Two N.Y. Senators Who Didn’t Know What Hit Them

Hillary Rodham Clinton and William H. Seward–two U.S. Senators, two nominations that incredibly went to rivals not long removed from the Illinois state legislature. On the day Hillary is scheduled to concede to Barack Obama at noon, I am struck by this passage from Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin:

Several blocks away, Seward had finished reading the morning newspapers and was getting ready to go to the Capitol when a chorus of voices outside attracted his attention. Hundreds of devoted followers were assembled in front of his house. Moved by the spirit of the serenade, Seward spoke to them with emotion. “I have been a representative of my native state in the Senate for twelve years, and there is no living being who can look in my face and say that in all that time I have not done my duty toward all–the high and the low, the rich and the poor, the bond and the free.”

Perhaps this show of popular support softened the wrenching realization that his chance had come and gone. When a congressmen argued with him that a certain politician would be disappointed if he didn’t get an appointment in the new administration, Seward lost his composure: “Disappointment! You speak to me of disappointment. To me, who was justly entitled to the Republican nomination for the presidency, and who had to stand aside and see it given to a little Illinois lawyer!” (Locations 6701-5 in Kindle edition)

Well, neither Lincoln nor Obama fit the “little” part of that description. And, according to Kearns and the journalist Todd Purdhum, neither was/is as innocent of ambition and political calculation as many believe. Purdhum’s masterful Vanity Fair profile of Obama argued that what makes Barack a contender is “his mother’s daring, his grandmother’s grit, and his own relentless drive.”

Kearns says of Lincoln in her Introduction:

When viewed against the failed efforts of his rivals, it is clear that Lincoln won the nomination because he was shrewdest and canniest of them all. More accustomed to relying upon himself to shape events, he took the greatest control of the process leading up to the nomination, displaying a fierce ambtion, an exceptional political acumen, and a wide range of emotional strengths, forged in the crucible of personal hardship, that took his unsuspecting rivals by surprise.” (Locations 131-36 in Kindle edition)

I happened upon these passages in the Kearns book while thumbing through it the other day at the Harvard Coop. I took a course on the Presidency from her when she was a young star professor at Harvard, and I always love seeing her sad, wise face on the TV screen in her current incarnation as author/pundit. I am looking forward to reading the full book, which Obama has mentioned in talking about his Administration. I will not be surprised to see him assemble his own team of rivals at a perilous point in U.S. history, if he is given the chance.

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