The senator from New York was remarkably talented, a political leader of the first order, a person of great influence at the highest levels of government, and destined for the party’s nomination for president of the United States. Although the senator faced stiff competition, for the four years preceding the election it was widely assumed that the New Yorker would be the candidate.
The opponent, from Illinois, was younger and less experienced. He was charismatic, tall, a spellbinding speaker and a debater of great skill. But, said the Illinoisan’s detractors, compared to his opponent he was a candidate whose resume for the highest office of the land was lacking in the depth expected of a president.
He had spent more time in the state capital than in Washington, where indeed his resume was quite thin. Although he rose to fame in the years preceding the nomination battle, political analysts, at least at the beginning, viewed his chances as unlikely.
Both were brilliant attorneys whose intellect and skills put them at the top of the legal profession. Both were involved in the greatest issues of the day, staking out their positions, and in fact, agreeing on many of them.
The election itself would be transforming, one that occurs at certain junctures in American history that ushers in a new political era for the country. Two extraordinary candidates battled it out to succeed a highly unpopular and failed president.
The gifted senator from New York, who everyone assumed had the nomination in hand, took an eight-month tour of Europe, giving the candidate from Illinois the opportunity to launch an effective campaign for his party’s nomination. We know the results: The younger, inexperienced candidate from Illinois beat out the senator from New York and ran for president.
That, of course, is the story of how, in unexpected fashion, Abraham Lincoln bested William Henry Seward in 1860 for the Republican nomination for president.
As we look back on the struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic Party nomination, the parallels with the 1860 competition between Lincoln and Seward are remarkable.
As in 1860, 2008 promises to be a transforming election. Just as Seward erred, with his European tour, Clinton did not pay enough attention to the Iowa caucuses, concentrating on the Super Tuesday states, thereby giving Obama an advantage he never relinquished.
Lincoln was arguably our greatest president — and there was a dimension of Lincoln’s character that reflected his greatness and which is relevant to our contemporary circumstances.
After the election, Lincoln appointed his rival secretary of state. Though initially Seward was dismissive of Lincoln, he soon became Lincoln’s closest ally, adviser and friend. He played a critical role in Lincoln’s War Cabinet, and effectively kept England and France from recognizing the Confederacy, a development that would have been extremely damaging, and possibly even fatal, to Union prospects. Lincoln would spend many evenings relaxing at Seward’s home, to the consternation of Mary Lincoln, regaling those assembled with his stories.
What made Lincoln so unusual was that he held no grudges and did what he thought was in the nation’s best interests. He knew that he needed the support of Seward’s political constituency, as well as his seasoned skills. He also co-opted Edwin Stanton and Salmon Chase, putting them in his Cabinet, where they made major contributions to the success of the Union cause.
The Lincoln-Seward relationship even has a remarkable physical manifestation that endures until this day. In Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, there is a statue of Seward by the sculptor Randolph Rogers, dedicated in 1876. Legend has it — a legend that Rogers seemed to encourage — that to save money, he cast the head of Seward on the body of Lincoln from a statue that he had discarded.
True or not, it symbolizes the extraordinary teamwork and fusion of purpose of these two great Americans during a time of peril. This teamwork has lessons for today.
As Obama considers who will be his vice president, he should look to Lincoln as a model of leadership and reach out to Clinton to serve as his running mate. She commands a large constituency, and in fact garnered a larger popular vote during the primaries.
Clinton, like Seward, is enormously talented and experienced. This decision is not only about electoral politics, but ultimately about governance. The dangerous times we live in require putting forth the best leadership team possible to meet America’s daunting challenges. Lincoln had the courage and wisdom to reach out for the best. Obama must do the same.
Because of the results of the primary campaign, Hillary Clinton will not receive the phone call at 3:00 a.m. that there is a crisis somewhere in the world. But she should receive it by 4:00 a.m. from Obama, calling her to tell her to get over to the White House immediately, that her advice is needed.
Can Barack Obama be Lincolnesque? Does he have the breadth of vision to discard old grudges for the good of the nation, just as Lincoln retained Seward?
That’s what the next few weeks leading up to the Democratic National Convention in Denver will determine. If 1860 is any guide, the relative inexperienced Illinoisan and the heavily tested New Yorker can make a formidable pair. It happened before, and it could happen again.
Rabbi Menachem Genack is from Englewood, N.J.