Doris Kearns Goodwin has been described as America’s chief historian and it’s a well deserved title. Over five decades, she has dedicated her career to the study of American presidential leadership, including Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson.
“Leadership: In Turbulent Times,” his most recent work, is something of a career capstone project, drawing lessons from a lifetime of work studying American history, including these four American presidents, their lives and how they handled and faced very different challenges than they faced when he occupied the White House and the highest executive office in the United States.
The book is a study of leadership. Leaders develop from different, often unique backgrounds, and their strength, courage and vision are often not visible until they are put to the test. Kearns Goodwin uses these four very different presidents (two Democrats and two Republicans) to examine their backgrounds, experiences, and development into remarkable leaders almost oddly suited to the needs of their times.
Kearns Goodwin organizes the book into three sections: First, in separate chapters, she reviews each president’s early years, rise, and notable early successes. Then, she examines the challenges each has faced – and overcome – giving them the courage, determination and perspective to face their future challenges. Finally, she examines their ultimate test in the White House and how their direction were born from the sum of their experiences, trials and lives.
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Lincoln, of course, faced the Civil War, perhaps the greatest challenge this United States has ever faced. Teddy Roosevelt faced the Great Coal Strike of 1902, at a time when the Northeast depended almost entirely on coal for winter fuel. Franklin Roosevelt took office during the Great Depression and unleashed a storm of legislative activity, transforming the American economy in its first (and now famous) “100 Days.” Johnson took office after the brutal assassination of President Kennedy and immediately demonstrated his legislative mastery by pushing through JFK’s tax cut, followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare and more.
Kearns Goodwin traces the very different lives of each of them, as they weathered adversity and used it to develop hidden depths of strength and resilience that would later prove invaluable. Lincoln rose from poverty to modest success in the state legislature, but lost not one but two campaigns for the U.S. Senate. The sting of those losses never left him. Teddy Roosevelt lost his young wife in childbirth and, the same day, his mother, a victim of typhoid fever.
Franklin Roosevelt was stricken with poliomyelitis, rendering him barely able to walk, then only painfully, and primarily used a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Johnson, raised in poverty like Lincoln, had long assumed that if he could get up earlier and meet more people and stay up later than anyone else, he could earn whatever he wanted. aimed. His campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in the 1941 special election to fill a vacancy caused by the death of Senator Morris Sheppard crushed him by a losing margin of just 1,311 votes.
Each of them could have been destroyed by his fate. Instead, each used the hard lessons as a foothold and motivation for future success. Kearns Goodwin uses them to study how leaders grow, where ambition comes from, and how adversity affects an emerging leader’s growth.
It would be hard to imagine anyone better placed to conduct this study than Kearns Goodwin. She worked for Johnson in the White House, observing presidential power closely, later helping LBJ write his memoirs. She published her own study of her presidency in “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream”. She won the Pulitzer for her book on Franklin Roosevelt, “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor and the Home Front in World War II.”“ She wrote the famous “Team of Rivals” about Lincoln’s White House and “The Bully Pulpit” about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
It is therefore perhaps not very surprising that Kearns Goodwin has mastered his subject and is able to distill critical lessons on presidential leadership. It’s as if she had spent her entire career preparing to write this one volume. It was worth the wait. And at the right time: if ever our country needed a short course in presidential leadership, it’s now.
“Leadership: in turbulent times”, by Doris Kearns Goodwin; Simon & Schuster; 496 pages; $30
The author will appear at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, October 1 at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle. Tickets are available as part of a subscription; reserve tickets will be sold at the door for $40; 206-621-2230, lectures.org.