In this commendable compilation of presidential history, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin rigorously re-examines four legendary American presidents through the lens of leadership. Having already authored a book on each: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, Goodwin considers whether times shape leaders, or if they are “born”. She hopes “these stories of leadership in times of fracture and fear will prove instructive and reassuring” in our divisive times (Goodwin, p. xvi).
Section one details how each was defined by ambition and/or a recognition of their leadership potential. Lincoln, who grew up poor and was largely self-educated, sought to “gain the lasting respect of his fellow men” (Goodwin, p. 4). He developed his memory, humorous storytelling abilities, and profound empathy. Gaining election to the Illinois Assembly on his own merit, he realized his political leadership potential by pushing through an audacious infrastructure bill which he hoped would enhance economic mobility-and-by speaking out, strongly, against the expansion of slavery.
Goodwin contrasts Lincoln’s humble beginnings with the privileged backgrounds of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt (FDR). The seemingly infinite books and access to education Theodore’s father provided was “so different from the intensive education Lincoln crafted for himself” (Goodwin, p. 26). Theodore Roosevelt’s debilitating asthma initially denied him Lincoln’s physical prowess, until rigorous training defied the disease. He “… had no great gifts,” except building his leadership through “the gospel of will,” but Goodwin contends that Roosevelt was also blessed with a brilliant mind and the resources to enhance it (Goodwin, pp. 24-25). Unlike Lincoln, he used his family connections and wealth to secure his nomination to the New York Assembly. And, while he initially sought election as a “right of citizenship,” Goodwin submits that his increasing empathy led him to “crusade to uncover corruption at the highest levels” (Goodwin, pp. 33; 36).
FDR also lived a childhood of “stability and balance” until his father’s early death (Goodwin, p. 43). Having experienced the high-life, FDR enjoyed a “lingering sense of security and privilege,” and an optimistic spirit that would convince him better times were attainable (Goodwin, pp. 44-45). Like his cousin Theodore, he used his name to launch his political career in the New York Assembly, aspiring to follow the path Theodore “had blazed to the White House” (Goodwin, p. 55).
Lyndon Johnson fell somewhere in the middle. He grew up the son of a Texas state representative, and immediately identified with his “political ambitions” (Goodwin, p. 69). Johnson used his manipulation skills to get “‘close to those that are the heads of things’”, (Goodwin, p. 73); for instance, during the years he worked on Capitol Hill, Johnson befriended Texas representative Sam Rayburn, who helped him catapult to the head of the Texas National Youth Administration. Later, he resigned the post to run for Congress. Johnson’s ability to talk in simple terms and schmooze voters secured his victory. FDR took the eager young Texan New Deal backer under his wing (Goodwin, p. 94).
In the second section, Goodwin illuminates how these presidents overcame significant adversity – which ironically — made them stronger—an important reminder that our greatest leaders were not immune from human struggles. Lincoln broke off his engagement to Mary Todd, struggled with depression, and left politics to work as a traveling lawyer in Illinois. Goodwin contends this “was anything but a passive time” (Goodwin, p. 105). The legal knowledge and narrative skills Lincoln developed during his political hiatus enabled him to better articulate the case against the expansion of slavery during the legendary Lincoln-Douglass debates, hastening his passage to the presidency.
Theodore Roosevelt rebuilt himself after the double-death of his mother and wife, by temporarily retreating to a ranch in North Dakota where he found renewed purpose to become a rugged, progressive politician. According to Goodwin, this “fatalism” emboldened Roosevelt, as he seized every opportunity he found – even if not obviously politically expedient—from the Civil Service Commission to assistant secretary of the Navy to vice-president (Goodwin, p. 132). He accrued a reputation as a progressive champion with executive skills in these myriad positions, that worked to his advantage after he was thrust into the presidency by the assassination of President McKinley.
Not surprisingly, Goodwin asserts that FDR’s experience with polio ramped up his resistance to adversity—an optimistic stance that prepared him to lead during the Depression and WWII. His forced reliance on a close group of friends and family taught him how to assemble a good team—the precursor to a brain trust. And, his entrepreneurial creation of Warm Springs “made it clear that a polio victim who needed help to walk was fully able to exercise leadership,” serve as governor of New York and – eventually – Chief Executive of the United States (Goodwin, p. 174).
After “shifting further to the right” in order to win a Senate seat, Johnson suffered a major heart attack and an immediate depression, but it was quickly diffused by an outpouring of public sympathy, which “invigorated him as would life-giving transfusions” (Goodwin, p. 199). The experience led him to “rededicate himself to . . . the idea that government should be used to help those who needed help” (Goodwin, p. 201). This re-commitment to a progressive platform, she argues, helped him pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and created a road map for the presidency he would inherent.
