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Doris Kearns Goodwin says current events drove her latest book

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.