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A man of the people

HAPPY the land with no need of heroes, wrote Bertolt Brecht, and Australia's history of peaceful politics and safety from foreign attack means we have never required a Nelson Mandela or Golda Meir, leaders charged with saving the nation from civil strife or foreign foe.

Because our politics has always been about peaceful argument and administration, it is hard for Australians to understand that only the brave and wise ever master the art of democratic government in times of crisis. Or grasp its great truth that the most successful politicians are the ones whose achievements come from ignoring their own interests.

Hard, but not impossible. Labor loyalists have always liked a legend, have always looked for moral greatness in the party's leaders. Casey Bennetto's hit song-and-dance show Keating! trawls for laughs but sells the last Labor prime minister as a visionary. A new play about Ben Chifley's last days, as he lamented opportunities lost, was staged in Sydney before Christmas, and the ABC has a new series about John Curtin scheduled to screen this year.

Yet for all their achievements, believers in the ability of leaders to make decisions not because they are popular but because they are right lookless to the light on the hill than at the Lincoln Memorial.

There is a long Labor tradition of interest in the American Civil War, especially the career of Abraham Lincoln. Doris Kearns Goodwin's recent book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, shows why.

Like Curtin and Chifley, Lincoln came to high office effectively ignorant of executive government. As with the Australians, he mobilised the people of a democracy not used to being told what to do for something approaching total war. Like them, Lincoln desperately wanted power, believing he knew what needed to be done in a time of crisis.

But the comparisons only go so far. For a start, Curtin and Chifley fought a great war, but not against other Australians. Nor did they have to manoeuvre a majority of the people into accepting a decision much of the electorate deplored. If Lincoln had put his decision to initiate the end of slavery with the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation to a referendum, he would have lost.

For people who believe that democracies are capable of making moral choices, that electoral politics is not just the art of the possible but can incorporate acts of the greatest principle, Lincoln's achievement is a beacon of hope.

Goodwin's book is interesting less for her description of what Lincoln did than for how he did it. She sets out his extraordinary understanding of human nature, his ability to take his ego out of any fight and the absence of rancour in his nature. In the process she illustrates how truly great politicians are less interested in imposing their will on people than in earning the allegiance of others.

Lincoln was never supposed to be president: he outsmarted the frontrunners in the race for his party's nomination for the 1860 election. Then he invited them all into his cabinet, establishing the expectation that he would do as he was told. It was a recipe for disaster. Most of his cabinet members had political power bases far greater than the president's, whose provincial style and political inexperience they sneered at. One minister, the morally malformed Salmon Chase, then spent four years scoffing and sniping at Lincoln, who he expected to replace in the 1864 election. But Lincoln ignored it, knowing he needed Chase to run the economy.

Tough when he had to be, Lincoln was determined to do whatever was required to hold the United States together by defeating the rebel states. He is still reviled on the extreme Right of American politics for suspending habeas corpus during the war, and he sacked Chase when he had outlived his usefulness. In general Lincoln bore discourtesies with dignity, got on with his job and by force of personality ensured his cabinet members got on with theirs. And in the example he set, he won not only their obedience but also their love (Chase was an exception).

This is not the study of Lincoln some expected Goodwin to write when Steven Spielberg acquired the film rights to her work in progress back in 2001. Then there was talk of a film about Lincoln's difficult marriage to a deeply neurotic, more likely mad, woman, and the way he fought the Civil War frequently in a state of domestic despair. The book that finally appeared, however, is nothing like this, which may be why the film, supposed to star Liam Neeson as Illinoisan Abe, has again been postponed, this time until a new Indiana Jones adventure is completed.

It is a fair bet that the movie, at least if its script is based on the book, will never be made. Because as adventure heroes go, Lincoln is a loser. Yet in Goodwin's portrayal he appears almost a secular saint, a man of extraordinary moral courage, with a rare understanding of human nature and an ability to win people over by the strength of his arguments and character. Of course many loathed Lincoln, like Chase and the president's top general George McClellan. But those who did were generally obsessively ambitious and overweening in their arrogance, things Lincoln was not.

Anybody with any awareness of American history is familiar with Lincoln's public and private achievements. He held the Union together, created the circumstances to end slavery and ran what was often an inevitably unpopular wartime administration. In private he fought depression all his life and until his inauguration as president his political career was marked by failure and humiliation.

There is a great deal about all of this in Goodwin's new book and given the thousands of works on the American Civil War, it was almost inevitable she would not unearth any important new evidence about Lincoln's presidency. And at 750 pages of text with another 150 pages of notes, her book suffers from academic overkill (perhaps previous accusations of plagiarism encouraged Goodwin to document absolutely everything). But anybody interested in the practice of politics can learn a great deal from this book.

Goodwin demonstrates great democratic leaders do not come from the ranks of the cynics and smarties, the patronage players and number crunchers. Lincoln respected all around him, until they gave him reason not to. In the process he won the trust and affection of enough of them to do what he knew was needed: as much as a politician can ever hope for.

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