Review: Leadership in Turbulent Times


Leadership in Turbulent TimesDoris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: A study of how four presidents led the nation during turbulent times, tracing their awakening leadership ambitions, the adversity that formed their character, and lessons from how they led.

What distinguishes great leadership from the ordinary or the mediocre? Are leaders born or made? Are leaders great because of, or in spite of, their times? For answers to these and other questions about leadership, many have studied different U.S. Presidents, individuals with, arguably, the most challenging leadership job in the world. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has made a career of studying presidents, publishing four landmark biographies on Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, (and his successor William Howard Taft). In this work, she returns to these four figures, and considers them side by side–four very different men, each who met great challenges and decisively led the nation through them.

The book is organized into three parts. The first traces the awakening ambition of each man. Lincoln leaves an abusive father, educates himself, establishes a law practice and makes his first run for office. Teddy Roosevelt grows up mentored by a respected and wealthy father, overcomes physical weakness, marries Alice, who he met while in college, and goes to the New York legislature “rising like a rocket.” Franklin Roosevelt, a distant relative of Theodore, enjoyed strong formative relationships with both parents, was sociable, learning more by listening than by reading, meeting the president as a young man, and charting a career trajectory that followed in Teddy’s path. Lyndon Johnson was described as a “steam engine in pants,” who learned early to find paths to power by getting near the powerful, beginning with work as an assistant to his college president.

The second part looks at the role adversity played in the lives of each man and how it deepened and focused their ambitions. Lincoln, who went to the legislature with a program of infrastructure improvements, left office after a term, in shame, unable to fulfill his pledge to marry Mary Todd, because of the failure of the economy and the collapse of the programs he helped start. He was depressed to the point that friends considered the threat of suicide. He determined that “he must die or be better.” Teddy Roosevelt lost his beloved wife and his mother within hours, and fled to a ranch in the west where work with tough and resilient men formed his health and healed his soul. He resolved to return, beginning a career as a progressive reformer that eventually took him to the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt was struck down in the prime of life with polio, and rebuilt his upper body strength, started a polio clinic at Sulphur Springs, and finally was convinced and convinced others that he could pursue the highest office. Lyndon Johnson, shortly after becoming Senate Majority Leader has a heart attack, a determines to return to the social programs, including civil rights, that had been at the heart of his early ambitions but had gotten lost in a quest for political power.

The final part looks at how each led during the turbulent time in which they were president–Lincoln in the Civil War and making the Emancipation Proclamation, Teddy Roosevelt in using his office to resolve a protracted national coal strike, Franklin Roosevelt in turning around the country and giving it hope in the depths of the Depression, and Johnson, in succeeding to the office after the Kennedy assassination, and passing a sweeping program of social legislation from civil and voting rights to Medicare.

In the third part, Goodwin draws lessons from the leadership of each president. Here, for example, are the lessons drawn from Lincoln’s presidency:

  • Acknowledge when failed policies demand a change in direction.
  • Gather firsthand information, ask questions.
  • Find time and space in which to think.
  • Exhaust all possibility of compromise before imposing unilateral executive power.
  • Anticipate contending viewpoints.
  • Assume full responsibility for a pivotal decision.
  • Understand the emotional needs of each member of the team.
  • Refuse to let past resentments fester, transcend personal vendetta.
  • Set a standard of mutual respect and dignity; control anger.
  • Shield colleagues from blame.
  • Maintain perspective in the face of both accolades and abuse.
  • Find ways to cope with pressure, maintain balance, replenish energy.
  • Keep your word.
  • Know when to hold back, when to move forward.
  • Combine transactional and transformational leadership.
  • Be accessible, easy to approach.
  • Put ambition for the collective interest above self-interest.

Each point is elaborated with specific examples. One gains both an appreciation of the personal greatness of each president, and the hard and soft skills of each president. Obviously, this is a great text for any who aspire to lead, if one has the drive, like Lincoln, to be better. It also sets a high bar in the qualities we look for in our presidents. She goes lightly on shortcomings, apart from a discussion of the failure of Johnson’s handling of Vietnam.

