Doris Kearns Goodwin on life, death and the presidency

Doris Kearns Goodwin has not only seen her biography Team of Rivals become one of the definitive accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s life (and touted by President Obama as the one book he’d want on a desert island), she has now seen her work provide the basis for the recently released film “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg. In this interview, Goodwin — who has also written biographies of presidents Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson — looks at Obama’s presidential leadership in the context of Lincoln. She also reflects on what it’s like as a historian to live with the dead, and to help pass on their lessons in leadership. Goodwin spoke with Lillian Cunningham, editor of the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You’ve done several interviews lately about Abraham Lincoln in light of the film’s premiere. What’s been on your mind about Lincoln and leadership that no one has yet asked you?

One thing that’s so important about his leadership is that he had an extraordinary sense of timing. I think for all leaders that’s a key thing — when to make what decisions — and it depends on, in part, having a feeling for the popular sentiment of the country at the moment. In Lincoln’s case, he later said that had the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation come up six months earlier, he would have lost the border states. And if he had waited any longer than he did, he would have lost the morale boost that it provided and the extraordinary contribution that the African American soldiers made in the Army. So it almost was the perfect timing, and I think that came from his own sense of where the country was....

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