Branded history

The great missed opportunity in UFO-ology, as Jacques Vallée noted (IIRC), was anthropological: our failure to document scientifically the emergence of a myth in our own time, during our lives. (Or was that Carl Jung who lodged the same complaint?)

In any case, we are seeing another such myth take root - a phenomenon independent of any underlying reality and not susceptiple to refutation in the public sphere. I'm referring to the "Team of Rivals" as a generic meme and the association of that meme with Lincoln.

The notion of a leader harnessing the energy and ambitions of his enemies to his own cause or for his own use is archtypical in its appeal and has certainly been around in human history at least as long as false flag recruiting.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's genius for publicity rests in part in an appreciation of the tastes and minds of the vast middlebrow audience that listens to NPR, watches PBS, and buys her books. The time has long been ripe for someone to propose a single explanation of Lincoln's specialness, to that audience justifying pop culture's enduring interest in the man.

In brief, Goodwin's natural audience has long been waiting for an "elevator story," a 10-second pitch that helps them "get" Lincoln. Grant and McClellan have had their memes set since the war. They can be spoken in a single breath, understood by a child, repeated half asleep, and grasped as easy as the simplest lie. What has been strange is that these second tier personalities were typified in popular taste long ago while Lincoln's image remained inchoate.

As a branding expert specializing in herself, Goodwin understood this matter and moved to remedy the situation, for which the market has amply rewarded her.

The astonishing thing this week is that Newsweek has run a story suggesting that the president-elect of the United States is consciously modeling behavior falsely ascribed to Lincoln in Goodwin's nonsensical book. In other words, Goodwin's meme, which is pure literature with no basis in any cabinet officer's diary, has taken on a life of its own and disguised as historical truth captivated the imagination of a leader who is acting out a false construct.

This casts a very odd light on "learning from history." As I write this, Google has indexed 340 stories as related to "Obama's talks with rivals precede cabinet picks"; 239 relate to "Obama's presidential role model," and another 294 are connected to "The difference between Honest Abe and The One." That's a striking display of falsehood rounding the world before truth can get its pants on.

The starting point for this gusher of Lincoln-Obama journalism is the assumption that "historian" Goodwin's meme - Lincoln built a team out of rivals - is fact. That "reality" is embedded in each report as basic. Very soon it will be something "everybody knows." In 2009 the Lincoln scholar "not on board" with this view will be a "revisionist" if not a crank.

One could hope that Lincoln scholars would rise up against this but they have been so supine since Goodwin's book was released, so deathly still over the two-year ALPLM crisis, so absolutely get-along-go-along with the excesses of the Bicentennial that we would be fools to expect them to do their duty now or ever.

And so a new myth is born of a plagiarist, sanctified by a president-elect, advocated and promoted by pop journalism, and endorsed passively by those who make a living studying Lincoln.

Have some hors d'oeuvres:

The Washington Post, which owns Newsweek, says,
Obama is contemplating Lincoln's particular model of presidential leadership as he moves toward assembling his own team of advisers and Cabinet officials. His overtures to his former foes have suggested he may be mulling his own team of rivals...
One Newsweek editor is a Lincoln author and was on Fox News: "Doris has made Team of Rivals into a brand that makes Coca-Cola look like a small piker."

The San Jose Mercury highlights the crux of Obama's personal misconception:
"Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet," is the way Obama has summarized Goodwin's thesis, adding, "Whatever personal feelings there were, the issue was how can we get this country through this time of crisis."
This formulation overstates Goodwin's already untenable meme, taking it to a new Level. The Mercury then adds, "That's true enough..."

The National Review, which is always game for any Lincoln loving you want to lay on them, has uncharacteristically published a skeptical letter taking apart the "rivals" meme on its face; not that they were not a "team" (as the diaries show) but that they were not all or even mostly rivals and that their appointments were political team building not managerial team building. This letter seems to react to the Obama quote given above.

CNN runs wild, listing so many Lincoln/Obama comparisons that Goodwin's meme nearly gets lost in the shuffle. But they do roll out Eric Foner to take a shot at the meme as it reflects in journalism: "... as a historian, people ought to calm down a little about these comparisons..." (A hat tip to Foner.)

The DC Examiner, taking the meme as a given, bucks the typology on other grounds: "Elected by a clear majority and with strong support from a unified party, Obama is not in Lincoln's position of having to hold a coalition together in the midst of a house dividing itself."

And so it goes. Grab a browser and have a gander at a new historical "fact."

(Photo via Getty)