Having read three of the four presidential books by Doris Kearns Goodwin, I wondered if this would just be a re-hash of her prior works, re-treading old material. Certainly, she draws upon that and her narrative of working with Lyndon Johnson tracks closely with that in her Johnson book. What is fresh and distinct in this book is how she focuses in on leadership, as well as the setting of these four presidents side by side. Each of the succeeding presidents she studies was influenced by the former–Teddy Roosevelt by Abraham Lincoln, Franklin by Teddy, Johnson by Franklin Roosevelt. This book is a challenge, in what many of us would consider a turbulent time, to the kind of people we will be, and the kind of people we choose to serve in leading us.

Review: Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Lyndon Johnson and the American DreamDoris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published in 1976).

Summary: A biography of the 36th president exploring his ambitions, political skills, and vision, shaped by his family and upbringing, and marred by Vietnam, written from the unique perspective of a White House Fellowship and post-presidential interviews.

This month, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Timeswill hit the bookstores. The book explores lessons learned from her biographies of four presidents, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. The book that began her study of presidential leadership was her biography of Lyndon Johnson, first published in 1976. In a Goodreads interview about her new book, she describes how her personal encounter with Lyndon Johnson led to her career as a writer and historian:

“I became a historian first, and then a writer. In graduate school, I was working on my thesis on Supreme Court history when I was selected to join the White House Fellows, one of America’s most prestigious programs for leadership and public service. At the White House celebration of the newly chosen Fellows, President Johnson asked me to dance—not that peculiar, as there were only a few women in the program. He told me he wanted me to be assigned directly to him, but it was not to be that simple. 

For like many young people, I had been active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and had co-authored an article that called for the removal of LBJ, published in the New Republic several days after the White House dance. Despite this, LBJ said: “Bring her down here for a year, and if I can’t win her over, no one can.” I worked with LBJ in the White House and later assisted him in the writing of his memoirs. I will forever be grateful to him because there’s no question that my experience working for him shaped my desire to become a presidential historian.”

That experience of working personally for and with Johnson, both in the White House, and later, on his ranch, gave her unique access into Johnson’s self-conception of his life, his House and Senate experience, and his exercise of presidential leadership. Goodwin renders a story of a young man torn between the high hopes and expectations of his mother, and the much easier and more personable style of his father. He hated formal speaking but was the consummate student of people who knew how to make deals and get things done. From his cultivation of a relationship with a university president, a congressional aide who rapidly makes others beholden followers, several terms in the House, a failed, and then successful Senate bid and his rapid rise to Senate Majority Leader, we see someone who studied those around him, learned how to accrue power to himself by bestowing benefits to his followers, receiving their support, if not love, in return.

Presidential ambitions required a different set of skills that Kennedy had and Johnson lacked. Failing his bid in 1960 for the presidency, he accepts the role of Vice President, thinking he could use the methods that worked so well throughout his life, only to find, as have so many, that the office of Vice President has great status, and no power, or potential for such, unless the President dies. Thrust into the presidency by Kennedy’s death, he uses his Senate leader skills to continue and realize Kennedy’s vision, articulated by Johnson as the Great Society. In his first year, and the year after his landslide election, he enacts landmark Civil Rights legislation (as a President from the South) and social legislation including Medicare. Foreign affairs, never a strong suit, struck in the form of Vietnam, a war he could neither win nor walk away from. Goodwin explores why and describes his efforts to sustain his social programs while escalating the war, and the disastrous consequences to his social agenda, and to the economy until the epiphany of the Tet offensive and the McCarthy and Kennedy candidacies made it plain that he could not win in 1968.

Goodwin spent extensive time with Johnson in his last years, and narrates his inability to write his memoirs, his conversations about his presidency, and Vietnam, and his deep frustration from trying to bestow so much of benefit on the country, only to be reviled by the demonstrators and so many others (Goodwin among them). A combination of meticulous research and up close and personal contact helps us understand the tremendous force of personality that made Johnson great, and the flaws that cast a shadow on what, otherwise, might have been a great presidency. I tend to approach psychological portraits with some skepticism, but her accounts of Johnson in his own words, his actions and her rendering of his character has an internal consistency that offers deep insight into a man for whom I had little respect growing up. Now I find myself longing for the political mastery and vision he exhibited at his best leading the enactment of the Civil Rights legislation which was perhaps his proudest legacy.

Doris Kearns Goodwin has gone on to give us memorable portraits of Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and even the Brooklyn Dodgers of her youth. This was her debut effort and reveals the promise of all that would come from her pen over the last forty years. Perhaps the publication of Leadership in Turbulent Times might encourage some to go back and read the work that led to her distinguished career as a presidential scholar.


