A Team of Rivals Goes from Concord to the White House - And Now to Hollywood

By , Contributor
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin lives in Concord, Massachusetts, but her reach extends far beyond that, and has for a long time. These days she's best known for her book A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It won the Lincoln Prize for best book on the Civil War in 2005, and soon after he was elected, Obama said that it was a book that he would take with him into the White House.

And not only that. How about this for real world consequences of a history book? I'm convinced that the real reason Hillary Clinton is Secretary of State right now is that Obama was impressed by Lincoln's habit of inviting his rivals who criticized him into his cabinet. William H. Seward was an ardent abolitionist, and criticized Lincoln for foot-dragging on slavery, so -- since Lincoln was the kind of man he was -- he invited Seward to serve as his Secretary of State. Hillary was the Democrat who attacked Obama the most vehemently during the primaries, so Obama did as Lincoln had done with Seward, and invited her into his cabinet.

All that is remarkable enough, but now A Team of Rivals is heading for a multiplex near you. This is going to be what Hollywood insiders call an "awards-worthy" picture on a Serious Topic. Steven Spielberg, no less, is going to direct two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, and David Strathairn, who was brilliant as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck, will play Seward.

But history repeats itself in funny ways. Goodwin showed in her book that Lincoln's appointments created tensions in his cabinet, and now the casting of the movie has created its own tensions. Word has it that Sally Field, who also has two Oscars, will play Mary Todd Lincoln. That's going to be a stretch for her because of her age. She was born in 1946, so she's nine years older than Lewis, who was born in 1957. But Mary Todd Lincoln, born in 1818, was nine years younger than her husband, who was born in 1809. So if you put those age differences together, Field has to make up an 18-year gap.

Team of Rivals - cast.jpgSince Spielberg gets what he wants in Hollywood these days, he must believe that Field can be convincing as a much younger woman. (Field will be 66 in 2012; Mary Todd Lincoln was 42 in 1860, when Lincoln was elected president.)  It's not just a matter of facial wrinkles, which the Hollywood makeup wizards can probably deal with. It's also a matter of the body language and general attitude of a woman who lived in a very different time and place. In her long career Field has never played anybody remotely like Mary Todd Lincoln. Still, she's a terrific actress, and it was just a few years ago that nobody ever believed that a black man could be elected president.

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