Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times, is, as one would expect from the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, a thoughtful analysis that deserves to be taken seriously. At a time when the country has entered the public phase of Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry and as the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination—and perhaps the soul of the country—escalates during the twelve months before the 2020 election, there are lessons to be learned from the past.
This 2018 work is a study of the life of four presidents and the ways in which they addressed major issues in fractured times: Abraham Lincoln (winning the war, ending slavery and saving the union); Theodore Roosevelt (responding to the sharp inequities and unfairness of the industrial revolution); Franklin D. Roosevelt (rebuilding a country out of the Great Depression); and Lyndon B. Johnson (the fight to ensure civil rights for all Americans).
Kearns Goodwin observes that we have come through difficult periods before. In a more troubling sense, she also makes it clear that we have always had scoundrels in positions of power in our government, individuals who are only interested in self-gratification and enrichment.
In looking for the lessons to take from the profiles in her book, Kearns Goodwin calls out similarities and differences between the four presidents. Their resilience in the face of serious personal hardships—in these cases poverty, depression, polio, and the death of a young spouse—is a shared trait that rises to the forefront when considering their life’s work. All four of the national crises they faced called for a strong sense of moral purpose—a quality I see missing from too many in positions of power when facing our existential crisis in democracy. Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and Johnson were each ambitious, but that’s hardly exceptional among men and women who believe they can lead the United States. More importantly, in these four presidents, ambition did not get in the way of their moral compass. In each instance outlined in Leadership, crucial decisions were made to enlarge opportunities for others.
There’s one other shared characteristic of these four leaders: boldness.
Today, we have timid politicians and a smug pundit class, each supported by political consultants and a corporate-sponsored media culture, who push against big, bold ideas. The former Republican speech writer David Frum, in a recent article in The Atlantic, sums up the Washington Beltway conventional wisdom when he lays out all the reasons why we’re in trouble, no matter if Trump leaves office through impeachment, a close loss, or a blowout win for the Democrats. In Frum’s telling, the resources don’t exist for the bold ideas being proposed to respond to financial inequities, a broken health care system, and environmental disaster; proposals put forward to reshape society to support the public at the expense of the rich and ruling classes. And, in any event, he asserts that the one-third of the country that supports Trump’s backwards-looking agenda, won’t let anything happen that affects their place of privilege.
Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Johnson all faced strong opposition and limited resources (at least on the face of things) for transformational change. Guess what? They all led, instead of listening to the conventional wisdom of the day.
Surprisingly, a current counterpoint to Frum comes from John F. Harris at Politico, who, as the founding managing editor at that online site, built a news and commentary platform that is famous for focusing on the game of politics at the exclusion of substance. But in stepping back from that role, he has shown some surprising self-awareness in noting that the bias of much of the pundit class is a centrist bias. He admits to having that bias himself, but then notes that it is usually the radicals who write history.
Harris quotes historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s skepticism about Bill Clinton’s middle-of-the-road path to uniting the country in the 1990s.
“Great presidents,” he told me, “are unifiers mostly in retrospect.”
In their own times, he noted, they divide the country over large questions—slavery, civil rights, the proper role of government versus the private sector—and only later “unite the country at a new level of understanding.”
That observation is right in line with Kearns Goodwin’s assessment of leadership.
I appreciate all that Frum, who writes regularly for The Atlantic; Jennifer Rubin (who is spot on in her commentary) and Max Boot at the Washington Post; Nicolle Wallace (who I watch daily) and Steve Schmidt at MSNBC; and even George Will and the other former Republicans and Never-Trumpers have done to call out the damage and hypocrisy of the Republican Party and the Trump administration over the past three years. However, in my estimation they should not be given, or expect, a role—small or outsized—in helping Democrats choose their next nominee to lead the party and hopefully the country forward. All of them worked in the recent past for a party whose core beliefs align with the corporate and wealthy classes and against a broad, inclusive view of America. And as Harris suggests, as much as he might want to be proven wrong, real change comes from those who think boldly and listen to the people who are burning for change.
In last Monday’s Washington Post, Daniel W. Drezner—a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University—calls out the beltway pundits for their myopic and cocooned way-of-life. Whenever he talks to D.C.-based folks,
“…the despair runs deep. I was in the District last week, and less than two weeks after the Washington Nationals shocked the baseball world the city is in a serious funk, fearing another five years of Donald Trump. Elizabeth Warren’s rise has triggered an allergic reaction among the Beltway’s centrist tribe. Last week’s New York Times/Siena battleground poll showed Warren losing to Trump across a swath of key states. That one poll caused an awful lot of panic in D.C. and, I suspect, played a significant role in Michael Bloomberg’s gold-plated trial balloon.”
Leadership, whether in politics or the media, involves—duh—leading. Yet so much of what we see these days is based on incremental moves, following polls, scoring points on Twitter, and covering one’s behind. Drezner points out that “premature pessimism is a lousy way to go through life.”
We are at one of the most turbulent times in national history. We have politicians who are having difficulty upholding their oath to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We have a corporate pundit class that controls much of what we hear. We have a large and influential right-wing corporate infotainment network funded by many of the industries that are at the heart of our country’s problems. We have billionaires who are up in arms that they may get taxed at a higher rate than their personal assistants and other members of the working class. We have a Supreme Court increasingly dominated by political hacks put into power by outright lies and blatant disregard of the Constitution.
And yet I am hopeful. Because there are people—yes, leaders—who take their oath of office seriously and have stepped forward to defend the rule of law. People like Ambassador Marie Yovanovich. Quiet yet strong leaders who show more character in one morning’s worth of testimony than that shown in the past three years by a former top-of-his-class graduate at West Point who now, as Secretary of State, can’t seem to find the words to support his staff in the face of bullying by our bully-in-chief.
Kearns Goodwin ends her book with a chapter entitled “On Death and Remembrance” and she rightly chooses Lincoln—our greatest president and leader—to close this section. As she notes, “The master story Lincoln told grew deeper and simpler throughout his life. It was the narrative of our country, the birth of our democracy, and the development of freedom within our Union.” She notes that, beginning with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the future president “invited his audiences on a communal storytelling journey so they might collectively understand the dilemma of slavery in a free country and, together, fashion a solution.”
She continues with,
“At Gettysburg, he challenged the living to finish ‘the unfinished work’ for which so many soldiers had given their lives—that ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.’ At the Second Inaugural, Lincoln asked his countrymen ‘to strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.’ These same words nourished Franklin Roosevelt. He drew upon them, he said, because Abraham Lincoln had set goals for the future ‘ in terms of which the human mind cannot improve.'”
Lincoln, in Kearns Goodwin’s telling, “continued to grow into a leader who became so powerfully fused with the problems tearing his country apart that his desire to lead and his need to serve coalesced into a single indomitable force. That force has not only enriched subsequent leaders but has provided our people with a moral compass to guide us.”
Let’s find and support the leaders who will point toward regaining our nation’s moral compass and—working with all Americans—do the hard, bold work required over the months, years, and decades ahead with “humanity, purpose, and wisdom.”
More to come…