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Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin may have bead on future, not just past

By Carol Eisenberg

November 17, 2008 at 11:20am

Back in January, when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was still a long-shot for the Democratic nomination, CBS anchor Katie Couric asked him what books he would bring to the White House.

Without a moment’s pause, Obama replied: Team of Rivals, the 2005 bestseller by presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, which recounts how Abraham Lincoln selected some of his fiercest opponents as members of his cabinet.

“It’s a biography of Lincoln,” Obama said. “And she talks about Lincoln’s capacity to bring opponents of his and people who have run against him in his cabinet. And he was confident enough to be willing to have these dissenting voices and confident enough to listen to the American people and push them outside of their comfort zone.”

Obama’s words have sent Goodwin’s stock soaring. What more could a historian ask than to have a president-elect plug her work?

Since then, dozens of reporters have consulted Team of Rivals for insights into Obama’s thinking and what he may do next. And not a few have noted the historic parallels to the nation’s 16th president:

That as a relatively newcomer to Congress who had spent years in the Illinois state house, Lincoln, like Obama, was considered unseasoned at the time of his election.

That his chief rival for his party’s nomination was a better-known New York senator, William Seward, regarded as the leading contender for the nomination in 1860.

And that one of Lincoln’s first decisions was to tap Seward as secretary of state and another rival, Salmon Chase, as treasury secretary.

What all this means for how Obama conducts himself as president remains to be seen, but for Goodwin, the renewed interest has been a boon after some difficult years.

ABC News asked today whether the Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian might play a bigger role in filling out Obama’s cabinet than either Joe Biden or Bill Clinton.

And she is prominently featured in Newsweek’s cover story this week, entitled “Obama’s Lincoln.”

“Team of Rivals has become a term of art here,” says a senior Obama staffer, who refused to be identified discussing strategy.

For the historian whose reputation was pummeled six years ago after she was charged with using passages from other writers without crediting them, this has got to be a sweet moment.

The January 18, 2002 issue of The Weekly Standard had argued that her book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, used without attribution numerous phrases and sentences from three other books: Time to Remember, by Rose Kennedy; The Lost Prince, by Hank Searl; and Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times, by Lynne McTaggart.

Goodwin admitted then that she had previously reached a “private settlement” with McTaggart over the issue. Then, the Los Angeles Times demonstrated similar problems with Goodwin’s Franklin Roosevelt book, No Ordinary Time.

Goodwin blamed the copying on the longhand notes she had gathered over a series of years, saying she later confused what were her own words and those of some sources.

A group of historians headed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. attested to her integrity, acknowledging that she made mistakes, but saying they ”resulted from inadvertence, not intent.”

If her newfound popularity does nothing else, it will have completed her rehabilitation - and brought her full circle as a presidential confidante.

She first went to Washington in 1967 as a White House Fellow during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, working as his assistant. After Johnson left office, she helped him draft his memoirs, and later drew on their conversations for her first book, Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream.

Goodwin is married to the writer Richard N. Goodwin, who worked in both the Johnson and Kennedy administrations as an adviser and speechwriter.

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