The True Grit of Four American Presidents
In Turbulent Times
By Doris Kearns Goodwin
Illustrated. 473 pp. Simon & Schuster. $30.
“The story of Theodore Roosevelt is the story of a small boy who read about great men and decided he wanted to be like them.” In her new book, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times,” the acclaimed presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes this line from “The Boys’ Life of Theodore Roosevelt,” a 1918 volume by Hermann Hagedorn, one of Roosevelt’s earliest (and most sycophantic) biographers. By regaling young readers with stirring tales of the beloved president’s exploits, Hagedorn aimed not simply to burnish his hero’s reputation but also to forge the next generation of virtuous leaders, who might draw inspiration, as Roosevelt had, from the lives they encountered in books. In a sense, this is also Goodwin’s aim: to purvey moral instruction and even practical guidance to aspiring leaders through the stories of four exceptional American presidents.
Written in the companionable prose that makes Goodwin’s books surefire best sellers, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times” recounts the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. The prolific Goodwin has already produced full-length studies of each of these men, starting with “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” (1976) and continuing through “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II” (1994), “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” (2005) and “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” (2013). But in her new book she forsakes the strict confines of biography for the brave new world of leadership studies. A booming field of scholarship — or, traditionalists would say, pseudoscholarship — leadership studies is usually taught in schools of business or public administration, geared toward would-be or midcareer executives and often focused on imparting useful lessons to apply in the workplace. Accordingly, much more than in her narrative histories, Goodwin here explicitly takes up the formation of her subjects’ characters and how their most notable qualities equipped them to lead the country during trying times.
Structurally, the book follows a formula. The first section features four chapters, one on each man’s boyhood and early influences; the second part, also comprising four chapters, dwells on early-adulthood traumas that tempered their flaws and bred resilience; the third part spotlights the chastened leaders in their crucibles of crisis; and an epilogue lightly glosses their legacies. In each man’s case, the setback is a prelude, a learning opportunity, a character-building experience: Abraham Lincoln as a young man withstood a depression so severe that friends removed all the sharp objects from his room; Theodore Roosevelt saw both his mother and his beloved wife die within a day; Franklin Roosevelt was stricken with polio; and Lyndon Johnson lost his first race for the Senate, throwing him into a depression of his own. Readers of presidential biography will know these stories, but newcomers may not — and in any case Goodwin is telling them not for their own sake but to establish certain key ingredients of skillful democratic leadership.
Other popular presidential historians have also produced books of this sort, including Michael Beschloss’s “Presidential Courage” (2007) and Robert Dallek’s “Hail to the Chief” (1996). Typically those volumes haven’t endured as long as more meaty biographies and histories by the same writers. One reason may be that the leadership genre harbors a built-in bias toward producing user-friendly general rules or — in the glib jargon of the trade — “takeaways,” which not only tend toward superficiality but also obscure the rich particularity that historians (and readers of history) prize. The very genre in some ways works at cross-purposes with the historian’s goal of shedding light on a given individual’s, or period’s, uniqueness. It is therefore to Goodwin’s credit that she teases out the variety and peculiarities among the four presidents. Despite the overarching steeled-by-adversity template into which she wedges these stories, each retains its own intrinsic drama. “There was no single path,” Goodwin writes, “that four young men of different background, ability and temperament followed to the leadership of the country.”
This is a historian talking. “Leadership: In Turbulent Times” is most absorbing when Goodwin resists the urge to glean pat lessons or rules from the past and allows herself to savor the stubborn singularity of each moment or personality. While she highlights her subjects’ common traits — preternatural persistence, a surpassing intelligence, a gift for storytelling — it is the differences among them that are most interesting. For example, where Abraham Lincoln grew up under the discipline of an austere father, who would destroy the books that his son loved to read, Franklin Roosevelt thrived under the trusting indulgence of a loving mother. In contrast to Theodore Roosevelt, whose curiosity led him to immerse himself in pastimes like studying birds and other animals, Lyndon Johnson “could never unwind,” channeling his manic energy into his ambitions. The only safe generalization is that you can’t really generalize.
Goodwin’s special strength as a historian has always been her ability to present subtle, complex studies of her subjects’ personalities and to show how they interact with their times. Decades ago, as a graduate student in political science, she took an interest in the application of psychoanalytic theory to biography, as pioneered by Erik Erikson, among others. Although only her Johnson book trafficked explicitly in psychoanalytic methods and concepts, this education quietly informed her later work, which benefited from her focus on her protagonists’ upbringing, personality and human relationships. In “Leadership,” too, she renders her characters with a depth and intricacy that not all academic historians seek to attain. Her Lincoln, for example, suffered from debilitating depression, as we know; but she also reminds us that he developed a mordant wit that reflected a deep stoicism — and goes far in explaining why the weight of his melancholy didn’t derail his career.
Goodwin sees complexity, too, in the beguiling Franklin Roosevelt, who, for all his cheerfulness, possessed a fierce, even ruthless ambition. Her account of his drive to conquer his polio so that he could traverse the Madison Square Garden stage at the 1924 Democratic convention exemplifies her talent at bringing personality to life not through didactic exposition but through well-wrought narrative. She describes Roosevelt preparing for his convention walk by measuring off the distance in his library in the family’s East 65th Street house, then digging into his teenage son James’s arm with a grip “like pincers,” as he practiced hoisting his inert, braced legs across the room. At the convention itself, Goodwin recounts the tension in the arena as Roosevelt triumphantly hauled himself across the stage, on just his crutches, to seize “the lectern edges with his powerful, viselike grip” and flash his beaming smile to the cheering throng.
In contrast, when Goodwin gets to her section on the four presidents’ emergency leadership, which should be the book’s pièce de résistance, she succumbs to the leadership genre’s vocabulary of self-help bromides and bullet-point banalities. Otherwise bracing accounts of Lincoln guiding the nation through the Civil War and Johnson shepherding the 1964 civil rights bill into law are punctuated by boldfaced, italicized subheads dispensing wisdom like “Anticipate contending viewpoints,” “Shield colleagues from blame,” “Rally support around a strategic target” and “Give stakeholders a chance to shape measures from the start.” These conference-room poster slogans protrude in the text like hurdles obstructing a runner’s path. They interrupt the flow of the stories while unfurling what are fairly self-evident, common-sensical streamers of advice.
Still, it would be unfair to deny the value in thinking collectively about these four presidents, especially in these dark times. Because so much recent commentary on our presidents has been negative — remembering Lyndon Johnson only for Vietnam, Franklin Roosevelt for barring the gates to Jews fleeing Hitler, Theodore Roosevelt for his imperialist swagger and even Abraham Lincoln for the limits of his racial egalitarianism — we can benefit from reminders that even flawed mortals can, in times of national emergency, achieve great things. We can only hope that a few of Goodwin’s many readers will find in her subjects’ examples a margin of inspiration and a resolve to steer the country to a better place.
David Greenberg is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University and the author, most recently, of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”
This content was originally published here.