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      Review (monograph)
      Reviews in History
      Author (Review)
      • Boon, Adam
      Language (Review)
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      Author (Monograph)
      • Kearns Goodwin, Doris
      Lessons from the Presidents for Turbulent Times
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      Political History
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      Modern age until 1900 → 18th century, Modern age until 1900 → 19th century, 20th century
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      America → North America → USA
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      USA. President
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Doris Kearns Goodwin: Leadership. Lessons from the Presidents for Turbulent Times (reviewed by Adam Boon)

Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson – the subjects of this book on presidential leadership by Doris Kearns Goodwin – are amongst the most studied and written about American presidents. Goodwin has explored each man’s leadership qualities in previous major works.(1) Her latest book is, in many ways, a synthesis of these earlier works. Each president is used as a case study to explore a set of what Goodwin describes as ‘fundamental questions’ about leadership:

Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? How does adversity affect the growth of leadership? Do the times make the leader or does the leader shape the times? How can a leader infuse a sense of purpose and meaning into people’s lives? What is the difference between power, title, and leadership? Is leadership possible without a purpose larger than personal ambition. (pp. xi–xii)

Goodwin observes each president ‘through the exclusive lens of leadership’ (p. xi) to show how each of their skills and experiences ‘fit the historical moment as a key fits a lock’ (p. xv). Goodwin’s fundamental belief in the important role individuals play in historical events, and the consequent value in studying leaders and the art of leadership, underpins this book from the outset. The analysis, however, is never reduced to a simplistic ‘great man’ interpretation of history. The interaction between each president and the social, economic and political context in which they operated is ever present. By the time the book highlights the contrasting approaches of Teddy Roosevelt and FDR to their respective predecessors – William McKinley and Herbert Hoover – it is hard to disagree with the contention that different concepts of presidential leadership have been consequential in key moments of American history. The commonality Goodwin identifies in each of these presidents, beyond them being the subject of her previous work, is that each of them ‘confronted great necessities’ on coming to office; ‘moments of uncertainty and dislocation in extremis’ (p. xiv). From the outset, the greatness of each man’s leadership in these moments of extremis is a given. The purpose of the book, therefore, is to study the seminal moments in their pre-presidential lives, to trace the development of the skills and experiences that served them so well when their moment in the White House arrived and understand how they applied themselves to the problems the country faced.

Identical stages of each man’s life are the basis for the book’s structure. Part one covers their first entry into public life and formative experiences of being recognised as leaders. Lincoln being asked to stand in state legislative elections by the residents of New Salem, which eventually led him to enter the Illinois House of Representatives. Teddy Roosevelt, driven by an abhorrence for corruption in public office, entered the New York State Assembly. FDR, despite a delayed sense of himself as a leader compared to Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, became a New York state senator and then Assistant Secretary to the Navy. LBJ moved rapidly through roles as a student teacher, a school principle, a legislative secretary in Congress, the state director for a New Deal program and, ultimately, won election to Congress. Goodwin argues persuasively, using acute observations on each man’s private and public life, that traits which would serve them well as president were discernible in these early years. For example, Lincoln’s ability to communicate with people; Teddy Roosevelt’s capacity to evolve on issues; FDR’s trial and error approach to problem solving; and LBJ’s laser-like focus on identifying and ingratiating himself with sources of power. The description of LBJ’s efforts to endear himself to Cecil Evans, president of the Southwest Texas State Teacher’s College, as a portent of how he would behave towards more illustrious figures such as Congressman Sam Rayburn and Senator Richard Russell, is particularly entertaining (pp. 73–5).

Part two considers the dramatic reversals each man experienced in their lives, described as ‘crucible experiences’, and how they coped. Lincoln’s bout of severe depression. The death of Teddy Roosevelt’s mother and wife on the same day, triggering his retreat to the wilderness of North Dakota for two years. FDR’s poliomyelitis which robbed him of the use of his legs and removed him from public life for the bulk of the 1920s, after being the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nominee in 1920. For LBJ the crucible event was the loss of a Senate election in 1941. Goodwin acknowledges the loss of LBJ’s Senate race pales in comparison to death and paralysis, but, in their own way, each of these reversals ‘ruptured a sense of self and curtailed prospects’ (p. xiii). Documenting how each man overcame these crucible experiences, both personally and publicly, to the extent they returned or continued in public life as emboldened figures, allows Goodwin to chart how the well of leadership from which each man could draw deepened in their darkest hours.

The third part of the book centres on each man taking up the reins of presidential power. Goodwin chooses four specific issues, case studies within case studies, to explain how each president’s moral purpose, ambition and talents combined to ‘enlarge opportunities for others’ (p. xiii). Lincoln’s unveiling and implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862–3, which had a transformative impact on the dynamic of the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt’s response to the Great Coal Strike of 1902, a dispute that was ‘emblematic of the widespread mood of rebellion among the labouring classes in the wake of the Industrial Revolution’ (p. 245). FDR’s efforts during his first 100 days in office to stem the banking crisis that bedevilled economic recovery from the Great Depression. LBJ’s manoeuvring to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. In this third part, Goodwin shows how each man’s cumulative skills, traits and experiences coalesced into typologies of leadership. She attempts to frame each man’s leadership in its essence, which she labels ‘transformational leadership’ (Lincoln), ‘crisis management’ (Teddy Roosevelt), ‘turnaround leadership’ (FDR), and ‘visionary leadership’ (LBJ). The interaction between the typologies and the context in which each president operated is crucial. It was these typologies which ‘fit the historical moment as a key fits a lock’ in Goodwin’s view. The structure Goodwin uses means that, by the time the book gets to this point, we have a far more nuanced, rigorous and evidenced-based understanding of what it means when each man is referred to as a ‘good’ leader and how this manifested itself in the historical moment.

It is important to make clear what this book does not do. It is not a work of political science. The case studies are not used to generate a checklist of objective variables, which help determine a ‘great’ president or ‘good’ leadership. No simple correlations are postulated between a person’s background and their approach to leadership. Even when traits are identified across the case studies, for example Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt both being voracious autodidacts, there is no doubt that presidential leadership is more of an art than a science. The diversity of approaches to leadership that led to success, sometimes contradictory, is emphasised. Lincoln’s willingness to compile a cabinet out of his political rivals is the source of much praise, but FDR chose the opposite approach in 1933 and assembled a cabinet in which he was the ‘patriarch’ (p. 281). Overall, Goodwin wears the political science scholarship on presidential leadership lightly. Concepts from significant works in the field, like Richard Neustadt’s equation of presidential power with the power to persuade, and Stephen Skowronek’s ‘parallel moments of political time’, are present in the intellectual hinterland of the book, but never forced onto the reader.(2) Similarly, whilst the bibliography contains a long list of publications from the field of business leadership, explicit reference to insights drawn from these sources are deployed sparingly. An example is Goodwin’s observation that LBJ’s modus operandi as Texas director of the National Youth Administration (NYA), which involved pitting staff against one another and publicly humiliating them, was counterintuitive to a consensus in leadership studies on how to build an effective team. Despite this LBJ managed to get his team to perform ‘magnificently’ (p. 85). There are moments when Goodwin’s observations on a president’s style can be read as more general leadership advice. One example is a section on Lincoln’s attentiveness to the complex and multiple needs of his cabinet, a practice all types of team leaders could follow (p. 223). The influence of business orientated literature is most obvious in part three of the book, where Goodwin’s analysis is broken down under simple, bold, short sentences, describing the leadership skill being exhibited. This concept is not detrimental to the historical narrative Goodwin weaves.

The book is pitched as providing instructive lessons from previous turbulent times. The case studies, however, do not yield a definitive list of essential skills and behaviours that could be adopted by a president today, to resolve pressing contemporary problems. Critical attributes for presidential success can be inferred, but the book is neither a manual nor a guide. None of these points are criticisms but should help manage expectations about what Goodwin sets out to achieve. The most instructive lesson is a simple one: in dire times leaders have emerged capable of bringing the American nation through turmoil. Whether the absence of a road map induces hope or fear in the reader depends on the expectations they bring to the book.

The area most vulnerable to criticism is the selection of the cases studies upon which Goodwin draws her lessons for leadership. By selecting cases on the basis that they demonstrate effective leadership in the face of national crisis and urgency, three aspects of presidential leadership are under developed. These are best seen as avenues of interesting future research rather than weaknesses. The first of these under developed aspects are instances of poor leadership in the executive branch. Profiling ineffectual leaders and understanding why they failed in the face of ‘great necessities’ is as valuable as identifying examples and sources of good leadership. Goodwin is alive to this problem from the outset. In the foreword she highlights how her subjects’ predecessors were unable to respond to the same problems they would go on to tackle. James Buchanan’s temperament meant he was unfit to respond to the ‘intensifying slave crisis’. McKinley failed to ‘grasp the hidden dangers in the wake of the Industrial Revolution’. Hoover lacked the creativity to handle the depression. JFK lacked LBJ’s legislative skill and focus to advance civil rights (p. xiv). Regardless of whether one agrees with these assessments, there is potential for an insightful future study expanding on the points Goodwin makes about Buchanan, McKinley, Hoover and Kennedy.

