Four books are on the indispensable list as Christmas nears. Three deal with the war in all of its many complicated dimensions: Robert Kaplan's Imperial Grunts; Mark Steyn’s America Alone, and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower.
The fourth is an extended review of presidential leadership in a time of terrible suffering and mortal threat: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln barely won the Republican nomination in 1860, barely won the presidency, suffered a near total defeat in the elections of 1862, and presided over a Civil War that claimed the lives of 600,000 men out of a population of approximately 40 million, while leaving another 2 million wounded and large swathes of the country devastated. Copperheads openly demanded peace, and as the war dragged on, millions in the north began to wonder whether the country was worth the cost in carnage. General after general disappointed him, some turned against him publicly, and one –McClellan—ran against him in 1864.
Lincoln was attacked by press and political foe with a fury that had no precedent and which has had no sequel.
Yet Lincoln persevered, and today books like Kearns-Goodwin’s chart his genius and his character, and fly off the shelves by the millions.
Two modern presidents have faced fury in the press because of stalled wars. Truman, of course, looks pretty good fifty years after leaving office, but the country never generally advocated quitting in Korea: The voters wanted to win.
LBJ was broken because the country did indeed want out of Vietnam. Unlike Korea, we had not been attacked. Unlike today, it was difficult to perceive a threat to the United States worth the cost of so many young lives.
In yesterday’s press conference, a reporter rather stupidly asked the president if he felt the pain of the loss of American lives: