If there was ever any doubt in your mind that Abraham Lincoln was the greatest of American presidents I suggest you read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “Team of Rivals.” There are lessons in there for all us, especially public relations professionals.
This wonderful and engaging work draws a compelling picture of a brilliant leader who understood human nature better than most of his contemporaries. Embattled within his own Cabinet, strongly challenged by various factions within his own political party and, of course, attacked by secessionists, Lincoln relied on his empathetic and magnanimous nature time and again to make the right decisions.
At his second inaugural, he said this: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
He made that statement, remember, when many folks in the North were calling for severe punishment of the South once the Civil War ended.
Lincoln’s ability to understand human nature, to recognize and honor the perspectives of those who opposed him made him an uncommon statesman. His assassination by John Wilkes Booth, while celebrated by some in the South, was likely the worst thing to happen to southern states that would have benefited in Reconstruction from Lincoln’s magnanimity.
“(Lincoln) possessed extraordinary empathy—the gift or curse of putting himself in the place of another,” Goodwin wrote, “to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires.”
Goodwin’s book focuses primarily on Lincoln’s relationship with the members of his Cabinet. Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon B. Chase were part of perhaps the most talented and audacious Presidential Cabinet ever assembled. But they had also been Lincoln’s primary rivals for the Republican Presidential nomination. Both had been Lincoln’s most pointed critics, and Chase, because of his overwhelming desire to be the President, continued his attacks on Lincoln throughout his time in the Cabinet.
Yet Lincoln put self-interest aside, recognized how important Seward and Chase were to the success of the war effort and forged relationships with both built on mutual respect. In the end, all of the Cabinet members, Seward and Chase included, acknowledged the equanimity and compassion with which Lincoln treated them.
“Mr. Lincoln comes very near being a perfect man, according to my ideal of manhood,” Attorney General Edward Bates said.
Character. Integrity. Empathy. Humility. Heart. Lincoln had all of these qualities. As we go about this business of public relations, a business whose success is defined by relationships based on trust, we have the great Abraham Lincoln as a role model.
And in an era when the political rancor is well beyond civility, it is important to remember that during the most polarizing era in American history this man embodied the best of the human spirit.