Throughout the book Goodwin wrestles with LBJ’s position as an outlier, relative to the more uniformly positive historical consensus on Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR. Doing this raises questions about the transferability of the leadership skills and traits highlighted in the book. This also arises to a lesser extent in some of the other case studies. The extent to which LBJ’s presidency disintegrated as the Vietnam War intensified presents a significant caveat to the positive assessment of his leadership on domestic policy in 1964–5. This prompts Goodwin to revisit analysis she first explored in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, when she considers how leadership qualities that are so effective in one policy context are ruinous elsewhere. The conclusion that ‘all the skills Johnson had utilized to construct the Great Society were now employed with negative force to conceal the full extent and nature of the war from the American people’, demonstrates the necessity of understanding at a granular level why certain models of leadership do and do not work in different political and policy contexts (p. 341). Whilst not on the same scale as the LBJ example, there are instances from the other case studies highlighting ambiguity around the issue of transferability. Two instances are FDR’s practice of stimulating competition and debate by assigning the same task to different people and agencies (p. 296); and Teddy Roosevelt’s insubordination towards his boss, John Davis Long, whilst Assistant Secretary to the Navy, when he launched a series of unauthorised ‘peremptory orders’ at the height of tension with Spain in February 1898, prior to the outbreak of the Spanish-American war (p. 147). Both examples receive praise, yet they reflect behaviour that could be a recipe for disaster if other presidents or leaders drew inspiration from them.

A third unexplored area is presidential leadership in times devoid of ‘great necessities’. Not every president comes to office on the brink of civil war, during an unprecedented economic collapse, on the cusp of labour and business disputes capable of crippling the nation, and inheriting the difficult legislative agenda of a much-loved, assassinated predecessor. Presidents operating in other contexts are still required to lead and address their own set of problems. How they do this can be as compelling and instructive as the four presidencies Goodwin explores. Historiography on Dwight D. Eisenhower over the last 30 years, for example, has dramatically revised interpretations of him as president, partly by acknowledging that initial negative assessments of him were coloured by the absence of a national crisis to handle on a comparable scale to those of FDR. Whether one agrees with this assessment on Eisenhower specifically, it highlights that leadership takes many forms, including in relatively benign contexts where there is no great imminent national catastrophe or cause to galvanise the nation. The three areas of leadership mentioned are interesting avenues for further scholarship. The fact they do not feature here is not to the detriment of the book. It reflects necessary choices by the author regarding what facets of presidential leadership to focus on.

Goodwin’s command of each of her subjects enables a fluent prose style. She is comfortable leaving out superfluous material, confident in the knowledge that anyone interested in reading further on some of the topics raised has her other books to consult. The challenge of writing history on the potentially nebulous topic of leadership is distilling the analysis of the subject matter to its core elements, whilst avoiding hackneyed platitudes masquerading as insight. Goodwin does this effortlessly. The explanation of how LBJ, as a freshman congressman, persuaded FDR to support his plans for rural electrification, is an example of Goodwin’s ability to convey concisely and lucidly in a few pages the character and skill of both men, where other historians require entire chapters (pp. 91–3). The final chapter, which discusses each man as they reflected on their life and approached their death, is the most elegiac. It is symptomatic of Goodwin’s ability to humanise her subjects. This book does not make monuments of presidents, they are flesh and blood throughout.

For the uninitiated in Goodwin’s work, or to those only familiar with her bestsellers, this is a great introduction and should prompt exploration of her previous publications. Anyone interested in the craft of writing political history in an accessible way would be better off for reading this book. For presidential historians, particularly those interested in the topic of leadership, the book informs and provokes questions for further research about styles and concepts of presidential leadership: how they evolve, how they are applied in office and their relationship to the problems of a given age. A book combining all of these attributes is rare and worth the reader’s time.


(1) Doris Kearns Goodwin previous major works on each of the presidents discussed in her latest work are: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, (London, 2005); The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism, (London, 2013); No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt : the home front in World War II, (New York, NY, 1994); Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, (New York, NY, 1991).

(2) Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents : The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan, (New York, NY, 1990); Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton, (Cambridge, MA, 2003).

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