- - Wednesday, November 1, 2017


By Sidney Blumenthal

Simon & Schuster, $35, 581 pages

Some books are worth reading because of their author, others because of their subject. The second volume of Sidney Blumenthal’s massive — and occasionally bloated — political life of Abraham Lincoln falls into the latter category.

Lincoln’s unique place in our history and his complexity as a driven, tragic-heroic figure make him a source of endless fascination. A century and a half after his death, he also remains the ultimate embodiment of that cherished American ideal, the self-made man.

With a subject as intriguing, significant and sympathetic as Abraham Lincoln, one is willing to put up with the author’s vacuum cleaner approach to history, sucking up mounds of profound and trivial facts and dumping them, unfiltered, into the reader’s lap. For pages at a time, some chapters read like lengthy quotes from the Congressional Record strung together by the author’s paraphrases of the same floor debates.

Nor does Mr. Blumenthal’s over-reaching prose style, often florid and repetitive, help matters. Not that we aren’t warned. The first page of his prologue includes a characteristic sentence that could have been written as ad copy for that 2012 cinematic masterpiece, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”: “Premonitions of civil war, shattering deaths, fatal compromises, crushing defeats, corrupt bargains, brazen betrayals, and reckless ambition joined in a pandemonium of political bedlam.”


This second volume of Mr. Blumenthal’s life of Lincoln is almost 600 pages long but only covers eight years of his subject’s life (1849 to 1856). At this rate, by the time John Wilkes Booth brings down the curtain, Sidney Blumenthal may have retired Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert A. Caro’s trophy for the longest-winded, multi-volume presidential biography ever aimed at the general reading public. Relative merits of the two authors aside, it would be nice to see Lincoln, a much more admirable man in every respect, edge out LBJ as a subject.

Credit where it is due: Mr. Blumenthal, a longtime consigliere of Bill and Hillary Clinton, has had considerable first-hand experience dealing with “fatal compromises, crushing defeats, corrupt bargains, brazen betrayals, and reckless ambition.” And, at the end of the day, the story he retells in occasionally excruciating detail is important, moving and timely.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, America was undergoing massive, tumultuous change. Our politics — politics nearly always being a lagging rather than predictive indicator of societal change — was in a state of perpetual turbulence and confusion. Perhaps inevitably, this meant that a political opportunist like Stephen A. Douglas, who sprinkled his speeches with the “N” word while playing off Southern militants against fanatic Northern abolitionists, would enjoy an initial advantage over a politically savvy but morally principled outsider like Abraham Lincoln.

A few years after the period covered in this volume, in the Lincoln Douglas Debate in Alton, Ill., Lincoln would provide an enlightened contrast, going back to the first principles that launched the American experiment and predated the Constitution:

“[The signers of the Declaration of Independence] intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say that all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal — equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. … They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and values of all life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.”

True then and true now.

To his credit, Mr. Blumenthal is never entirely swamped by his own narrative details. There is nothing new about the Lincoln who emerges from his pages, but for readers unfamiliar with his life and times, this cumbersome, imperfect book does serve as a thorough introduction. By volume’s end, Lincoln, tempered by defeat and reconciled to the fact that the Whig Party he had built his political career around was dead, is about to begin a new career as a major player in a new movement: the Republican Party.

While he may never have dreamed of what lay before him at this pivotal moment, it was eerily foreshadowed in a speech Lincoln delivered as a political novice in 1838: “Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.”

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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