The gist of Doris Kearns Goodwins' new history, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, is that our 16th president's success was not the result of lucky timing, his melancholic empathy, or an unhappy home life. Instead, she highlights Lincoln's persistent efforts to impress and eventually master all those men he needed to support his cause. For the most part these were men who were more famous, esteemed, and educated than Lincoln--but they never matched his political cleverness.
Lincoln was also ambitious--running (and losing) his first campaign for state legislature at the age of 23. In speeches he was concise, in appearance he was awkward, and in depressive moments he was remote, but in seeking support for his political ambitions, and those of his friends, Lincoln never lacked action and energy. In an age where self-promotional campaigning was unknown, Lincoln sought support through private channels and ensuring that his speeches were printed and circulated in newspapers and pamphlets. Goodwin, like other biographers, quotes his many letters to influential politicians and friends. Here is what he wrote to a potential supporter before his first congressional campaign in 1843. "Now if you should hear any one say that Lincoln don't want to go to Congress, tell him... ...he is mistaken."
History books tend to portray Lincoln as an inevitable 19th century political icon--the self-made, log cabin-born president. They neglect the fact that Lincoln was a political fighter--a ferocious party man who knew just which levers he had to pull to advance his chances for higher office. If Lincoln ran a political campaign in 2006, I think we would do well. He was just that smart about politics.