Award-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has coalesced her presidential expertise in her stunning book on four presidents, Leadership: In Turbulent Times.
You were already familiar with these four presidents: Lincoln, two Roosevelts and Johnson. What surprised you most as you looked at them again?
Collectively, I had studied these four presidents—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson—for almost five decades, so I thought I knew them pretty well. But when I went back to study my guys—as I like to call them—anew, through the exclusive lens of leadership, I was surprised by how much there was still to learn about their lives as young people, when they first realized in themselves that they were leaders, and how 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.
Perhaps historians shouldn’t have favorites, but you close your book with reflections on Lincoln’s death and legacy. Is he perhaps your favorite president?
Yes, you are correct on both accounts. I’m not sure I should have a favorite, but I do—and it’s surely Abraham Lincoln. 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. For me, it is Lincoln’s legacy that burns the brightest. He saved the Union, won the war and ended slavery forever.
Neither Franklin Roosevelt nor Abraham Lincoln lived long enough to lead the peace they worked so hard to achieve. Do you feel America would be different had they finished their terms?
Though Abraham Lincoln recognized that the challenge of Reconstruction was even greater than winning the war, he was without doubt the best man to face that challenge. Above all, he wanted a healing tone toward the South as evidenced in his Second Inaugural. Yet at the same time, Lincoln would have been fiercely protective of the rights of the newly freed slaves. As for Franklin Roosevelt, how I wish he could have lived to see the end of the war and the beginning of the United Nations. I do believe, though, that Harry Truman carried out much of what FDR would have done.
If you were to add a fifth president to this book, who would it be?
If I were to have added a fifth president to this examination of leadership, it would have been George Washington. I realized only when I finished the book that taken together, my four guys—Lincoln, Teddy, FDR and LBJ—form a family tree, a lineage of leadership that spans almost the entirety of our country’s history. Lyndon Johnson looked to Franklin Roosevelt as his “political daddy”; Franklin Roosevelt’s hero was Theodore Roosevelt; Theodore Roosevelt saw Abraham Lincoln as his role model; and the closest Lincoln found to an ideal was George Washington.
Have you ever been tempted to write about a living president?
No, there’s not been a living president that I’ve been tempted to write about because I am so in need of handwritten diaries and intimate letters and the kinds of correspondence you wouldn’t have with a president living now. Communication today is much, much faster, which may prove a challenge for future biographers. With email and social media, we have a breadth of information but I don’t think a depth that we had in the past.
Today we have more former presidents living than at any other time in history. If you could get them in a room, what is the first question you would ask them?
I would ask them why there’s not a club for former presidents. It’s such a small, exclusive group, yet they rarely meet or advise each other. When Barack Obama was president, he asked me to help organize a group of historians who would come to the White House as the presidents we’ve studied—not dressed in costume but bearing their stories and offering advice and camaraderie.
Your interactions with Lyndon Johnson gave you first-hand experience of this president. In a few years, we’ll be coming up on the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States. Which of our early presidents do you wish you could interview in person?
I would love to get the Founding Fathers all in one room and talk to them—a historian’s dream come true!
You write that the example of Lincoln’s leadership has provided the leaders who came after him with a moral compass. How can Americans in a divided nation rediscover a shared purpose and vision?
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.”
Americans seem to witness new tensions between the press and the White House on a daily basis. Are we in an entirely new era, or has this all happened before?
There have always been tensions between the press and the White House, especially with presidents bristling at criticism. But I do believe we are in new and dangerous territory now in the era of President Trump deeming the press the “enemies of the people” and frequently making “fake news” claims. Think back to Teddy Roosevelt’s time and the kind of collegial relations he formed with the press—inviting reporters to meals, taking questions during his midday shave, welcoming their company at day’s end and, most importantly, absorbing their criticism with grace. A celebrated journalist mercilessly lampooned Roosevelt’s memoir of the Spanish-American War by claiming Roosevelt should have called the book Alone in Cuba, since he placed himself at the center of every action and every battle. Roosevelt replied with a capacity for self-deprecation: “I regret to state that my family and friends are absolutely delighted with your review.”
Many Americans feel we are living in turbulent times. As a historian, what advice do you have for us?
People stop me on the street, in airports and restaurants and ask, “Are these the worst of times?” We are living in turbulent times, certainly, but the worst of times—no. 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 that our best leaders of the past, when faced with challenges of equal if not greater intensity, were not only able to pull our country through, but leave us stronger and more unified than before. We cannot ignore history, 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.
You will be traveling across the country this fall to talk about your book. What do you think audiences will most likely want to ask you about leadership in turbulent times?
With Abraham Lincoln on the cover and my four guys on the back of the book jacket, people have asked me how this book is relevant 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 Lincoln, the two Roosevelts and Johnson set forth a template of shared purpose, collaboration, compromise and civility—the best of our collective identity in times of trouble. Through Leadership: In Turbulent Times, I hope I’ve provided a touchstone, a roadmap, for leaders and citizens alike.
What are you working on next?
I am still thinking about what’s next! In the meantime, I am working on some film and television projects and preparing to spend the next three months traveling around the country talking about leadership.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Leadership.
Author photo credit Annie Leibovitz.