Friday, May 15, 2015

Book Review: Lincoln and the Power of the Press

Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion
Harold Holzer

Lincoln and the Power of the Press is packaged as a popular, rather than a scholarly, work. In reality, it's something of both. The writing is pitched the general educated reader. The subject matter, however, is rendered at a fairly granular level. It's likely to appeal strongly to people who are already knowledgeable about Lincoln; it's not a book for Lincoln novices.

For dedicated readers of Lincolniana, Lincoln and the Power of the Press is a good, fresh way of looking at some familiar (and a few unfamiliar) facts. Holzer makes the wise choice to focus heavily on the three most influential newspapermen of the period: Horace Greeley, Henry Raymond, and James Gordon Bennett. This provides him with a trio of larger-than-life central characters, while mostly avoiding the temptation to get lost in a morass of men's and newspapers' names. (All three editors hated one another, and Greeley and Bennett were both wackos.)

The book is less of an argument than a survey--a series of anecdotes, vignettes, case studies, and examples, whipped into narrative shape by a clear-minded author. Politicians manipulated the press; the press shaped politicians; editors ran for office; elected officials wrote for, or even bought, newspapers. Lincoln participated fully in this process, and mastered it, as he mastered so many other things. Among other virtues, Lincoln and the Power of the Press presents a side of Lincoln that's less often appreciated: he was a canny, occasionally ruthless political operator.

The obvious comparison volume is Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit. The latter is better written and broader; Holzer's volume is more thorough and more scholarly.

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