From NBC's Domenico Montanaro
"Team of Rivals" has become an overused cliché to describe President-elect Obama's cabinet picks, particularly that of Hillary Clinton. The conventional wisdom that seems to have settled in among the punditocracy is, "Well, if it worked for Lincoln…."
But little understood, and certainly little mentioned in on-air vamping, is that Lincoln's Team of Rivals -- which takes its name from the hailed Doris Kearns Goodwin book -- wasn't exactly harmonious. Lincoln had to use his tremendous interpersonal skills to manage a host of egos that hampered governance, particularly with regard to his ability to manage the Civil War.
It wasn't exactly "No Drama" -- the slogan Team Obama has avowed for almost two years.
"Tried by War" by Princeton historian James McPherson looks at Lincoln's time as Commander-in-Chief. Notably, Lincoln was the only president dealing with war (including planning for one) from the time he took office to the time he left / was assassinated. Largely overlooked by history is Lincoln in this role, McPherson notes.
Though he had little military experience, Lincoln was a student of military strategy and largely was a very effective Commander-in-Chief. He wrote (not re-wrote) the president's war powers, a term that didn't even exist before Lincoln. But Lincoln's time as Commander-in-Chief was not without its bumps in the road, largely because of borderline insubordination from this "Team of Rivals."
As Matthew Pinsker wrote in the Los Angeles Times Nov. 18th and written about Nov. 21 in the Boston Globe, only one of these rivals for the Republican nomination -- Secretary of State William Seward -- survived Lincoln's first term. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Attorney General Edward Bates all left early.
That Lincoln had to manage not only his rivals for the nomination, but also others who were certainly no loyalists, show the Team of Rivals strategy was a mixed bag. It did show, at least in one example, however, that if the right person is picked -- some combination of qualified and brutally honest -- it can work out. But it's far from a certainty.
The ineffectual Gen. George McClellan -- a West Point phenom, who at just age 34 commanded the Army of the Potomac -- went behind Lincoln's back, and, in letters to his wife, called the president things like a "baboon" and a "gorilla" while keeping secret his war plans. At one point, he whispered that he didn't want to say his plans aloud for fear Lincoln would leak them. The next day, McClellan himself laid out his plan in detail in the New York Herald.
Lincoln wound up replacing Cameron not long into his presidency -- in the early stages of Civil War. He had appointed Cameron -- fulfilling a campaign promise to do so -- apparently for political reasons. Lincoln had been "reluctant" to appoint him, particularly because of allegations of cronyism, favoritism and corruption that were attached to him. But Cameron delivered key Pennsylvania delegates on second ballot at the 1860 convention, helping Lincoln win the Republican presidential nomination.
Cameron proved not to be up to the task, was a poor administrator and handed over contracts without competitive bidding. Lincoln complained Cameron was "utterly ignorant," "seflish," "openly discourteous to the president" and "obnoxious to the country."
Now, interestingly, where the "Team of Rivals" strategy seemed to work was with regard to Lincoln's choice to replace Cameron -- Edwin M. Stanton. The capable leader was a Democrat, a confidante of McClellan's and one who openly expressed disdain for the administration in 1861. The description of Lincoln as the "original gorilla" came from Stanton and was picked up by McClellan. Lincoln, though, thought he was qualified and overlooked the past insults in order to clean up the Department of War.
Lincoln was able to channel Stanton's brusque nature. The 16th president, measured and standoffish by nature, played a kind of "Good Cop-Bad Cop" routine with those seeking favors at the White House, McPherson writes. Those favor-seekers were many in Lincoln's first two years. The president described the White House, in fact, as being overrun by them. Lincoln would often dispatch Stanton to turn them away, and they would often leave blaming Stanton, thereby preserving Lincoln's reputation.
Additionally, Stanton soured on McClellan after growing frustrated, as did Lincoln, with McClellan's cautiousness in commanding the Army of the Potomac. McClellan, by the way, had his own ambitions and ran as a Democrat against Lincoln in 1864. McClellan got swamped, however, losing (55%-45%, or 212 electoral votes to 21), winning just three states -- Kentucky, Delaware and New Jersey.
So, in the case of Stanton, the strategy appeared to work, but "Team of Rivals" can be a tenuous, difficult maneuver to pull off. It can be argued, in fact, that while it all worked out in the end, so to speak, Lincoln's "Team of Rivals" did little to help.