed into urgency, the half-hour interview may have lasted all of four-and-a-half minutes. But on the bright side, it was a dialogue invested with... ... ... suspense. (Would Rehm, in other words, ever arrive at the end of her sentence, or would her participial phrase drift off into the infinite wilderness of nothingness?)

That's awfully mean-spirited, I know, especially considering that McGovern is old and Rehm has some kind of 'problem,' but please trust that my meanness is considerably less mean than it appears in your rear-view mirror. Why? Because it is couched in the warmest of affection. After all, McGovern is and was a die-hard lefty (after my own heart), and Rehm reminds me of my grandmother. Not that either of my grandmothers spoke like that (or were as liberal as Rehm, to be sure), but Rehm is the idealized, hypothetical third grandmother, tossing softball, mutual-admiration-society questions to her like-minded libby guests. (Question: Why didn't my grandmother have a radio show? Answer: She was too busy making kifli.)

Have I digressed far enough? Is it time to reel this baby back in?

The point is that hearing this interview made me want to read McGovern's book, so I stored it away in my mental filing system -- which is already hopelessly cluttered with porn site passwords and Brady Bunch trivia -- and I finally retrieved it now that I am embarking upon my American presidents reading project.

This is the second book in that project (the first being Roy Jenkins' execrable Franklin Delano Roosevelt from the same New York Times-published presidential biography series as this one), and it is a dramatic improvement in writing ability. I know that some will accuse McGovern of being a tad too worshipful, but this is a mistake. Abraham Lincoln, despite his faults, is the very best that the executive branch of the U.S. government could ever hope for, and McGovern does not let Lincoln completely off the hook. He certainly addresses (and problematizes) Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, his censorship of the press, and his exceptional use of wartime powers, but this does little to diminish the overall portrait of Lincoln, a man whose perseverance, intellect, and (yes) wisdom ensured that the U.S. would survive its most difficult challenge thus far (and, it is hoped, for all time).

All in all, McGovern's style is generally elegant and very approachable for a general readership. Meanwhile, I desperately want to bitch-slap those GR reviewers who (idiotically) criticize these Times presidential series books because of their brevity and their alleged superficiality. Any halfway intelligent person who picks up a hundred-fifty-page book on Lincoln will understand that it is intended to be a brief overview, addressing the highlights (and lowlights) of the presidency, and not a thorough-going treatment of the man and his times. Consider these books a sample, or a tasting -- designed either to lure you into reading more (McGovern suggests several other in-depth books, including Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin) or into concluding that you know enough, or as much as you want to.

This book, I must confess, refortified my admittedly problematic contempt of the American South. I am not sure how there is any defensible rationale for 'celebrating' the Confederate legacy, as so many southerners still, even to this 'enlightened' day, believe is appropriate. They attempt to obscure the essential meaning of the war by clutching for slogans, flimsy rationalizations, and other red herrings. How about the 'War of Northern Aggression,' for example? Or a mitigated defense of the Confederate South on the basis that the Civil War was a (continuing) struggle for states rights and an attack on the Southern way of life? Yes, but the states right in question, let's never forget, was the right to maintain the legality of slavery (which was not even threatened at the time). And also... on the basis of a disagreement with the federal government, the South decided to divorce itself from the offending government -- not a terribly smart precedent to set for its own fledgling Southern 'government.' What basis is there for any government of any kind when the dissenters are free to fragment and to revolt at any cause? In short, the South favored backwoods regionalism and a repudiation of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence to a unified, stable, federal maintenance of law, order, and civil rights. That doesn't win the South any points on my scorecard, any way you skew the numbers. Anyway, we all know that states rights are often just a legal smokescreen for backwards states to curtail civil rights. To anyone who cites gay marriage as a counterpoint (i.e., some states are using states rights progressively, to allow gay marriage in advance of the consensus of public opinion), I would still argue, holding fast to my embarrassing idealism, that the spirit of this nation and its founding promises equal rights to everyone, even the smallest minority, so therefore the federal government should maintain and enforce these rights -- even against the mob's opinion -- and kick the ass, proverbially, of any state which drags its feet and presumes to ensconce its regional, folksy bigotry as a higher value than our rights as Americans, or what should be our rights anyway.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 53) (53 new)

message 1: by Ben (new)

Ben I just don't understand why they haven't forced Rehm to retire. She makes me change the station everytime.

David Benji, you insensitive bigot.

It's more fun to let her stay on and giggle about her.

message 3: by Michelle (new)

Michelle David does an awesome Diane Rehm impersonation.

David It's one of my two talents. The other is reaching things on the top shelf.

message 5: by Ben (last edited May 28, 2010 07:17AM) (new)

Ben When we call him in a few weeks, I'll make him do it. David, I hope you review a Jefferson book soon.

message 6: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Hey, I needed that Shrigley book!

Ben, we will call David fo' sho'. (I want him to read Taft.)

message 7: by Ben (last edited May 28, 2010 07:20AM) (new)

Ben Maybe if he reviews a Reagan book, it'll cause brian to reappear. (One can hope.)

message 8: by RandomAnthony (new)

RandomAnthony As a middle schooler in Chicago we had to visit Springfield, Illinois on a field trip and see Lincoln's tomb.

Don't go to Springfield. It's boring as hell.

I've also heard David mock NPR's Michele Norris very well.

David Don't you mean MEEEEEEEEEE-chele Norris?

message 10: by Michelle (last edited May 28, 2010 01:03PM) (new)

Michelle Oh, man. My parents call me 'Meechelle.'

(David, are you taking requests for presidents? I think you should read Taft and Theodore Roosevelt.)

David Why would I need to take requests? I'm reading a book about 'em all. I already own six books waiting in the wings, so right now I'm 'booked' for a while.

message 12: by Ben (last edited May 28, 2010 07:41AM) (new)

Ben I'd ask "Which six?" but I'd rather them be a surprise. Yes, I was that kid that actually didn't try to find his Christmas presents early.

message 13: by Michelle (new)

Michelle I'm afraid you'll run out of steam before you get through all the presidents. Sorry. I should have more faith in you.

message 14: by Jen (new)

Jen I'll ask. Which six? I was the kid who hunted down my hidden presents, measured them, shook them, and kept a detailed log on them.

message 15: by Jen (new)

Jen And I'm not voting for this yet because I haven't read it all the way through. Not that you would ask why I haven't voted or anything.

David No, I'm sorry. I can't say. Once I declare my specific reading intentions, I never get around to completing them. (Note that I don't have a 'to-read' shelf.)

No, Michelle, you shouldn't have more faith in me. I will run out of steam. You're right.

message 17: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Actually, you were supposed to say 'You just wait and see, bitch! I'll get through them all, even George W. Bush.' You know...like when your friends told you that you'd never quit smoking and you did.

message 18: by Ben (last edited May 28, 2010 08:12AM) (new)

Ben And he did that shit Cold Fucking Turkey if I remember correctly. I was only smoking 5 cigs a day and I still had to work my way down and use the gum.

BUT! I think he's right about not finishing all the presidents -- remember The (half) Year of American Classics?

message 19: by Jen (new)

Jen I had to try.

message 20: by Ben (last edited May 28, 2010 08:15AM) (new)


And you better not take it easy on Carter, David. He was awful.

message 21: by David (last edited May 28, 2010 08:23AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

David Shut up about Carter, Benji. He was awesome (to a limited extent). He was finally able to strongarm Egypt and Israel into a peace agreement, making Egypt the first Arab nation to fully recognize the legitimacy of the nation of Israel and thereby setting a precendent which Jordan (a weaker Arab nation) could then follow, and since his presidency, he's grown into an effective statesman and an eloquent advocate for peace.

message 22: by Ben (last edited May 28, 2010 08:26AM) (new)

Ben He's been a great post-president, yes, but give me a break about his actual presidency. "Awesome" is far from how I'd categorize it, but I'm not getting into it...

message 23: by Ben (new)

Ben OMG, I just felt like Stephen.. Okay, when I have time I'll post explaining why I think Carter sucked.

message 24: by David (last edited May 28, 2010 08:31AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

David You look a little like Stephen too, Benji.

