Doris Kearns Goodwin says current events drove her latest book

Historians in the News
tags: doris kearns goodwin, Trump

Q:The title of your book is Leadership: In Turbulent Times. Is it about today?

DKG: Yes, in a very real sense Leadership: In Turbulent Times is about today. Using history as my guide, I sought to shine a spotlight on the absence of leadership in our country today through the analysis and examples of leaders from the past whose actions and intentions established a standard by which to judge and emulate genuine leadership. The study and stories of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson setforth a template of shared purpose, collaboration, compromise, and civility—the best of our collective identity in times of trouble. We ignore history at our peril, for without heartening examples of leadership from the past we fall prey to accepting our current climate of uncivil, frenetic polarization as the norm.The great protection for our democratic system, Lincoln counseled, was to “read of and recount” the stories of our country’s history, to rededicate ourselves to the ideals of our founding fathers. Through Leadership: In Turbulent Times, I hope I’ve provided a touchstone, a roadmap, for leaders and citizens alike.

Q: How do those times compare to today?

DKG: I am often asked: “Are these the worst of times?” We are living in turbulent times, certainly, but the worst of times—no. 

When Lincoln took office, the House was not only divided, it was on fire. The country had split in two. A Civil War that would leave 600,000 soldiers dead was about to begin. The capital city was in danger of being captured by the Confederacy. Lincoln later said if he had known what he would face during his first months in office he would not have thought he could have lived through it. 

When Theodore Roosevelt took office at the turn of the 20thcentury, there was widespread talk of a coming revolution. The industrial revolution had shaken up the economy much as globalization and the technological revolution have done today. Big companies were swallowing up small companies. Cities were replacing towns. Immigrants were pouring in from abroad. A threatening gap had opened between the rich and the poor. A mood of rebellion had spread among the laboring classes.  

FDR feared the whole house of cards might collapse before he could even take office. The economy had hit rock bottom with thousands of banks collapsing, wiping out the savings of millions of people. One out of every four people had lost their jobs and many others were working at reduced wages and hours. Hungry people rioted in the streets. The future of capitalism was at risk.

When LBJ took office in the wake of the John F. Kennedy assassination, everything was in chaos. One shocking event cascaded into another as the country watched in real time the death of JFK, the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. The air was rife with speculation that both murders were part of a larger conspiracy related to Russia, Cuba, or the Mafia.

Each situation cried out for leadership and each of these four men was particularly fitted for the times. I would argue that it’s the lack of authentic leadership in our nation today that has magnified our sense of lost moorings, heightened our anxiety, and made us feel as if we are living in the worst of times.The difference between the times I have written about and today is thatour best leaders of the past, when faced with challenges of equal if not greater intensity, were able not only able to pull our country through, but leave us stronger and more unified than before.

Q: How do you define leadership and how do you share your findings with readers?

DKG: There is no succinct definition of leadership. Leadership is elusive because one size does not fit all. I have tried to make the concept of leadership less abstract and more practical, through particular, not universal stories that can provide a guide and inspiration to show how, with ambition, self-reflection, and perseverance, leadership skills can be developed and strengthened.

Q: What made these leaders fitted for their times? 

DKG: Though each possessed a different style of leadership, each was particularly suited to meet the challenges they faced. Confident and humble, persistent and patient, Lincoln had the ability to mediate among different factions of his party, and was able, through his gift for language, to translate the meaning of the struggle into words of matchless force, clarity and beauty. Theodore Roosevelt’s spirited combativeness and sense of fair play, embodied in his Square Deal, mobilized the people and the press to fight against monopolies and the inequities of the industrial age. FDR’s optimistic temperament and confident leadership restored the hope and earned the trust of the American people. Lyndon Johnson’s legislative wizardry brought both parties together to pass landmark legislation on civil rights and social justice that changed the face of the country.

Q: So, do the times make the leader, or does the leader make the times?

DKG: While crisis situations offer greater opportunity for leadership, the leader must be ready when opportunity strikes. President James Buchanan was temperamentally unfit to respond to the intensifying crisis over slavery that would confront Abraham Lincoln. President William McKinley encountered the same tumultuous era as Theodore Roosevelt but failed to grasp the hidden dangers in the wake of the industrial revolution. President Herbert Hoover’s fixed mind-set could not handle the deepening depression with the creativity of Franklin Roosevelt’s free-wheeling experimentation. President John Kennedy lacked the unrivaled legislative skill and focus that LBJ brought to the central issue of the time—civil rights.

Q: Which of your four leaders would be best suited for today?

DKG: Without a doubt, Theodore Roosevelt would be the best suited to serve the country today. With a varied and impressive resume as state legislator, rancher, prolific writer, civil service commissioner, police commissioner, assistant secretary of the navy, army colonel, governor and vice president, he would be uniquely prepared for the complexities of modern government. His charismatic personality and his gift for short, punchy quips would translate easily to social media—from his enterprising use of “the bully pulpit,” a phrase he himself coined, to his Square Deal for the rich and the poor, to his remarkably collegial relations with members of the press. Roosevelt aimed to create a sense of common purpose among conservatives and progressives, using his leadership not simply to stoke his base and solidify faction, but rather, to find common ground in order to knit classes and sections together. He traveled the country by train for weeks at a time, meeting with newspaper editors, listening to local complaints, speaking to people in simple, folksy language that his Harvard buddies might consider homely, but his simple adages reached the hearts of his countrymen and his inclusive leadership sutured, rather than exacerbated, divisions.

Q: Was there something in each leader’s early life that made it clear they would go on to achieve great success? 

DKG: What I learned primarily is that no single path carried the four leaders to the pinnacle of leadership. Both Roosevelts were born to extraordinary wealth and privilege. Lincoln endured relentless poverty; Johnson experienced sporadic hard times. They were each born with a divergent range of qualities often ascribed to leadership—intelligence, energy, empathy, verbal and written skills, skills in dealing with people. But they all essentially made themselves leaders by an inordinate ambition to succeed, by perseverance and hard work. 

Q: Which leadership traits do you think are the most important?                           

DKG: While leaders must be fitted for the time, I did identify a certain family resemblance of qualities that these leaders embodied in greater or lesser degree: resilience, humility, an ability to listen to diverse opinions, control negative impulses, replenish energy, and most importantly, an ambition for greater good. Here are some examples:

●  Resilience: The paralysis from polio that crippled FDR’s body expanded his mind and sensibilities. “There had been a plowing up of his nature,” a colleague observed. Far more intensely than before, he reached out to know people, to pick up their emotions, to put himself in their shoes, allowing him to connect with them in ways he might not have been able to given his privileged background.

●  Humility: “The man who has never made a mistake,” Teddy Roosevelt once said, “has never made anything.” After his first wildly successful term in the state legislature, Roosevelt developed in his own words a swelled head. He began to feel that he alone could make things happen, but soon realized that was not the case. “I thereby learned the invaluable lesson that no man can render the highest service unless he can act in combination with his fellows, which requires compromise, give and take,” he said.

●  Listening to diverse opinions: In contrast to Lincoln who created a team of rivals to build diverse opinions into his inner circle, FDR had not a single rival for the presidency in his cabinet, but he had a secret weapon in his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was, he proudly said, a welcome thorn in his side, always willing to argue with him, to question his assumptions. She was his eyes and his ears, traveling the country as many as 200 days a year, visiting relief projects, surveying working and living conditions, bringing him back information about which programs were working, which were not. 

●  Controlling negative impulses: When angry at a colleague, Lincoln would write what he called a “hot” letter, which he would then put aside until he cooled down. When Lincoln’s papers were opened at the turn of the twentieth century, historians discovered a raft of such letters, with Lincoln’s notations underneath, “never sent and never signed.” 

●  Replenishing energy: In our 24/7 world we find it hard to relax, to shake off anxiety. Yet, in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln went to the theatre more than a hundred times. When the actors took the stage, he was able to surrender his mind into other channels of thought. FDR found an equivalent to Lincoln’s theatergoing by holding nightly cocktail hours at the White House during World War II. His rule: You couldn’t talk about the war, you could discuss books or movies, or best of all, share funny stories and gossip.

●  Ambition for a greater good: Lyndon Johnson could be a difficult boss, but what allowed his staff to endure his overbearing behavior was the sense that by hitching their lives to LBJ, they were making the country a better place, riding the momentum, breadth, and meaning of a larger story. 

Again and again, I ask myself: Are these critical components of leadership in evidence today? Or is it their very absence that bodes so badly and unsettles us day after day.

Q: Is there one central characteristic distinguishing the leadership of the presidents you’ve studied from our present leadership?

DKG: If I had to choose only one characteristic that distinguishes the leadership of the presidents I have studied from today it would be that words no longer seem to hold the same weight they once did. Without a shared political truth, a country has no direction, no common purpose. The greatest danger to our democracy today is the undermining of trust in the words spoken by our leaders—the pattern of outright lies, half-truths, alternative facts, misspoken statements, fake news and walk backs. Today it seems there are no consequences to speaking untruths or failing to keep one’s word.

 Lincoln considered his ability to keep his word as the chief gem of his character. When doubt arose in January 1863 as to whether he would hold firm on his September pledge to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, he said: “My word is out, and I can’t take it back.”

Theodore Roosevelt believed a good public servant is like a good neighbor or trustworthy friend. “A broken promise is bad enough in private life. It is worse in the field of politics. No man is worth his salt in public life who makes on the stump a pledge which he does not keep after election; and, if he makes such a pledge and does not keep it, hunt him out of public life,” Roosevelt said.

That consequences once followed false statements is clear from Lyndon Johnson’s experience. When televised images of captured cities during the Tet Offensive belied the administration’s claims that the war was going well, LBJ’s credibility, already suspect, went into free fall. Having lost the trust of the American people, Johnson made the decision not to run again and his legacy was forever split in two.

Q: Why did you decide to focus this book on the topic of leadership rather than a single historical figure or a single time period? 

DKG: The topic of leadership has fascinated me ever since my days in college and graduate school when we would stay up late at night reading Plato, Aristotle and Machiavelli, discussing justice, forms of government and how leaders related to their followers. Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? When do people first discover they might be leaders, and when are they recognized by others as leaders? How can a leader infuse a sense of purpose and meaning into people’s lives?

Q: What makes this book different from your others?

DKG: This book was a great challenge and a stretch in the way I think. It brings together all the new things I learned by focusing the lens of leadership on the four men together rather than studying each of them separately. I sought to make these presidents human and accessible, so that we could truly see ourselves in their places and learn from the trajectory of their leadership. I start with each of them when they first entered public life, before they became icons—when their success was anything but certain so we can follow the mistakes they made along the way, from cockiness, inexperience, misjudgments. Their struggles are not so different from our own.  I then take them through events that shattered their lives and watch as they put themselves back together again with a deepened leadership ready to meet the challenges of their time.

The case study approach was a very different one for me, as I usually write sprawling biographies rather than focus on single pivotal moments. This concentrated approach allowed me to dig deeper into the particular leadership strengths of each of the men. Researching and writing this book was one of the most unexpected and sustained adventures I have had in my 50-year career. By following my characters as they grew into their leadership positions through loss, self-reflection, and experience, I got to know them more intimately than ever before—and I hope the reader feels the same.

I would also to add that this book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, is only about 450 pages—about half the length of each of my last two books!

Q: Who were heroes to each of the four men, and how did they want to be remembered?

DKG: Lyndon Johnson’s hero was Franklin Roosevelt; Franklin Roosevelt’s hero was Theodore Roosevelt; Theodore Roosevelt’s hero was Abraham Lincoln; and the closest Lincoln found to an ideal was George Washington. I realized only when I finished the book that taken together, the four men form a family tree, a lineage of leadership that spans the entirety of our country’s history. Just as there was no single path to the White House, so toward the end of their lives they harbored different thoughts about the afterlife of leadership, of death and remembrance. Two of the four men—Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt—died in office. Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson both survived beyond their presidencies to experience the problematic aftermath of leadership. While their personal stories came to different ends, they were all looking beyond their own lives, hopeful that their achievements had shaped and enlarged the future. The fame they craved, bears little resemblance to today’s cult of celebrity.For these leaders, the final measure of their achievements would be realized by their admittance to an enduring place in communal memory.

Q: What do you see as the lasting lessons of leadership?

DKG: Every great manifestation of leadership, however different in approach and execution, ultimately results in serving others, enlarging opportunity and expanding social justice. In the end, what may have started as ambition for the self is transformed into ambition for the greater good.  

Q: What can we as citizens do to make things better?

DKG: What history teaches us is that leadership is a two-way street. Change comes when social movements from the citizenry connect with the leadership in Washington. We saw this with the antislavery movement, the progressive movement, the civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement. Whether the change we seek will be healing, positive, and inclusive depends not only on our leaders but on all of us. What we as individuals do now, how we band together, will make all the difference. Our leaders are a mirror in which we see our collective reflection. “With public sentiment,” Lincoln liked to say, “nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”


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