Review: The Bully Pulpit

Bully PulpitWow. Biography of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the best of the “muck-raking” investigative journalists all in one book! Doris Kearns Goodwin pulls this off by exploring the interaction of these three in promoting Progressivism in early twentieth century America. What Goodwin highlights in particular, justifying her title, was the skillful use of the “bully pulpit” of the presidency by Theodore Roosevelt, including the close relationships he developed with writers like William Allen White, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. By contrast, Taft, with a more judicial temperament, tended to allow his speeches and policies to speak for themselves.

Having read Edmund Morris’s three volume biography of Roosevelt recently, I did not find this book casting much new light on Roosevelt except that it seemed that Goodwin probably took a less favorable view of Roosevelt’s role in the breach of the friendship between him and Taft over the 1912 election where he ran against Taft.

What I found particularly illuminating in this book were the portraits of Taft and of the investigative journalists brought together by Sam McClure. Taft is from my home state and was more or less an unknown to me before this novel. Goodwin’s portrait not only underscores his strengths as a jurist and as an administrator, but also that this is a man whose friendship one would count as precious, as did Roosevelt until the break between them. Taft ably governed the Philippines after America’s victory in its war against Spain, putting down insurgencies and turning over government to the Filipino people, albeit an elite. He always wanted to sit on the Supreme Court more than wanting to be president and considered being named Chief Justice in 1921 the highest honor of his life. That he was elected president was a result as much as anything of Nellie Taft’s ambitions and Roosevelt’s orchestration. Sadly, Nellie was afflicted with stroke ten weeks into her husband’s term of office and never fully enjoyed being First Lady. It was Taft who initiated reconciliation with Roosevelt in 1918, less than a year before Roosevelt died, and he who stood quietly weeping at Roosevelt’s grave.

Equally fascinating was Goodwin’s account of the writers for McClures and Sam McClure himself, who took investigative journalism to a high point that may have been matched but probably not exceeded by others. Ida Tarbell’s work investigating the monopolistic practices of Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller represented years of careful tracking down of information, interviews with sources on all sides and an effort to achieve a balance of reporting that made the case against Standard Oil all the more convincing. Such reporting served as a valuable adjunct to Roosevelt’s reform efforts, creating the public support that enabled Roosevelt to fight business interests.

Because of the focus on the presidencies of Roosevelt and Taft, other aspects of their lives, and particularly their life after the presidency are covered in a more cursory manner than in a focused biography. But the relationship of presidents with the press is crucial to the effective use of presidential power, and thus, this is a landmark study with continuing relevance.

Je Suis Ida

"Ida M Tarbell crop" by On recto: J.E. Purdy & Co. Copyright by J.E. Purdy, Boston. - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Ida M Tarbell crop” by On recto: J.E. Purdy & Co. Copyright by J.E. Purdy, Boston. – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

There has been a lot of media attention on the “Je suis Charlie” movement after the execrable terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo editorial staff. I’m not going to enter into the discussion of freedom of the press vs. respecting religious sensitivities. I am not familiar with Charlie Hebdo except from the news coverage. Broadly speaking, I defend press freedoms to the hilt while at the same time wanting to hold the press to standards of responsible journalism that recognize the power of images and rhetoric either to inflame or promote deeper understanding. I will leave the discussion of Charlie Hebdo to others.

What I would like to do is hold up an ideal of responsible journalism that I came across in reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. One of the delightful surprises in her book is her account of some of the journalists that covered Roosevelt, Taft, and their age, particularly the group of journalists Sam McClure gathered to write for his monthly publication, McClure’s Magazine.

One of the figures who stands out, along with Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and William Allen White is Ida M. Tarbell. For my Youngstown friends, she began her career as a teacher at Poland Seminary (now Poland Seminary High School in Poland, Ohio). She later went to France to pursue post graduate studies on the life of Madame Roland. It was here that McClure recruited her to write a series of articles on Napolean Bonaparte. Subsequently she researched and wrote a 20-part series on Abraham Lincoln that stood out particularly for the meticulous research into Lincoln’s childhood and youth.

