From Lincoln To LBJ, Doris Kearns Goodwin Examines What It Means To Lead

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In this Oct. 7, 2013, file photo, author Doris Kearns Goodwin poses for a portrait at her home in Concord, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP)
In this Oct. 7, 2013, file photo, author Doris Kearns Goodwin poses for a portrait at her home in Concord, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP)

In her new book "Leadership: In Turbulent Times," author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin examines that quality in Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

Here & Now's Robin Young visited Goodwin (@DorisKGoodwin) at her home to talk about the book and her husband, speechwriter Richard Goodwin, who died earlier this year.

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "Leadership"

Interview Highlights

On her husband Richard Goodwin, and the "We Shall Overcome" speech he wrote for President Johnson in 1965

"The most important thing about a speech is, does it mobilize people to action? And the great thing it did was, by using the phrase, 'We shall overcome,' it meant that [Johnson] was connecting to the civil rights movement, and when you have the person in power and this movement coming from the outside in, then that's when you really get something. ... It's an amazing speech. It starts out, 'Every now and then, history and fate meet at a certain place, at a certain time. So it was at Lexington and Concord, so it was in Appomattox, so it was in Selma, Alabama.' ... He had only that day to write the speech. I couldn't do it if my life depended on it. There's no way, honest to God."

Richard Goodwin receives the pen that signed the Voting Rights Act from President Lyndon Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965. (Courtesy)
Richard Goodwin receives the pen that signed the Voting Rights Act from President Lyndon Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965. (Courtesy)

On the connection, or lack of connection, between the four presidents she focuses on in her book and President Trump

"I think one of the most important qualities in a leader is the ability to be self-reflective: to acknowledge your errors, to learn from your mistakes, to grow as a leader. And all four of these men had had extraordinary experience in public life, and they were able to have humility, which means they accepted their limitations.

"Leadership studies have shown that people who go through adversity and come out the other side stronger than they were before they went in, it gives them a foundation. Like for example, FDR said, when people said, 'How can you deal with all these pressures that you're under as president?' And he laughed, but I think he meant it. He said, 'If you spend two years' — because of his paralysis — 'trying to move your big toe, then somehow that's not going to seem so bad,' whatever you're going through. And he learned humility. He became a different person through the polio. He had always been charming, he was always a naturally gregarious person. But having had to spend four years just trying to walk again ... when he first got the polio, his back and his chest wasn't even strong, so he would ask to be lifted from his wheelchair to crawl on the floor of his library to strengthen his back. And then he tried to tackle stairs, going up one stair at a time, crawling to the top. And the important thing is that when he got to the top, they'd have celebrations."

"Leadership: In Turbulent Times," by Doris Kearns Goodwin. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Leadership: In Turbulent Times," by Doris Kearns Goodwin. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

On President Theodore Roosevelt, who has been compared to Trump, and her admiring take on Roosevelt

"I think he proved himself with the Rough Riders, when he was with them, to be a leader. He figured out how to mobilize them, to give them the courage and the camaraderie and the morale. So whether or not it's a good thing to want to be in a war — which I think sometimes he did just to show his mettle — maybe that's because he was an asthmatic kid, and he used to read all these books about explorers and courageous people and he wanted to be them when he couldn't. But there always is something about Teddy, I mean his daughter Alice said that he so wanted to be in the center of attention, that he wanted to be 'the baby at the baptism, the bride at the wedding and the corpse at the funeral.' So there is that [likeness] too, or similarity perhaps, to President Trump."

"I think one of the most important qualities in a leader is the ability to be self-reflective: to acknowledge your errors, to learn from your mistakes, to grow as a leader."

