After thousands of biographies and countless films on Abraham Lincoln, the fascination and mystique surrounding the 16th president continues to thrive, as indicated by this weekend’s box office premiere of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sally Field.
So where did Spielberg find his inspiration in delivering a more vulnerable, humanized Lincoln? His Oscar-palatable film is based on American presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln—a decade’s long odyssey in the making.
Goodwin took time out to answer some of our questions about Honest Abe, her surprising discoveries about his character, and what she thought of Daniel Day-Lewis being cast as the president in Spielberg’s new film.
Lincoln is one of the most written about figures in this country’s history, let alone the history of the presidency. What sets this biography apart from all the others that have come before it?
This book places him in the center of his extraordinary team of rivals, each of whom thought they should have been president instead of Lincoln when his term began. But by the end, he had mastered them all.
What surprised you most as you conducted your research?
The vitality of the man, the magnetism of his personality, and his life-affirming sense of humor was much greater than I had realized. His face seemed so sorrowful in all his pictures that I was delighted to find that he possessed a marvelous sense of humor, a great ability to tell stories. I did not imagine how much fun it would be to live with him day by day. Indeed, he was the one time and again who sustained the spirits of his colleagues during the darkest days of the war.
How would Lincoln do in today’s time?
I have to believe that even in today’s political system Lincoln would survive. Perhaps the beard would have to go (and indeed he looked much sexier without it), but his sense of humor would rival that of (late night television hosts) Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, his debating skills would be unparalleled, his communication abilities beyond match. The hat would have to go too of course, which might present problems for him since he kept his notes for speeches in the inside brim!
Watch a short clip of Lincoln’s call to leadership: When you were in the very early stages of working on 'Team of Rivals,' director Steven Spielberg expressed interest in making a movie about Lincoln. How did it come about that his movie was based in part on your book?
I first met Steven Spielberg at a historians’ luncheon in New York City when he was making the documentary The Unfinished Journey. I sent him some thoughts on it and he invited me to come see him. It was then I told him about my research for this book and we shook hands in agreement that he would get the first look at it. I was only in the early stages of writing then, but he optioned it and eventually brought Tony Kushner on to write the script based upon it.
How did you feel when you first saw the Academy Award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis bring Lincoln to life on the big screen?
It was thrilling. Even now I miss working on the book and thinking about him, which is why it is so exciting to see him come alive again in this movie. Daniel Day-Lewis perfectly and uncannily embodies Lincoln – from the way he looks to his mannerisms, voice, speech and conviction.
How would you summarize Lincoln’s political genius?
His political genius was rooted in his remarkable array of emotional strengths, which enabled him to form friendships with rivals who had previously disdained him, to put past grudges aside, to assume responsibility for the failure of subordinates, to share credit with ease and to learn from mistakes.
What would you hope readers would get from this book?
I would like people to realize that in the hands of a truly great politician the qualities we normally associate with decency and morality—honesty, sensitivity, compassion and empathy—can also be great political resources.
Watch the official ‘Lincoln’ movie trailer: