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abraham lincoln

27 february 2009

George McGovern is one of the few American political leaders to have earned a PhD (in history, from Northwestern University). American doctoral politicians are scattered across the spectrum of ideologies, from the new-left McGovern and the early progressive Woodrow Wilson to right-wing powerhouses Phil Gramm and Newt Gingrich. In writing the volume on Abraham Lincoln for the Times Books American Presidents series, McGovern shows scholarly training and a lucid prose style.

Abraham Lincoln is a very good book to pick up if it will be the first book on Lincoln you intend to read. If it will be the 15th or 20th, the only reason to read it would be a completist's itch. One has to admire McGovern, however, for writing a careful, learned, general introductory book about Lincoln. If there was ever a temptation to either phone in a bunch of standard stuff – or, alternatively, to pursue some quirky sidelight – it would be in the context of a commissioned series book on the best-known President. Some of the American Presidents series entries are quirky indeed. Though Abraham Lincoln is resolutely vanilla in its approach, it is a balanced, informative book: a achievement far harder than it seems.

As someone who rang doorbells and made phone calls for McGovern delegates as a high-school volunteer back in the salad days of '72, I was hoping to learn more about George than I would about Abe from this book. Lincoln is certainly in my pantheon, but McGovern is far more immediate for me, not demigod but human hero.

Well, what I learned is that McGovern deeply admires Lincoln, in an earnest way that links them as Midwestern populists and believers in small-d democracy. McGovern is not Abeolatrous, but he doesn't really think that Lincoln could do much wrong. McGovern follows Mark Neely's lead in attributing the greatest blot on Lincoln's escutcheon – the peremptory jailing of several domestic civilan opponents via the suspension of habeas corpus – to clear and present dangers. Here, McGovern is on solid ground. In waxing appreciative of Lincoln's youthful virtues, he gets a little more Carl-Sandburgy. But overall the treatment of Lincoln as both man and politician is so sound that one can forgive a touch of rhapsody.

No axes were ground in the making of George McGovern's Abraham Lincoln. I would recommend it to anyone starting to learn about the 16th President.

McGovern, George. Abraham Lincoln. New York: Times Books, 2008.