Doris Kearns Goodwin

On whether the truth matters less than it used to

"If words don't matter and if the truth doesn't matter, I think that that is a worrisome thing about our democracy. I mean in general, what I'd like to believe that these four stories show, [is] that these men lived in far more turbulent times than ours, obviously. You have Lincoln coming in when there's going to be a civil war, 600,000 people are going to die. Teddy Roosevelt's at the height of the industrial revolution. Things were more shaken up than they are today. In fact, there's a similarity with I think what made Trump win the election, because at Teddy's time, there was a big gap between the rich and the poor that had arisen. People in the rural areas felt cut off from the big cities. Immigrants were coming in from abroad. People felt it wasn't the same America that they had known. And luckily in that case, Theodore Roosevelt understood those feelings and he would take train trips around the country — both to the states he lost and to the states he won — so that he could mobilize a unified spirit for the country.

"I think their political experience, which was broad for most of them, taught them empathy. Lincoln may have been born with empathy — being able to understand other people's feelings and feel them. But each one of them learned that through their experiences. Teddy said, when he first started off in public life, that he wasn't conscious of going into politics to help other people. He just thought it would be an adventure to go into it."

On what her husband might have written in a speech for one of the four men in her book

"It was interesting, I mean, even in these last years as he was working on his own book about America, it was really about his love affair with the idea of America. That's what, in a way, was his foundation, and it was all my guys' foundation. I do call them 'my guys' sometimes, because I feel familiar with them having lived with them so many years. And there's a connection between all of them, that they were all somehow connected to the founding ideals of the country, whether that's equality or freedom or liberty. They really felt that sense."

More Photos

Richard Goodwin escorting first lady Jackie Kennedy. (Courtesy)
Richard Goodwin escorting first lady Jackie Kennedy. (Courtesy)
A photograph of Doris Kearns Goodwin with her husband Richard in their home. (Robin Young/Here & Now)
A photograph of Doris Kearns Goodwin with her husband Richard in their home. (Robin Young/Here & Now)
A view inside Doris Kearns Goodwin's home. (Robin Young/Here & Now)
A view inside Doris Kearns Goodwin's home. (Robin Young/Here & Now)
Bookshelves inside Doris Kearns Goodwin's home. (Robin Young/Here & Now)
Bookshelves inside Doris Kearns Goodwin's home. (Robin Young/Here & Now)

Book Excerpt: 'Leadership'

by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson—the lives and times of these four men have occupied me for half a century. I have awakened with them in the morning and thought about them when I went to bed at night. By immersing myself in manuscript collections, personal diaries, letters, oral histories, memoirs, newspaper archives, and periodicals, I searched for illuminating details that, taken together, would provide an intimate understanding of these men, their families, their friends, their colleagues, and the worlds in which they lived.

After writing four extensive books devoted to these men, I thought I knew them well before I embarked on this present study of leadership nearly five years ago. But as I observed them through the exclusive lens of leadership, I felt as if I were meeting them anew. There was much to learn as the elusive theme of leadership assumed center stage. As I turned to works of philosophy, literature, business, political science, and comparative studies, in addition to history and biography, I found myself engaged in an unexpectedly personal and emotional kind of storytelling. I returned to fundamental questions I had not asked so openly since my days of college and graduate school.

Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? How does adversity affect the growth of leadership? Do the times make the leader or does the leader shape the times? How can a leader infuse a sense of purpose and meaning into people’s lives? What is the difference between power, title, and leadership? Is leadership possible without a purpose larger than personal ambition? How fondly I remember long and heated sessions over just such questions with my graduate school friends, arguing through the night with a fervor surpassing our level of knowledge. Yet, at bottom, something in these discussions was exactly on the mark, for they engaged us deeply, tapped our idealism, and challenged us to figure out how we wanted to live our own lives. I realize now that debates such as these put me on the path to find my own calling as a historian.

In Part One we see the four men when they first entered public life. In their twenties, when they set forth to forge their public identities, they appear very different from the sober, iconic countenances that have since saturated our culture, currency, and memorial sculpture. Their paths were anything but certain. Their stories abound in confusion, hope, failure, and fear. We follow mistakes made along the way, from inexperience, cockiness, lack of caution, outright misjudgments, and selfishness, and see the efforts made to acknowledge, conceal, or overcome these mistakes. Their struggles are not so different from our own.