I'm not saying Carter was a great president, but he did accomplish some great things that tend to get overlooked in the rush to dismiss him. I've always found it more than a little disturbing that the right has been reasonably more successful in its (limited) attempts to rehabilitate Nixon than the left has been with Carter. And Nixon was basically Satan.

message 25: by Ben (last edited May 28, 2010 08:32AM) (new)

Ben You look a little like Stephen too, Benji.

I know a compliment when I hear one...never have I felt so godamn sexy. I'm almost tempted to take an extra long lunch break just so I can..... admire myself.

message 26: by Ben (last edited May 28, 2010 08:33AM) (new)

Ben (And Nixon was worse than Carter.)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Ben wrote: "JEFFERSON..JEFFERSON...JEFFERSON."

Agreed. Jefferson rulez. Guy was a classic polymath.

message 28: by David (last edited May 28, 2010 09:41AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

David Jefferson favored states rights, so I am ideologically prejudiced against him already. But he will be addressed in good time.

message 29: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited May 28, 2010 09:46AM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio On the plus side: he had a great understanding of how to keep plutocracy via corporatism at bay and how important it is to do so.

"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

And the broadness of his intellectual interests and accomplishments is pretty interesting and impressive, I think.

David Oh, I'm sure he's a very interesting man, and I look forward to reading about him. Actually, I look forward to reading about all of them -- including or even especially about the forgotten ones or failures, like Harding, Coolidge, Arthur, Pierce, Buchanan, Taft, and Hoover. (I'll leave it to your imaginations which I intended as forgotten ones and which I intended as failures.)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I'm curious about the many forgotten prezzes, too. Good luck on this themed journey. I look forward to reading about it.

message 32: by Weinz (new)

Weinz My house is named "The Millard Fillmore". Let me know when you get to him.

David Oh, yes! Fillmore! One of the most forgotten presidents of all... so forgettable that I forgot to properly forget him.

message 34: by Weinz (new)

Weinz and I HATE hearing "MEEEEEEEEEEchelle Noris"

message 35: by Esteban (new) - added it

Esteban del Mal DK wrote: "Jefferson favored states rights, so I am ideologically prejudiced against him already. But he will be addressed in good time."

But you're still happy that Hamilton never made it to the big leagues, right? And that Taft was so fat he got stuck in the White House bathtub?

message 36: by karen (new)

karen it's an allright review, but franklin pierce is still better, FRANKLY.

some guy came in yesterday for the one i read. and i had to tell him we didn't have it in stock because i had bought it, and no one felt it needed to be reordered because they all subscribe to your presidential ranking propaganda.

David Actually, Brian, that combined Taylor/Fillmore book you linked is from a different series (the American Presidency series as opposed to the American Presidents series), but Fillmore actually fares worse in this series because Zachary Taylor gets his own book (written by Dwight D. Eisenhower's son) and Millard Fillmore gets nothin'... except shafted. But it should be noted that the series isn't complete yet, and George H.W. Bush has a book, but Reagan (interestingly enough) does not.

David brissy, your fixation with this utterly marginal president (Franklin Pierce) is bizarre and inscrutable. Are drunkenness and (alleged) good looks all it takes to woo you historically?

message 39: by karen (new)

karen i have told you my reasons for championing f.p., and they have nothing to do with looks or liquor.

but i stick to my guns. i, too, quit smoking cold turkey. after 17 years. (except that time with you in the doorway)with my dying breath, i will gasp, "ouch, an egg"

message 40: by [deleted user] (new)

Jimmy Carter, like Dixie Carter, is (/was, in her case) one of those people that make me happy when I see them (and hear them talk.) I know only the most well-known stuff about him, but dang if he isn't cute as heck.

David I just learned that Jimmy Carter is (gulp) 85 years old.

I can't tell you how old that makes me feel.

Jackie "the Librarian" I'm very fond of James Madison, myself.

I did a report on Millard Fillmore in junior high. It was a very short report. All I can remember is he was the 13th president. I did Martin Van Buren, too. How did I get stuck with such lame presidents? Sheesh?

message 43: by Jen (new)

Jen I am not going to argue about your opinions about the South- I understand those...but do you think that centralized governmental decisions should always win out over the rights of states?

