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Doris Kearns Goodwin: What would Lincoln do with McChrystal?

June 23, 2010

With Gen. Stanley McChrystal scheduled to meet with the president at the White House today following his insubordinate comments about President Barack Obama and Obama’s top aides in a magazine article, there’s plenty of speculation about what the outcome will be.

President Abraham Lincoln

There has been some revived discussion of how President Harry Truman dismissed Gen. George MacArthur during the Korean War as analysts look for a precedent.

Doris Kearns Goodwin goes even further back into history in today’s New York Times. Goodwin, a presidential scholar and author of “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” which analyzes President Abraham Lincoln‘s early years in the White House, looks back at how Lincoln handled his top general, Gen. George McClellan, during the early years of the Civil War.

McChrystal’s actions seem to pale in comparison to some of the slights McClellan delivered to Lincoln.

From Goodwin

For example, one night in 1861, Lincoln went with his secretary of state, William Seward, and his young aide John Hay to McClellan’s house. Told that the general was out, the three waited in the parlor for an hour. When McClellan arrived home, the porter told him the president was there, but McClellan passed by the parlor and climbed the stairs to his private quarters. After a half hour more, Lincoln again sent word, only to be informed that the general had gone to sleep.

Hay was enraged, writing in his diary of the “insolence of epaulettes” and “the threatened supremacy of the military authorities.” To Hay’s astonishment, Lincoln “seemed not to have noticed it specially, saying it was better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.” He would hold McClellan’s horse, he’d once said, if a victory could be achieved.

Lincoln stuck by McClellan through even more difficult times, and likely to the detriment of the Union during the Civil War, as McClellan showed a peculiar knack for overestimated the size and strength of Confederate forces and an unwillingness to pull the trigger on military advances.

Obama is likely considering not just the substance of McChrystal’s comments, but also the impact of removing him on the war now being fought in  Afghanistan.

The Times offers plenty of other opinion and analysis on the Obama-McChrystal controversy today, including columns by Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, Max Boot and Robert Dallek on the issue.



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  1. The “Insolance of Epaulets” « Dead Confederates

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