After five decades of magisterial output, matching Pulitzer Prize-winning quality with best-selling appeal, Doris Kearns Goodwin leads the league of presidential historians.
Insight is her imprint, as shown in her grand narratives of Abraham Lincoln (“Team of Rivals”), Theodore Roosevelt (“The Bully Pulpit”), Franklin Roosevelt (“No Ordinary Time”) and LBJ (“Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream”), all definitive explorations of how American leadership melds character, style and strategy.
Goodwin’s timing is equally peerless. Her new book “Leadership: In Turbulent Times” (Simon & Schuster, $30) “is about today,” she says, meant to “shine a spotlight on the absence of leadership in our country …”
Elegantly, she gathers the deeply researched strands of her big books to focus on the formative qualities of her White House heroes: Lincoln’s folksy people skills, the two Roosevelts’ energy and empathy, Johnson’s force of personality and sense of purpose.
The result is a fascinating study in contrasts, beautifully structured, as Goodwin alternates case studies of each president to examine the youthful roots of their ambition, their growth amid adversity, and their ultimate challenges. At under 400 pages, this book is half the length of her individual biographies.
It offers succinct lessons in leadership under pressure for each president.
Lincoln’s transformational touch
At an uncertain point of the Civil War, Lincoln delayed signing a prepared draft of his Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves of the Confederacy, until Jan. 1, 1863. Despite fears it would cause race wars in the South and lead Union officers to resign, the proclamation reflected Lincoln’s gift for measuring diverse opinion and then acting decisively.
“The dogmas of the past are inadequate to the stormy present,” he told Congress. Goodwin notes how Lincoln carefully marked “this great revolution in public sentiment slowly but surely progressing.”
Theodore Roosevelt’s crisis management
The Great Coal strike of 1902 was Theodore Roosevelt’s first major leadership test, as the nation’s largest union, the United Mine Workers, pressed a walkout that threatened a U.S. shortage of heating fuel — and a bloody civil disturbance —as winter approached.
Roosevelt had no legal authority to intervene in the strike, Goodwin writes, and risked political disaster if he failed to solve it. But he believed, as did Lincoln, that the presidency required him “to do whatever the needs of the people demand,” unless explicitly forbidden by the Constitution or the law. Patiently and methodically, Roosevelt was able to resolve the strike after appointing a commission to reliably assess every aspect of it, assembling a crisis-management team, and by focusing single-mindedly on winning support for a solution.
By the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933, America’s Great Depression had caused thousands of banks to collapse.
“Starving people wandered the streets,” Goodwin writes. “Food riots broke out.”
Roosevelt’s famous First Hundred Days remain the exemplar of turnaround leadership. While working to stem the banking crisis, Roosevelt faced the nation with a balance of realism and optimism.
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth,” he declared.
Infusing a sense of shared purpose and direction, Roosevelt’s administration was experimental and adaptable in forging a “New Deal” for the American people.
“Roosevelt’s gift of communication proved the vital instrument,” Goodwin writes.
LBJ’s visionary drive
Taking office amid the trauma of John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, Lyndon Baines Johnson was “a master mechanic of the legislative process,” Goodwin notes, and he was determined to use his political skills to forge his vision of a “Great Society.”
His foremost objective was passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that had been floundering in Congress under Kennedy. Despite Southern opposition, Johnson knew he could only win by simplifying his agenda, delivering on promised tax cuts and mastering the narrative of civil rights.
He succeeded, Goodwin makes clear, by following the clear examples set by the Roosevelts and Lincoln.