David but do you think that centralized governmental decisions should always win out over the rights of states?

No. Not always.

But ALWAYS where civil rights are concerned.

message 45: by Jen (last edited Jun 07, 2010 02:01PM) (new)

Jen My man and I discussed this while driving through Mississippi and Alabama last week...your review is what started it, so I guess I should thank you for keeping us awake (I know I can't thank Mississippi, as they had only two Starbucks along the whole interstate).

But some states, I think, beat the federal government in granting those civil rights? Am I wrong?

message 46: by Jen (new)

Jen I do think that the South wasn't really fighting for states' rights...they were fighting because they lost the election. But it is an interesting thing to note that state laws usually push the federal government to act and not the other way around....marijuana, gay marriage...

message 47: by David (last edited Jun 07, 2010 02:15PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

David But some states, I think, beat the federal government in giving those civil rights? Am I wrong?

You're not wrong at all. I am arguing an idealistic 'should be' point of view, and you are speaking pragmatically. I think the federal government should be more aggressive/progressive in ensuring the civil rights of everyone (pie in the sky, right?). I don't think it's the business of a state or region to allow or disallow rights that should be guaranteed constitutionally. I realize this seems like a hopelessly hypothetical position, but we can't really work toward anything (i.e., improving the system) if we don't understand and articulate what the nth degree ideal is.

I do believe it's highly offensive that in California the populace was allowed to vote on whether gay marriage should be legal. This is mob rule at its worst. Is a minority group supposed to be subject to the prevailing attitudes of the majority? It's frankly disgusting. If the people voted to extend this right, we'd likely say, 'Well, see? States rights are ensuring that there are at least some pockets of tolerance rather than none at all.' This would be a very pragmatic result, I guess, but on what basis? If we sanction a referendum for what is essentially a civil rights issue simply because it yields the result we want under a given circumstance, then we sanction it under any and all circumstances. The 'people' are sadly not qualified to make decisions on constitutional matters. This is a republic, with a representative government, beholden to a constitution and the rule of law; therefore, we cannot trust the masses with civil rights issues because the majority often votes within its own narrow interests. I believe it is completely contrary to the spirit of America. This is not to suggest that our elected representatives and appointed judges are infallible (hardly!), but one hopes that they are less capricious and more attentive to principles which govern our democracy -- by whatever small measure.

message 48: by Jen (new)

Jen Now I am properly confused. My response is scattered a million directions...I hope you can follow the fracturedness of it below

If you stop and think about not trusting the masses, that sounds authoritarian and maybe even a mite elitist? For the people is not by the people; by the people and for the people is an entirely different thing...even the worst monarchies and dictatorships have believed to be operating on this "for the people/motherland" concept.

You wrote "This is a republic, therefore we cannot trust the masses..." the second clause has nothing to do with the first, right? If so, how does the second logically follow?

I'm not sure that marriage is even considered a federal right- not even voting is a federal right- in that I believe the ammendment says something about "qualified citizens to vote," leaving the decision to the states...and there are some states that do not allow felons the right to vote, whether or not they are 18 years of age. Issues like this, voting, marriage- they may be unfair but it is perhaps a mistake to think that everything that should be fair is a civil right. Unfortunately, unfair does not mean unconstitutional.

I live in the south; it is primitive to me. Sometimes its people are primitive to me. Hell, I seem like an elitist to them, probably, but I have to allow that, in general, they are smart enough to know local matters. To let an increasingly detached governing body decide the way they should conduct themselves on a local level makes less sense to me- a little bit like deciding how people should live in Iraq, even- the military going over to other countries and saying that they need democracy here and then applying it by force, when perhaps what they needed was not our democracy but their own concept of it, a tribal...well, nevermind. That gets thorny.

I suppose what I mean to say is that until something is written down, it is irrelevant. And that sometimes its own narrow interests are the best thing for that group of people. That is why there is local government. If there is no power of the people, if all power is given over to a centralized force without even the citizens' bad decisions influencing the way they live I can't see things being any better than they are. And, if what one hopes is wrong, or beyond that, if the centralized government is not only incompetent but also malicious? What then?

