George McGovern Takes On Honest Abe

Posted January 5, 2009 at 4:16pm

In George McGovern’s biography, “Abraham Lincoln,” the former presidential candidate offers a quick, thorough overview of Lincoln’s life but no glimpse of the unique perspective that led him to be chosen as its author.

Most authors in the American Presidents series, such as House Historian Robert Remini and University of Texas professor H.W. Brands, are not politicians but well-known historians. Series founder Arthur Schlesinger Jr. picked McGovern to write about Lincoln because of his broad political and military experience, as well as his academic credentials, according to promotional materials for the book.

In “Abraham Lincoln,” McGovern “draws on all those experiences to provide a rounded and insightful assessment of Lincoln’s presidency,” the press materials elaborated.

Yet readers will find little of McGovern the presidential candidate in this biography. He writes about the 16th president in a historian’s dry third-person voice. Undoubtedly, he understands better than most the emotions Lincoln went through at different points in his life. Like him, McGovern grew up in a rural Midwestern town to working-class parents. Both were known for their anti-war views in Congress: Lincoln opposed war in Mexico, while McGovern opposed it in Vietnam. Both were familiar with the heartache of major, definitive failure. Yet McGovern does not share those insights with the reader, keeping his story mostly impersonal.

What he does provide is a quick, thorough overview of Lincoln’s life. The American Presidents series, says the series Web site, aims to “present the grand panorama of our chief executives in volumes compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the scholar. Each volume will be an incisive, meditation-length biographical essay that focuses on the subject’s presidency, even as it offers a distillation of his life, character, and career.”

In his 155 pages of distillation, McGovern covers Lincoln’s growing-up years, his time in Congress and as a lawyer in Illinois, his election, the Civil War and his assassination. It does not dwell on his personal tragedies, such as the death of his son Willie, but it does go into depth on his military decisions during the war.

For example, he characterizes the Emancipation Proclamation not as an emotional appeal against slavery but as a strategic military decision that would allow escaped slaves to join the Union Army and simultaneously weaken the Confederate sources.

“Lincoln understood that any maneuver, including emancipation, that might hurt the enemy’s chance of success was a legitimate military action,” McGovern wrote. “And Lincoln knew that freedom would also provide the slaves themselves with an incentive to fight for the Union.”

To be sure, Lincoln was against slavery, but he saw it as his primary goal to keep the young nation united. When that failed, he focused on getting the union back together, a goal he achieved before his death in 1865.

McGovern concludes by applauding Lincoln’s character and his accomplishments.

“He was not perfect, but he was a good man, kind and honest, simple in his tastes, magnanimous in his feeling,” he wrote. “He won the war and then looked to welcome erring brothers back into the fold of America.”

McGovern must have aspired to the heights Lincoln reached; it would have been interesting to read about the ways he relates to the man who held the country together.