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Getting intimate with Lincoln

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CONCORD, Mass. -- For 30 years, Doris Kearns Goodwin, the popular, television-friendly historian, has been married to Richard Goodwin, a former aide to presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

For the past decade, however, she has been living with another man.

Or, at least, that's how she puts it. "I've been living with Abraham Lincoln."

And to hear her description, it has been an emotional love affair.

Sexy is not an adjective often attached to Lincoln. It doesn't appear in the 916 pages of Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, $35), a celebration of his personality and political pragmatism, due in bookstores Tuesday.

But in the book-lined living room of her 150-year-old renovated farmhouse in the suburbs of Boston, Goodwin uses just that word to describe the 16th president. Sexy.

She's talking about her favorite Lincoln photograph. It's from 1857, before he grew a beard and became an austere, marble monument.

He's 48, a rising political star on the Illinois frontier, about to run again (and lose again) for the U.S. Senate. He appears in need of a haircut and, as Goodwin says, "looks vital, alive, even sexy. I don't want to sound embarrassing, but he looks sensual. It's more the Lincoln I came to know and love."

She's not the only one. Steven Spielberg has bought the rights to the book for a movie.

Liam Neeson (Schindler's List, Kinsey) plans to play Lincoln, "a perfect choice," Goodwin says.

No president has been written about more, but the books just keep coming, on everything from Lincoln's battles with depression to his sexuality. (Goodwin finds no evidence he was gay, unlike C.A. Tripp, author of The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, published earlier this year.)

To ask "What can anyone say that's new about Lincoln?" may have double meaning for Goodwin, who at 62 is still smarting over accusations raised three years ago of plagiarism in her 1987 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.

She says now, as she did then, that her mistakes were unintentional. Author Lynne McTaggart, whose work was copied, was credited in the footnotes but not in the text.

Goodwin's publisher reached a private financial settlement with McTaggart after she sued for copyright infringement in 1988.

But that wasn't disclosed until 2002 after The Weekly Standard wrote about several dozen passages that Goodwin borrowed from McTaggart.

Goodwin says it was a mistake not to disclose the settlement when it was reached.

"But I did what the lawyers said. Had we disclosed it then, it wouldn't have come up later" on the heels of plagiarism accusations aimed at another best-selling historian, Stephen Ambrose.

She calls the controversy "it" or "the thing," and expects "the thing" will be raised again by reporters during her two-month book tour, which begins Monday. But she says she is never asked about it in her appearances for business, student and history groups.

Writing about Goodwin in the November issue of The Atlantic, Thomas Mallon, who authored a book on plagiarism, Stolen Words, barely mentions the issue in a seven-page essay. He predicts Goodwin will put it behind her with Lincoln's help, citing "the let's-move- on spirit" of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.

In the Goodwins' library, converted from a three-car garage, an entire wall of books, floor to ceiling, is devoted to Lincoln. So much published material, Goodwin says, is a "double-edged sword."

"It took months just to read what had been written. On the other hand, there's something great about spending the days immersed in some of the finest works of American history. Even more important was the treasured wealth of the primary materials -- the intimate letters, the voluminous diaries, the oral histories -- all of which allowed me to feel as if I were living side by side with my subjects."

At first, she envisioned writing about the Lincolns' marriage, much as she did about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in No Ordinary Time, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995.

She found it wasn't the same kind of political partnership, although she came to admire and sympathize with Mary Todd Lincoln, who lost three young sons to disease and went through the Civil War with a brother, three half-brothers and three brothers-in-law fighting for the Confederacy.

Goodwin ended up writing a multiple biography that views Lincoln in comparison with and through the perspective of his three rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. All were better known, better educated and more experienced. And all shared the common mistake of seriously underestimating the self-taught lawyer from Illinois.

But all three -- William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates -- also ended up as valued members of Lincoln's Cabinet.

It would be as if George Bush, after the bitter Republican primaries of 2000, named his rival, John McCain, his secretary of state or secretary of defense.

Goodwin drew on a wealth of diaries and letters, some previously unpublished, especially those from wives and daughters of Lincoln's Cabinet members, who shed light on their private lives.

If she could interview Mary Todd Lincoln, Goodwin would ask about the early days of their courtship "when she was the belle of Springfield, and he was first attracted to her lively manner, her love of poetry, her fascination with politics.

"We know so much of the later sadness in their marriage that it would be wonderful to hear her talk about the happier times."

And if she could interview Lincoln himself? "Rather than asking a heavy question, I might simply ask him to tell me some of his humorous stories so I could remember him laughing and smiling instead of the long, sad face that peers out from the old photographs."

After questions were raised in 2002 about her Kennedy book, Goodwin was dropped as a panelist on public television's NewsHour. She continues to work as an analyst for NBC, but she says she's no political pundit.

She's a lifelong Democrat and former confidante of President Johnson, subject of her first book, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. When on TV, she says, "I don't like to take sides. I'm not very good at it. I'm not a very combative person."

She enjoys "the chance to talk about history." She fondly recalls her role in the television coverage on Election Night 2000, when the presidential outcome remained in doubt and "I could talk about Rutherford B. Hayes," winner of the disputed 1876 election.

In Goodwin's world, past and present often mix.

On the mantel in her library, a drawing of Lincoln sits above the bronze star awarded to her youngest son, Joey, who joined the Army after graduating from Harvard in 2001 and spent a year in Iraq as a platoon leader with the First Armored Division.

Asked her views on the war in Iraq, Goodwin talks about how its rationale was undermined by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, "but that doesn't mean we should get out right away."

She is reminded of Lincoln's unpopular opposition to the Mexican War, based on what he considered the deception of President Polk.

She has a passion for history, even when she's not writing about it. When the interview about her new book is over, Goodwin asks her visitor if he has seen the nearby North Bridge, where, in 1775, "the shot heard round the world was fired" at the start of the American Revolution.

It's raining, but she insists on driving to Concord's top tourist sight, then walking through the mud to the wooden bridge and a bronze monument to the Minutemen.

With pride, she notes that the monument is by sculptor Daniel Chester French, who has a more famous work in Washington, D.C. -- the Lincoln Memorial.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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