Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian whose best-sellers include “No Ordinary Time” and “Wait Till Next Year,” received a standing ovation from a roomful of Abraham Lincoln experts, the kind of people who usually look suspiciously upon popular authors.
Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” her acclaimed biography of Abraham Lincoln and the former political foes who became members of his cabinet, was this year’s winner of the Lincoln Prize for an outstanding work about the president and/or the Civil War.
The award, which includes a $50,000 check and a bronze bust of a somber, reflective Lincoln, was presented Thursday night to Goodwin at the century-old Union League Club, in a large, ornate dining hall featuring an oil portrait of the president. In attendance were some of the world’s leading Lincoln authorities, including Michael Burlingame, Harold Holzer and Gabor Boritt.
“The fact that the people who give this award are so immersed in Lincoln is very important to me,” Goodwin told The Associated Press after accepting the prize. “It means you’re being judged by the people you care about the most.”
The Lincoln Prize, given to works intended for “the literate general public,” was co-founded in 1990 by philanthropists Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman.
Goodwin has long enjoyed a large readership, but before the Lincoln book her scholarship had been strongly questioned after she acknowledged that a previous work, “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys,” contained extensive material closely resembling the writings of another author.
No such criticism has been made about “Team of Rivals,” which has also won The New-York Historical Society’s Book Prize for American History and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. The book has sold more than 500,000 copies.
She did not mention the controversy during her acceptance speech and even proudly cited “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys,” noting that she had received access to previously unavailable family papers, thanks to her husband, former Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin.
The historian also ignored a gentle taunt from Lewis Lehrman, the prize’s co-founder and a longtime conservative who in 1982 was the Republican Party’s gubernatorial candidate in New York, losing to Democrat Mario Cuomo.
Lehrman introduced Goodwin by challenging her to say why she had turned from writing about 20th-century Democrats such as the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt to taking on a Republican and “free market economic nationalist of the 19th century” like Lincoln.