Meticulous research marked everything Tarbell wrote, and nothing more than the 12 part series she wrote on John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil that led to the breakup of Standard Oil’s monopoly on the oil business. She spent nearly three years doing careful research of depositions, company and government documents, interviews with oil producers forced out of business by Rockefeller, and even a partner of Standard Oil, Henry H. Rogers, who provided the company’s side on all that she was uncovering. She set a new standard for investigative journalism that indeed warrants Goodwin’s assertion of “golden age” for the journalism of her day.

This didn’t mean that she was “neutral” in her assessment of Standard Oil. Her meticulous research marshaled an incontrovertible case for illegal and monopolistic activity that provided the basis for the government’s efforts to break up the Standard Oil trust. Her measured consideration and refutation of corporate arguments made the case far more persuasive than a “hatchet job.”

If I were to identify with anyone journalistically, I would like to identify with people like Ida M. Tarbell, who were both careful and courageous in their writing. In an article titled “Muckraker or Historian,” cited in the Wikipedia article on Tarbell, she wrote:

“All the radical element, and I numbered many friends among them, were begging me to join their movements. I soon found that most of them wanted attacks. They had little interest in balanced findings. Now I was convinced that in the long run the public they were trying to stir would weary of vituperation, that if you were to secure permanent results the mind must be convinced.”

My question with our own age is whether this is the journalism we want, and are willing to pay for. To give a writer three years to research a story is probably more or less unheard of today. Yet the same internet that stresses news organizations’ viability also makes possible fact-checking that doesn’t always require physically crisscrossing the country as Tarbell did.

Maybe what this means is identifying the publications that are still striving for this ideal and supporting them with our subscriptions, or more. And maybe with my payment, I’ll send a note: “Je suis Ida.”

Mr. President

I am in the midst of reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris and thoroughly enjoying it! My hunch is that you have to be a terrible writer to write a boring biography of Teddy Roosevelt. He was interesting from childhood! This is the first of a three volume effort by Morris and I am delighted to say that the other two are waiting on my “to be read” stack!

rise of roosevelt

It seems that this is a wonderful time if you are a lover of presidential biographies. Of course, we had the recent PBS series on the Roosevelts (it is really just a happy coincidence that the Morris biographies came to the top of the stack at this time!). It also happens that Doris Kearns Goodwin has written on Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in The Bully Pulpit, a book I received for Christmas that comes next after the Morris bios. I happen to love everything Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about from her beloved Brooklyn Dodgers to Abraham Lincoln in Team of RivalsFor those fascinated by all things Roosevelt, she also wrote about FDR and Eleanor in an earlier book, No Ordinary Time.

Moving beyond the Roosevelts, there are a host of wonderful biographies that have appeared in the last ten years or so. First to come to mind are David McCullough’s biographies of Truman and John Adams. I happen to think the biography of Truman is the better of the two in exploring the character of this president who emerged from the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt, even though Adams probably had the more interesting life. Not too long ago I read and reviewed Harlow Giles Unger’s John Quincy Adams. John Quincy struggled in the shadow of his father but was a child prodigy, an ambassador in six countries, was a one-term president like his father, went on to congress, and argued the Amistad case before the Supreme Court. He died in the House. He was probably one of our most distinguished ex-Presidents. I’ve read several biographies of Thomas Jefferson but still think the best was Dumas Malone’s six volume study of Jefferson and His Time.

I could go on and on but perhaps the interesting question I ask myself is “why the fascination with presidential biographies?” At least for me I don’t think there is a single reason. One is a certain interest in leadership and how it may be exercised both well and badly. We certainly have examples of both in our presidential history! Another is that American presidential biographies are really American history with skin on it! I’ve read both extensively but to understand both the influences and limits presidents faced in trying to shape events is instructive. It took even a Lincoln three years to find a general in Grant who would fight, and it also took a Lincoln to hold the North to its task in the absence of a Grant.

Perhaps I read these, even as I read history more generally to understand how we get here. The actions of Presidents past have shaped the Presidency now. Sometimes, I think there is a bit of a longing as well that we might find one like one of the “great” presidents of the past to fill the office. Reading the bios and the history, it seems that somehow, the greatest of presidents occupied the office at the most perilous junctures in our history. Is it that ordinary people rise to extraordinary heights in such times? Or is it a kind of divine providence that we might pray for as the need faces us? One thing is clear is that there have also been mediocrities in the office and if we are praying people, we can pray to be delivered of such folk, particularly in perilous times.

What are your favorite presidential biographies? And why do you like reading them?