The third section—a case study of each man’s leadership while in office—presents an instance in which each leader guided the nation through a national crisis. Lincoln assumed office during the outbreak of the Civil War. At first, he made the conflict simply about preserving the Union—and not abolishing slavery, but Goodwin believes Lincoln eventually initiated a “fundamental transformation in . . . what the Union was fighting for” by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in rebel territories, and pressed Congress into ratifying the 13th Amendment (Goodwin, p. 213). She also asserts that Lincoln’s decision to listen to a diverse group of advisers was a core leadership trait that helped temper his judgements. Lincoln synchronized the announcement the “Emancipation” with a Union victory that would boost morale, and inspire the North to end slavery for moral reasons; – that in itself would weaken the Confederate Army. (Goodwin, pp. 222; 235).
Goodwin then observes that Theodore Roosevelt exhibited “crisis management” skills during the Great Coal Strike of 1902, which threatened the national economy; the coal companies refused to negotiate with striking miners (Goodwin, p. 245). Goodwin implies that he exhibited a “dragon-slaying notion of the hero-leader” in an attempt to resolve an unprecedented situation (Goodwin, p. 245). And, he considered his task an extension of Lincoln’s:
There was beginning to be ugly talk of a general sympathetic strike,’ Roosevelt recalled in a letter to Senator Crane, ‘which would have meant a crisis only less serious than the Civil War’. . . [J]ust as Lincoln had readily permitted his cabinet officials to file written objections to his Emancipation Proclamation, so Roosevelt instructed Knox and Root . . . to ‘write letters of protest against it if they wished’” (Goodwin, p. 265).
The impressive detail presented about Theodore’s decision process showcases Goodwin’s skills as a historian. Although he knew “neither legal nor historical precedent warranted presidential intervention” in a dispute between private companies and workers (Goodwin, p.245), Roosevelt intervened to promote the public interest (Goodwin, p. 260). Ultimately, his releasing a public report and threatening to order federal troops to nationalize the coal industry (against court orders if necessary) forced the coal companies to accept the findings of a presidential commission, and ended the strike with some labor reforms.
She next examines FDR’s famous first 100 Days in office, concluding that “Roosevelt’s understanding and empathy for the ordinary man” enabled him to speak to the American people in a uniquely reassuring way (Goodwin, p. 278). His willingness to assemble advisers with conflicting views and embrace the “experimental nature of the New Deal” (Goodwin, p. 293) meant “no leader was more prepared” to confront the Great Depression than FDR, pursuing an unprecedented Bank Holiday and a bevy of reform legislation that, with some tinkering, relieved the beleaguered economy and American people. (Goodwin, p. 274).
Finally, Goodwin presents Johnson’s efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act (1964), a tax cut, and his Great Society legislation as a successful application of supreme legislative and political skill just after the Kennedy assassination. In the closing pages, she addresses Johnson’s decisions regarding Vietnam, which she argues undermined the Great Society by initiating “a lingering mistrust in government and in leadership itself” (Goodwin, p. 342). The Johnson sections are the most detailed – not surprisingly – because Goodwin worked in the Johnson White House (despite opposing the Vietnam War) and assisted with his memoirs.
The epilogue explains how each man “ended”. Johnson focused on his legacy, Lincoln hoped to promote reconciliation with the South, but was assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer, and the Roosevelt’s–who hoped to continue their public service–passed prematurely. Goodwin believes these tales of leadership afford “humanity, purpose, and wisdom, not in turbulent times alone, but also in our everyday lives” (Goodwin, p. 368).
While Goodwin aims to compare these men by exploring them simultaneously, this format encumbers the clarity of her analysis. Because they lived at different times, the events referenced in the early life of, say, Franklin Roosevelt, sometimes occurred in the middle of Theodore Roosevelt’s. This chronology can make it harder – especially for readers without significant background knowledge – to keep the four parallel timelines straight.
Readers should also consider that this work does not produce a complete evaluation of each man; the sometimes limited scope is understandable given likely space constraints caused by comparing four men in one book. .
Still, this is a well-researched and assiduously assembled account of all of them. Although the historical details are this book’s strength, Goodwin does successfully dispel some false conceptions of leadership: that leaders are born, or that times–exclusively–shape them. She offers some classic leadership lessons, such as the need to grow through adversity. Many leadership tips are sprinkled throughout. And, she demonstrates that these men overcame their difficulties, and successfully moved the nation–during times of tremendous tribulation–into a better place.
Quentin Levin is a college student majoring in Communications, Law, Economics, and Government and is passionate about history.