Where Do We Go from Here: Leadership in Turbulent Times
Kinder Institute Distinguished Lecture
In drawing her November 6 Kinder Institute Distinguished Lecture to a close, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin shared with the capacity audience at Jesse Auditorium how she came of age as a storyteller listening to her mother recount the places books had carried her and re-creating for her father the full nine-inning narrative of Brooklyn Dodger games using only the encrypted numbers and traced base paths of a scorecard. From these experiences, Goodwin recalled, she learned the beauty of a story’s beginning and middle, as well as the importance of weaving tales as if you don’t know how they will end.
Far from a fanciful coda to her talk, her meditation on the intricacy—and sometimes the mystery—with which stages of a narrative relate to one another was at the center of her lecture as a whole, which approached the tall task of making sense of today’s turbulent times by plumbing the depths of presidential history for insight into our present. For example, she began by noting how it’s helpful to simply keep in mind that, as unprecedented as it may seem and in many ways is, our current administration did not materialize out of history’s thin air. True, we have never seen a president step directly from the business world to the White House. While we have had ex-bankers, peanut farmers, and oil men occupy the executive seat, each president prior to Donald Trump had served in the public theatre in some capacity before assuming the nation’s highest office. That said, Goodwin reminded the audience that the combination of anger, fear, hope, and anxiety from which the Trump campaign sprung is not altogether new. The widening income gap and sense of rural alienation that came with the Industrial Revolution birthed an anti-Wall Street, anti-immigration, anti-Washington populist movement in the turn-of-the-century American South and West that was not entirely different from what we see today.
As Goodwin would go on to show, the purpose of summoning our history is not so much to establish these kinds of parallels but, instead, to use knowledge of the struggles and triumphs of our past to improve our present and safeguard our future. In terms of the particular subject matter of her lecture, this meant revisiting three of our nation’s most successful leaders—Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR (or “her guys,” as she fondly called them)—to figure out what traits they held in common.
First and foremost, she noted that all three demonstrated an enduring capacity to sustain their ambition in the face of adversity, whether it came in the form of humble beginnings, political defeats, the death of loved ones, or, in FDR’s case, his 1921 polio attack. For Lincoln in particular, resilience implied more than just an ability to bounce back. The personal losses that he experienced in his early life—his mother, sister, and his first love, Ann Rutledge—haunted him, to be sure, but they also inspired him to contemplate the basis of legacy and, in doing so, to realize that his memory would live on not because he held office or wielded power but, instead, if he left the world a better place. In this sense, Goodwin explained, the most important character trait that adversity produced in all three men was not fortitude but rather the sense of empathy necessary not only to identify with, but also to be at all times animated by a desire to ease the suffering of, those people to whom fate had dealt an unkind hand.
A byproduct of this alloy of ambition and empathy, she added, was humility. In the example of Lincoln, this humility manifested itself in his recognition that the war torn country needed a leader who surrounded himself with people who did not limply affirm but who vigorously challenged him, which, in turn, led to his famous inclusion of political rivals William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates in his presidential cabinet. Goodwin went on to describe how, if we re-examine FDR’s experience of the national distress caused by the Great Depression and the national tragedy caused by World War II, we can see humility take the form of an acknowledgement of, and a subsequent insistence on learning from, his mistakes. And while she observed that, at 100 days, our current president did sound more wistful than ever, even admitting that running a country was harder than he initially believed, she quickly added that we have no evidence yet that he has a temperament suited for the kind of probing, humble self-reflection that led his most regarded predecessors to shoulder the blame for a lack of success, to determine the errors of their ways, and, in this, to re-fashion failure into victory.
And while the delivery methods have certainly changed over the decades, Goodwin also suggested that, like many who came before him, Trump has a noticeable, era-specific communications savvy. Just as Teddy Roosevelt’s punchy, headline-brief turns of phrase were perfectly suited to the rise of the national press—and just as FDR’s conversational style fit the radio age to a tee—campaign-trail Trump seemed to have mastered new media. As she pointed out, though, there is a gap between campaigning and governing, and when it comes to negotiating this gap, Lincoln might again serve as a model for Trump. In his refusal to speak extemporaneously, and in the “never sent, never signed” hot letters into which he privately channeled his anger, Lincoln demonstrated an impulse control that Goodwin noted our sitting president might singularly benefit from.
From understanding the importance of staying close to the ground to recognizing the necessity of disconnecting and replenishing energies, there are countless other lessons about “leadership in turbulent times” that we can glean from presidents past. Coming back to Lincoln one last time, though, Goodwin provided a final anecdote that summed up what might come of our present and future leaders actually heeding these lessons. As Leo Tolstoy told the New York Times in 1909, once, when travelling the remote reaches of the Caucasus, he was the guest of a Circassian chief who he regaled with tales of the technological innovations and great statesmen of recent history. As for the latter, Tolstoy spoke of Napoleon, Frederick the Great, and former Czars, but, as he described, “something was missing.” “You have not told us a syllable,” Tolstoy recalled the Circassian chief saying chidingly, “about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder…He was so great that he even forgave the crimes of his greatest enemies and shook brotherly hands with those who plotted against his life. His name was Lincoln.” This was, in many ways, a posthumous affirmation of Lincoln’s desire to lead a life worth remembering, and Goodwin ended her trek through presidential history by noting how perhaps the greatest lesson this subject teaches us is embedded here, in a statement from a Circassian chief deep in the Caucasus Mountains that reveals the degree to which the greatest legacies are tied to an unyielding commitment to the common moral mission of advancing liberty, social justice, and prosperity for all.
A world-renowned and Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin is the author of six critically acclaimed and New York Times best-selling books, most recently The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (Simon & Schuster, 2013). Her other titles include No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (Simon & Schuster 1994), for which she received the 1995 Pulitzer Prize in history, Wait Till Next Year (Simon & Schuster, 1998), Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (St. Martin’s, 1977), and The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (St. Martin’s, 1991), which was adapted into an award-winning, five-part TV miniseries. Her 2005 Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster), which received the prestigious Lincoln Prize and the New York Historical Society’s inaugural American History Book Prize, was highly influential to the production of Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-nominated film Lincoln, on which Goodwin worked. Goodwin graduated magna cum laude from Colby College, where she was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and she received a Doctor of Philosophy in Government from Harvard University. Please click here for a complete bio of Doris Kearns Goodwin.