Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin distills critical, well-timed lessons on presidential leadership

In her new book, "Leadership: In Turbulent Times," Doris Kearns Goodwin uses four very different presidents (Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson) to examine their development into remarkable leaders. The author will appear Oct. 1 at Benaroya Hall.

“Leadership: In Turbulent Times,”

by Doris Kearns Goodwi

Simon & Schuster; 496 pp.

Doris Kearns Goodwin has been described as America’s historian-in-chief and it’s a well-deserved title. Over the course of five decades, she has devoted her career to the study of American presidential leadership including Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

“Leadership: In Turbulent Times,” her 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 confronted very different challenges they faced while occupying 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 often are not visible until put to the test. Kearns Goodwin uses these four very different presidents (two Democrats; two Republicans) to examine their backgrounds, experiences and development into remarkable leaders almost eerily suited to the needs of their times.

Kearns Goodwin organizes the book into three sections: First, in separate chapters she reviews each president’s earlier years, rise and remarkable early success. Next, she examines challenges each faced — and surmounted — giving them the grit, determination and perspective necessary to confront their future challenges. Finally, she examines their ultimate test in the White House and how their leadership emerged from the sum of their experiences, trials and lives.

Lincoln, of course, confronted the Civil War, perhaps the greatest challenge ever to face these United States. 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 launched a blizzard of legislative activity, transforming the American economy in his 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 so much more.

Kearns Goodwin traces the very different lives of each of them, as they lived through 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, on the same day, his mother, from typhoid fever.

Franklin Roosevelt was stricken with polio, rendering him barely able to walk, and then only painfully, and primarily used a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Johnson, raised in poverty like Lincoln, had long operated on the principle that if “he could get up earlier and meet more people and stay up later than anybody else,” he could win whatever he set his sights on. His campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in the special election in 1941 to fill a vacancy caused by the death of Sen. Morris Sheppard crushed him with a losing margin of just 1,311 votes.

Each of them could have been destroyed by their fates. Instead, each used the hard lessons as a fulcrum and motivation for future success. Kearns Goodwin uses each to study how leaders grow, where ambition comes from and how adversity affects the growth of an emerging leader.

It would be difficult to imagine someone better suited to lead that study than Kearns Goodwin. She worked for Johnson in the White House, observing presidential power at close range, later helping LBJ to write his memoirs. She published her own study of his 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 acclaimed “Team of Rivals” on Lincoln’s White House and “The Bully Pulpit” on Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

So it’s perhaps no great surprise that Kearns Goodwin has a strong grasp on her subject and is able to distill critical lessons on presidential leadership. It’s as if she spent her entire career simply preparing to write this one volume. It was worth the wait. And well timed: If ever our nation needed a short course on presidential leadership, it is now.

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