No single path carried them to the pinnacle of political leadership. Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt were born to extraordinary privilege and wealth. Abraham Lincoln endured relentless poverty. Lyndon Johnson experienced sporadic hard times. They differed widely in temperament, appearance, and physical ability. They were endowed with a divergent range of qualities often ascribed to leadership—intelligence, energy, empathy, verbal and written gifts, and skills in dealing with people. They were united, however, by a fierce ambition, an inordinate drive to succeed. With perseverance and hard work, they all essentially made themselves leaders by enhancing and developing the qualities they were given.

All four men were recognized as leaders long before they reached the presidency. And like rocks in a polishing cylinder, all four were brought to shine by tumbling contact with a wide variety of people. They had found their vocation in politics. “I have often thought,” American philosopher William James wrote of the mysterious formation of identity, “that the best way to define a man’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely alive and active. At such moments, there is a voice inside which speaks and says, ‘This is the real me!’ ”

Dramatic reversals that shattered the private and public lives of all four men are the subject of Part Two. They were at different life stages when forced to deal with events that ruptured their sense of self and threatened to curtail their prospects. The nature of the adversity that assailed each was unique: Abraham Lincoln suffered a blow to his public reputation and his private sense of honor that led to a near-suicidal depression; Theodore Roosevelt lost his young wife and his mother on the same day; Franklin Roosevelt was struck by polio and left permanently paralyzed from the waist down; Lyndon Johnson lost an election to the United States Senate. To draw an analogy between an election loss and the tragic reversals experienced by the others would appear, on the surface, ludicrous; but Lyndon Johnson construed rejection by the people as a judgment upon, and a repudiation of, his deepest self. For a long while, the election loss negatively changed the direction of his career until a massive heart attack and the proximity of death repurposed his life.

Scholars who have studied the development of leaders have situated resilience, the ability to sustain ambition in the face of frustration, at the heart of potential leadership growth. More important than what happened to them was how they responded to these reversals, how they managed in various ways to put themselves back together, how these watershed experiences at first impeded, then deepened, and finally and decisively molded their leadership.

Part Three will bring the four men to the White House. There, at their formidable best, when guided by a sense of moral purpose, they were able to channel their ambitions and summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others. Specific stories of how they led will explore the riddle: Do leaders shape the times or do the times summon their leaders?

“If there is not the war,” Theodore Roosevelt mused, “you don’t get the great general; if there is not a great occasion, you don’t get the great statesman; if Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would have known his name now.” Roosevelt’s debatable notions voice opinions heard from the beginning of our country. “It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed,” Abigail Adams wrote to her son John Quincy Adams in the midst of the American Revolution, suggesting that “the habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.” The four leaders presented in this book confronted “great necessities.” All took office at moments of uncertainty and dislocation in extremis. Abraham Lincoln entered the presidency at the gravest moment of dissolution in American history. Franklin Roosevelt encountered a decisive crisis of confidence in our country’s economic survival and the viability of democracy itself. Though neither Theodore Roosevelt nor Lyndon Johnson faced a national crisis on the scale of secession or devastating economic depression, they both assumed office as a result of an assassination, a violent rupture of the democratic mode of succession at a time when seismic tremors had begun to rattle the social order.

While the nature of the era a leader chances to occupy profoundly influences the nature of the leadership opportunity, the leader must be ready when that opportunity presents itself. One leader’s skills, strengths, and style may be suited for the times; those of another, less so. 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 freewheeling experimentation. President John Kennedy lacked the unrivaled legislative skill and focus that Lyndon Johnson brought to the central issue of the time—civil rights.

