'Leadership in Turbulent Times' offers lessons from presidential greats

Doris Kearns Goodwin mines the leadership lessons of presidents she has previously profiled – Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and LBJ – in this moving albeit somewhat lacking survey.

Leadership: In Turbulent Times By Doris Kearns Goodwin Simon & Schuster 496 pp.

When Donald Trump campaigned for the White House, he promised to be a much different president than his predecessors. He has been different, in ways that delight his core supporters and dismay his many critics.

Trump’s presidency has also inspired a number of books by popular historians pointing out that precedent shouldn’t always be dismissed when it comes to leadership. The lessons of the past, these books argue, can be valuable in dealing with new challenges.

David McCullough, best known for his biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams, made that case last year in “The American Spirit,” a collection of his speeches outlining what Americans can learn about handling troubled times from Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Washington, among others. Jon Meacham, celebrated for his books about Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, struck a similar note in “The Soul of America,” his recent survey that included leadership insights from Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, best known for her previous books on Lincoln, TR, FDR and LBJ, is now adding her own contribution to the genre with Leadership in Turbulent Times, which examines key moments in the presidencies of these four men for clues about what principles might benefit leaders of today.

As a former member of LBJ’s staff, Goodwin’s identification with Democrats is well known. But “Leadership in Turbulent Times” doesn’t strike a partisan tone. In fact, Goodwin doesn’t mention Trump at all, although the book’s reference to “turbulent times” will be understood as an oblique commentary on recent headlines.   

Goodwin chronicles Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation as an example of transformational leadership, Theodore Roosevelt’s handling of a coal strike as a case study in crisis management, Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office as a textbook specimen of “turnaround leadership,” and Johnson’s passage of civil rights legislation as an extraordinary expression of visionary leadership.

Although she had the most direct connection with Johnson and clearly liked him, Goodwin is toughest on him in her conclusions, conceding that his miscalculations on the Vietnam War might disqualify him from the greatness bestowed on the other three presidents in her survey. She gives LBJ credit for magnanimity, as when he agreed to hire her as a White House Fellow even though she had prominently opposed his position on the war in southeast Asia. “If I can’t win her over,” he cheerfully boasted, “no one can.” But Johnson wasn’t always so tolerant of dissenting views, she later notes, and when he opted not to follow his better angels, as in casting anti-war activists as “outside agitators,” his presidency suffered.

Goodwin’s real soft spot seems to be for Theodore Roosevelt. Faced with a seemingly intractable coal strike in 1902 that threatened the comfort and safety of many Americans as winter approached, TR had little official authority to intervene. When negotiations stalled, he let key stakeholders know his willingness to seize the coal mines by military force, recruiting a retired general to lead the operation, and securing the general’s pledge to follow presidential orders even if the courts said otherwise. The strike ended, making TR’s scheme moot.

Goodwin hardly raises her eyebrows at TR’s apparent willingness to flout the constitution, essentially declaring himself a dictator. Instead, she records Roosevelt’s move as a salutary nod to his tactical rule: “Don’t hit unless you have to, but when you hit, hit hard.”

Would Goodwin favor a modern-day president ignoring the judicial branch to get his way? It’s an issue she doesn’t fully address, which underscores an occasional problem with “Leadership in Turbulent Times.” It sometimes lacks the intellectual ambition that distinguished Goodwin’s earlier books, reading like previous research for her biographies that’s been repackaged to accommodate the present fad in leadership tutorials. A final chapter on the deaths of her four principal subjects is undeniably moving, but how this extended elegy speaks to exemplary leadership styles isn’t always evident.

The funereal conclusion of “Leadership in Turbulent Times” suggests that political courage and nobility are also dead, which seems precisely the opposite point Goodwin set out to make.

Even so, the book offers much to like. Goodwin notes Lincoln’s habit of venting his frustrations by writing vitriolic letters at those who angered him, then putting the letter aside without sending them. “Not only would Lincoln hold back until his own anger subsided and counsel others to do likewise,” Goodwin tells readers, “he would readily forgive intemperate attacks on himself.”

It isn’t mean-spirited to assume that Trump won’t be reading Goodwin’s book; he has hinted publicly that books aren’t a favored pastime. But Goodwin mentions that lessons in leadership aren’t for presidents alone. The ideal of leading well, she writes, “has not only enriched subsequent leaders but has provided our people with a moral compass to guide us. Such leadership offers us humanity, purpose, and wisdom, not in turbulent times alone, but also in our everyday lives.”                                          

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”  

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