I bet I do not make sense. It is perhaps a good thing that I can only vote a few times a year, unlike people of other nations, who vote more often about everything (Is it Sweden who does this? Or Iceland? I forget). I apologize for my ramblings. Maybe I will save this comment and work through these things on my next long and torturous road trip through Alabama and Mississippi (without the benefit of even a mocha).

message 49: by David (last edited Jun 07, 2010 08:01PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

David I couldn't disagree more with almost everything you've said above, but unfortunately I'm too tired right to formulate a reasonably intelligible response. But I must respond to where you misquoted me:

You wrote "This is a republic, therefore we cannot trust the masses..."

I see that you added an ellipsis to indicate a missing element, but that missing element is very important. "Therefore, we cannot trust the masses with civil rights." Civil rights need to be ensured first (in an ideal situation). Then democracy can follow.

But when I say 'we cannot trust the masses,' I mean that we cannot trust the masses with direct democracy -- i.e., the responsibility to make legislative and judicial decisions. We elect representatives who are (theoretically) better qualified to make such decisions (at least in that this is their 'career' and they can devote more time to it) or, in turn, to appoint qualified judges.

Direct democracy would be hell on earth. If that sounds elitist, it should. Mob mentality is frightening and generally subject to the lowest common denominator.

Iraq is not analogous. It is a separate distinct nation. The south, for example, is part of the union, the United States of America. It seems more than a little unfair to compare an equalizing federal government (elected by the whole nation or appointed by the elected representatives of that nation) to the invasion of another distinct country. Again, the 'detached' federal government isn't this insidious completely external force that materializes out of nowhere and oppresses its people; it is elected by us (or appointed by those we elect). It is not unconnected to us at the state, regional, and city level.

To let an increasingly detached governing body decide the way they should conduct themselves on a local level makes less sense to me.

I think states should be able to do whatever they want (within legal boundaries) so long as it isn't discriminatory. But often I find that states' rights have been a neat little smokescreen for institutionalized discrimination or civil rights abuses (slavery, segregation, and the south's general recalcitrance relating to the rights of African-Americans in the mid-twentieth century). You can't authorize abuses of this kind by alluding to community or regional standards, customs, or prevailing attitudes.

Issues like this, voting, marriage- they may be unfair but it is perhaps a mistake to think that everything that should be fair is a civil right.

This sentence -- I'm sorry to say -- is abhorrent to me. Civil rights should be (or should strive to be) fair within one nation. That's why we're a nation, I believe, founded upon common, essential principles and not fifty distinct nations. This isn't a cooperation treaty; it's a national union.

I guess this is why I am an passionate supporter of and donor to the ACLU. Civil rights first -- and then, only after that, regional autonomy so long as it is constitutional. Again, I am being idealistic here. The American public is far too narrow-minded, culturally conservative, and self-interested to embrace my ideal, but it still perplexes me how others can rationalize this brand of state-by-state discrimination. Take Arizona, for example. Please.

message 50: by David (last edited Jun 07, 2010 08:16PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

David I still disagree, but I'm too tired to rebut... Gotta go to bed.

But I must remind you that you guys are speaking pragmatically about the way things actually are. I am speaking about an ideal. No, the federal government will not be proactive in ensuring individuals' rights. Absolutely not. But this in itself does not intellectually justify states' refusals to ensure these rights either.

And I do think the issue is very chicken-and-the-egg. It's the very assertion of states' rights that often prevents the federal government from being more assertive (i.e., from 'stepping on the toes' of the supposed state prerogative).

In short, I am talking about a from-the-ground-up dream of the nation I would like to live in. It won't happen. Ever. I know that. I am mostly disgusted by this nation (and remain very Nietzschean in my orientation); and I am not disgusted relatively (imagining that American pales in comparison to other superior forms of government), but absolutely. The glass is half-empty, but objectively so. ; )

I am stubbornly idealistic and don't cave in to practical realities. I consider this both a profound asset and an incalculable liability.

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