Listen: Author and Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on Leadership in Turbulent Times

Sept. 18, 2020, 5:45 a.m. ·


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On Tuesday evening, noted presidential historian and best-selling author Doris Kearns Goodwin will deliver the 25th annual Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities. Because of the pandemic, she’ll speak virtually from her home in Massachusetts, with her comments shaped around her recent book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times”. NET’s Jack Williams spoke with her about how past Presidents have dealt with tough times and her thoughts on the current state of politics in America.

NET News: Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, the Presidents you looked at in this book, were all vastly different in their styles. But was there one quality they had in common, one character trait that made them effective?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I guess I would argue it's the ability to grow. When you think about these leaders, they all come from different kinds of backgrounds. They've had different experiences, but they have to be able to like to acknowledge when they make mistakes, to learn from that, to grow in office through experiences. I mean, Teddy Roosevelt was pretty arrogant, and so was FDR in some ways when they first came in, but then they had experiences, whether it was Franklin Roosevelt’s polio, or Teddy Roosevelt learning about the tenements when he's police commissioner, that allow them to see things from a different point of view. And that requires empathy, it requires that ability to be able to look at things from a different point of view than your own and broaden yourself. And that's the way these people are going to become the leaders that they eventually do become.

NET News: How important was temperament for these Presidents and how has President Trump's temperament helped or maybe hurt him?

Presidential historian and best-selling author Doris Kearns Goodwin. (Courtesy photo)

Kearns Goodwin: Temperament and character is probably the central quality that you're looking for. What is temperament mean when you think about it? It means the stance that you project to the outer world. It means the inner core of your character. It means resilience. It means empathy. It means the trust that you develop among the people. I mean, each leader is somehow fitted for the time. And it may well be that the temperament that Lincoln had of that ability to forget resentments and to put past hurts behind and to try and unite people together after the terrible Civil War was the perfect temperament for the Civil War time. If I had to choose one person to come back today. I think Teddy Roosevelt would master the world of Twitter. He had those small statements that he always makes. ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’ and ‘Don't hit until you have to and then hit hard’, but the Square Deal allowed him to, in a small phrase, capture his entire philosophy and he'd be fighting right now for that. So I can see bringing him back today.

NET News: Each of these Presidents led during turbulent times, including wars and various forms of unrest. Were the challenges they faced more difficult or just a lot different than what we're going through right now with a pandemic and a racial justice reckoning of sorts?

Kearns Goodwin: Well, the one thing that I think history can provide perspective and solace for is the recognition that the challenges that these other Presidents that I’ve studied faced were pretty enormous at the time. I mean, think about Lincoln coming into office in 1860. The country has split in two. A civil war that will kill more than 600,000 people is about to begin. And you've got the early days of World War II when it's not at all clear that Hitler will be defeated. The difference in history is that we know the end of those stories. We know that the Allies won World War II, we know that the Union was restored with the Civil War and that emancipation happened. But the people living behind them did not know the end of the story, so they had the fear and anxiety that we're facing today, when it's really as you suggest the triple crisis. We've got the pandemic, we've got the economic fallout, and we've got the search for racial justice having reached an intense pitch. So it's a really complicated time we're living in. But I think history can show us that we went through very difficult times before, and somehow emerged stronger than before we did it. And that's where I think history can give us hope.

NET News: I've heard you say before that our political system needs a recalibration of sorts. What do you mean by that?

Kearns Goodwin: I think what we've seen in the last 10 or 15 years now is a polarization that really needs to be somehow dented. And we have to figure out why it's happening. And if I had one thing I could do right now for our political system, even though it wouldn't be necessarily directly related to it, it would be to have a national service program so that when young people come out of high school, they can go from the city to the country or the country to the city and they're able to see things from a different point of view, and give service to their country. We know that during the 50s, and the 60s and the 70s, that it was the time of great bipartisanship in the Congress. Because 70% I believe it was of the people who served in the Congress in the Senate, had been in the Korean War, World War II. So they knew what it was like to have a common mission to work, regardless of where they’ve come from. We've lost that sense of a common mission. What we really need to do, I think in our politics, is to bring more people having been in political life into the political system. I think that's what I mean by recalibrating.

NET News: Your book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times”, is based on an era where words mattered and Lincoln, both the Roosevelts and Lyndon Johnson knew what they said mattered. Do you think we've gotten away from that and will it be difficult to get back to a point where the truth and words do matter?

Kearns Goodwin: I worry very much that right now, when we've got a split in our media so that people listening to one cable network versus another or part of social media versus another don't even agree on what the facts are and therefore words have lost their meaning to people. And when truth becomes a fugitive and you can’t trust who is saying what and what they're saying or even facts, it really does become a problem.

Editor's Note: By way of full-disclosure, Humanities Nebraska provides funding for humanities reporting on NET Radio.