Leading a Troubled Nation

Doris Kearns Goodwin discusses presidential leadership

June 23, 2018

Doris Kearns Goodwin
Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin knows Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson well: They’ve been the subjects of four of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian’s books. In her latest work, Leadership in Turbulent Times (Simon & Schuster, 2018), Goodwin focuses on a common defining characteristic of “her guys,” as she lovingly calls them: their ability to lead.

She discussed this trait and her own journey with the presidents as part of the Auditorium Speaker Series on June 23 at the American Library Association’s 2018 Annual Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans. Like Kearns’s books, her talk was dense with colorful, fascinating anecdotes that humanized our nation’s leaders while revealing how their leadership styles can be emulated.

“I’ve spent the last 50 years living with presidents,” Goodwin began. It’s no understatement. She started her career by working for President Lyndon B. Johnson, first as an intern and then as an assistant. That proximity to the presidency, coupled with decades of award-winning research, gives her an unparalleled perspective on the men who’ve held the office and their leadership styles.

She says each president experienced life-changing moments of hardship during his
younger life, and it shaped how he eventually governed and led. Lincoln suffered from near-suicidal depression after a public shaming; Theodore Roosevelt lost his wife in childbirth and his mother on the same day; Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio and was left paralyzed from the waist down; and Johnson lost an important early election, then survived a heart attack.

These experiences made these men resilient, she said, and prepared them to step into the presidency and lead the nation during times of great strife and conflict, including the Civil War, the upheavals of the Industrial Age, the Great Depression, anti-war demonstrations, the Vietnam War, and the struggles of the Civil Rights era.

Goodwin identified several additional traits that made each men great leaders:

  • They had the confidence to surround themselves with strong-willed people who gave them honest advice.
  • They were able to speak to their countrymen eloquently and powerfully.
  • They could relate to the people.
  • They knew how to relax.

Goodwin contrasted President Trump’s traits with those of his predecessors, saying that he could learn much from them.

“Lincoln knew that his words mattered and carried weight,” she said. “If only he was here to advise our current president.”


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