“Rarely was man so fitted to the event,” observed philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson when eulogizing Abraham Lincoln at the Church of the First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts. One would be hard put to invent a leader who could have better guided us through the darkest days of the Civil War, a leader both merciful and merciless, confident and humble, patient and persistent—able to mediate among factions, sustain our spirits, and translate the meaning of the struggle into words of matchless force, clarity, and beauty. Yet, a similar statement might be made of Theodore Roosevelt, whose spirited combativeness was perfectly fitted to the task of mobilizing the country and the press to deal with voracious monopolies and the inequities of the Industrial Age. We could say the same of Franklin Roosevelt, whose confidence and infectious optimism restored the hope and earned the trust of the American people through both the Great Depression and World War II—or of Lyndon Johnson, whose southern roots and legislative wizardry ideally fitted him for the great civil rights struggle that altered the face of the country.

Four case studies will reveal these vastly different men in action during defining events of their times and presidencies. These four extended examples show how their leadership fit the historical moment as a key fits a lock. No key is exactly the same; each has a different line of ridges and notches along its blade. While there is neither a master key to leadership nor a common lock of historical circumstance, we can detect a certain family resemblance of leadership traits as we trace the alignment of leadership capacity within its historical context.

There is little question that the first three leaders studied here—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt—rank among our greatest presidents. Despite flawed decisions and mistaken judgments, all have been accorded a stable and honored place in communal memory.

The case of Lyndon Johnson is more problematic. I have wrestled with his place in history since the days when I worked with him in the White House as a twenty-four-year-old White House Fellow. That White House fellowship nearly came to an unceremonious end before it had even gotten started. Like many young people in my generation, I had been active in the anti Vietnam War movement. Several months before my selection, a fellow graduate student and I had written an article, which we sent to The New Republic, calling for a third party candidate to challenge Lyndon Johnson in 1968. The New Republic published the article days after my selection as a Fellow had been announced. I was certain I would be dismissed from the program, but surprisingly, President Johnson said: “Oh bring her down here for a year and if I can’t win her over no one can!” I stayed on after the fellowship and when his presidency was over accompanied him to the Texas ranch to assist him with his memoirs.

While Johnson’s conduct during the war will continue to tarnish his legacy, the passing years have made clear that his leadership in civil rights and his domestic vision in the Great Society will stand the test of time.

Lyndon Johnson entered Congress as a protégé of Franklin Roosevelt. From his desk in the Oval Office, Johnson gazed directly across to a painting of his “political daddy” whose domestic agenda in the New Deal he sought to surpass with his own Great Society. As a young man, Franklin Roosevelt had daydreamed of his own political ascent molded step by step upon the career of Theodore Roosevelt. From childhood, Theodore Roosevelt’s great hero was Abraham Lincoln, whose patient resolve and freedom from vindictiveness blazed a trail that Theodore Roosevelt sought to follow all his life. And for Abraham Lincoln, the closest he found to an ideal leader was George Washington, whom he invoked when he bade farewell to his home in 1861, drawing strength from the first president as he left Illinois to assume a task “greater than that which rested upon Washington.” If George Washington was the father of his country, then by affiliation and affinity, Abraham Lincoln was his prodigious son. These four men form a family tree, a lineage of leadership that spans the entirety of our country’s history.

It is my hope that these stories of leadership in times of fracture and fear will prove instructive and reassuring. These men set a standard and a bar for all of us. Just as they learned from one another, so we can learn from them. And from them gain a better perspective on the discord of our times. For leadership does not exist in a void. Leadership is a twoway street. “I have only been an instrument,” Lincoln insisted, with both accuracy and modesty, “the antislavery people of the country and the army have done it all.” The progressive movement helped pave the way for Theodore Roosevelt’s “Square Deal,” much as the civil rights movement provided the fuel to ignite the righteous and pragmatic activism that enabled the Great Society. And no one communicated with people and heard their voices more clearly than Franklin Roosevelt. He absorbed their stories, listened carefully, and for a generation held a nonstop conversation with the people.

“With public sentiment, nothing can fail,” Abraham Lincoln said, “without it nothing can succeed.” Such a leader is inseparably linked to the people. Such leadership is a mirror in which the people see their collective reflection.

Excerpted from Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Copyright © 2018 by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

This segment aired on September 18, 2018.


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