Leadership: Lessons from the Presidents for Turbulent Times

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Viking £20

BEAR with me, please. The most obvious analogy for the latest book from the extraordinary Doris Kearns Goodwin is to imagine eating a feast blindfolded.

One might be unsure at times what one is devouring but there is no question of its quality. Leadership, the book, can be viewed as distilled biography, truncated but focused history, potential business book or even a self-help manual.

If its precise purpose is a matter of conjecture, its contents are formidable. Kearns Goodwin is the most fluent, most wide-ranging of modern presidential chroniclers. Her specialist subjects In Leadership are covered in her previous works. They are Abraham Lincoln (Team of Rivals); Theodore Roosevelt (The Bully Pulpit); Franklin Delano Roosevelt (No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Home Front in World War II); and Lyndon Johnson (Lyndon Johnson and the American dream).

She takes the personal and political lives of these four presidents to illustrate three themes: ambition and the recognition of leadership; adversity and growth; and how they led. The result is compelling.

It is, firstly, incumbent on the reviewer to examine the credentials and possible prejudices of the author. Goodwin has a first-class intellect with a PhD from Harvard and lectured there on government for 10 years. She also worked for Johnson while he was president and after she had written a withering critique of his presidency, mostly centred on the Vietnam war. A Pulitzer prize winner, her writing is marked by an ability to reveal the character and frailties of personalities while also detailing policy and political thought. There is also an energy and cohesion to Goodwin’s writing that has made her famous, praised and rich.

She has also, though, been at the centre of plagiarism rows that can be most crudely characterised as a failure to supply appropriate footnotes. This is an author, then, of ambition, success and accomplishment. But also one who has been embroiled in unpleasant public matters that may have tested her resolve.

All this is central to the production of Leadership. The four subjects have not simply been plucked from a hat. Goodwin knows them intimately in terms of research and material gathered. Tribal politics are avoided: Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt are the Republicans and FDR and Johnson are the Democrats. There are other obvious dissimilarities. The Roosevelts were rich. Johnson and Lincoln were not. There were also differences between the four in matters of priority and policy.

Goodwin acknowledges all of this but makes a persuasive, even profound case for a bond that not only draws four disparate presidents together but also has lessons for those with no political ambition. These are presidential stories but they are also personal ones. These were four extraordinary, even peculiar characters but their drive and failures can be recognised by the mass.

Their ascent to power was signposted by failure, even a dawning if false realisation that they would not fulfil their potential. The bullets of assassins gave Theodore Roosevelt and Johnson the presidency. Lincoln entered a convention as the least favoured candidate of four. FDR was considered a dilettante and a not particularly bright one at that. Their rise to power, then, gives due recognition to the whims of fortune, the mystery of personal development, the significant power of what can seem inconsequential choice.

However, there is much in Leadership that offers lessons, even consolations that apply universally. Yes, it was a murder in Dallas that presented the White House to LBJ but the wily Texan could have dismissed the offer of the vice-presidency. He was a powerful presence in the Senate and the invitation to run on a Kennedy ticket could have been refused. Johnson knew, though, that he was only a heartbeat from the presidency and this might be the closest he would ever come. There was tragedy in him becoming president, but there was cold calculation too.

There were formidable obstacles to achievements in the lives of all four. They met with strain, fear and even horror in the White House. But they had been marked by adversity on the route to it. FDR and Teddy Roosevelt were privileged and cosseted but the former contracted polio that left him paralysed from the waist down and the latter suffered from a chest complaint that regularly left him struggling for breath. In one calamitous day, too, Teddy lost both his mother and his young wife.

Johnson suffered a heart attack at a young age and his family history presented strong evidence that he would not live to collect a pension. Lincoln, the wisest and perhaps the most empathetic of all of them, bowed to a depression so severe that friends kept him away from firearms and sharp objects.

Goodwin cites Abigail Adams, the wife of one American president and the mother of another, who said: “Great necessities call out great virtues.” This was the reality of the personal and political experience of the four presidents that Goodwin examines.

The achievement of Lincoln is the most conspicuous to history. The Great Emancipator ended slavery but this was a battle won not just by a brute force – though that reality should never be underestimated - but by an ability to be a conciliator, an acceptance that dissent had to be tolerated, a willingness to engage with other talents. The genius of Lincoln was to appreciate that genius alone is often not enough to accomplish goals.

The major accomplishment of the Roosevelts were largely in the field of commerce. Teddy ushered in arbitration in ending the coal strike and put some sort of control on big business, even if that has lessened considerably over the course of American history. FDR bravely and with astounding innovation guided his country out of a great financial depression. He also helped saved the world from fascism by supporting Britain in the Second World War before leading the USA into the conflict.

Goodwin is both knowledgeable and insightful on all those political issues and the personal toll they incurred. But it is her work on Johnson that may be the most significant. Johnson shuffled off into history on the back of declining health and reputation. He was anointed as the president who gave America Vietnam and the ubiquitous body bag draped in a flag.

Yet his achievements in addressing poverty and civil rights were central to how the USA should have lived then and how it should live today. A politician from the South, he had the nous and the clout to bring in reform. It is true that his work remains unfinished but that should not detract from his guile and unwavering purpose. He was warned that his attempts to end segregation would use up all his political capital. He was warned that he might damage his immediate future by pursuing change.

“Well, what the hell’s the presidency for,” he replied.

The ungiven answer must be that it must be about a conviction to change for the better how people live. This quest can never achieve absolute success but it surely underpins any political career based on morality and principle. Abe, Teddy, FDR and LBJ all made mistakes. All became embroiled in awful, debilitating wars. They can be blamed as well as praised.

However, Kearns Goodwin shows they offer lessons that can be embraced by the businessman, the aspiring politician and the striving individual. But, first, the subject must be willing to learn. The brilliance of her work should not be dimmed by the realisation that it will not inform the current incumbent of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.