Doris Kearns Goodwin on how to be the greatest American president

Overcome adversity, nurture great ambition, and never aggrandise yourself – leadership lessons, from Lincoln to LBJ.

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Doris Kearns Goodwin is a popular historian in both senses of the term. She has written best-selling accounts of the presidencies of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson and picked up the Pulitzer Prize for history for her double biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in wartime. She writes easily and attractively; the reader is carried along effortlessly with the narrative sweep of her prose. It seems artless, but her books are the product of anything up to a decade of research.

Leadership rests on her previous biographies of the four presidents, whose capacity for striking feats of leadership she examines here, the four she calls “my guys” – Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. The 350 pages of narrative and analysis come reinforced with 100 pages of notes, many concerned with the discussion of leadership in schools of business.

This reflects the slightly odd shape of the book, less of a problem for American readers familiar with the biographies of her guys than for British readers. The first two sections, of four chapters each, are short-form biographies that bring the protagonists from infancy to the presidency, but the third, also of four chapters, focuses on their actions during one episode in which a talent for not merely good but great leadership was revealed. This is essentially the “case study method” invented at Harvard Business School, where an exemplary case of astonishing skill in getting a fractious organisation to come together is examined in the hope of drawing teachable lessons from it.

The large question behind the book is a familiar one. Are great leaders born or made?  Is there some innate quality that only requires the occasion to reveal itself, or can someone make him- or herself into a great leader?  There is no ready answer, and Goodwin does not try to provide one. She has a sort of theory, however, though it is tentative and not really insisted on. Whether it applies to many more cases than her four is unexplored, but her cases certainly exemplify it. It is that the ability to overcome adversity is a key element in the character of great leaders. Another, unsurprisingly, is the presence of great ambition, but it must be ambition to do great things for other people, not simply to aggrandise oneself.

Against this background, she tells an engrossing story, or series of stories. Lincoln, of course, is the exemplary instance of “log cabin to White House”. Born in 1809 in a one-room hut in Kentucky, he was almost entirely self-educated; where his ambition to achieve great things came from it is impossible to guess, but at the age of 23 he ran unsuccessfully for the Illinois General Assembly, and successfully two years later in 1834. At a time when personal contact was everything, he was a formidable public speaker with a fund of stories that kept audiences engrossed. As a rising star, he was initially successful in getting the legislature to approve schemes for ambitious infrastructure projects, but an economic crisis put a stop to them, and sent him into a deep depression. This was the sort of adversity that Goodwin thinks great leaders overcome.

As he came back to politics, he became increasingly hostile to slavery. In the most famous of American political debates, with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln framed the question as whether, as the constitution implied, slavery was destined to fade away, or whether the “slave power” would spread its grip on the free states. As a leading figure in the newly established Republican Party, it was not a great surprise that Lincoln was nominated for the presidency in 1860. Aided by the split between pro- and anti-slavery wings of the Democratic Party, Lincoln completed his journey from log cabin to White House.

The careers of Teddy Roosevelt and his cousin Franklin could hardly have been more different from Lincoln’s. They were as rich and well connected as he was poor and obscure. The one thing they had in common was a youthful ambition that led them into politics in their early twenties.

Their fledgling careers in New York politics suggested great things lay ahead, but both experienced what by any reckoning was adversity that might have stopped anyone else in their tracks. Teddy Roosevelt lost his mother and his wife on the same day; Franklin Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio, and even when he was slightly recovered he could walk only with the aid of heavy steel braces. Teddy Roosevelt recovered by spending two years as a rancher in the far west, returning to political life and a career that looked as though it had culminated in the unimpressive position of vice-president to William McKinley. An anarchist’s bullet removed McKinley in September 1901, catapulting Roosevelt into the presidency. That unexpected elevation was shared by the fourth of Goodwin’s guys, Lyndon Johnson, who became president on the assassination of JFK.

Leadership reckons to provide “lessons from the presidents for turbulent times”, which means that the analytical meat of the book comes with the case studies: Lincoln’s passage of emancipation, Teddy Roosevelt’s settlement of the coal strike of 1902, FDR’s “hundred days” that saw his New Deal put in place, and Johnson’s passage of the Civil Rights Act that Kennedy could not pass, and the Great Society legislation that followed.

It is impossible to extract unambiguous lessons from these four episodes, however. To take one instance, Lincoln benefited, paradoxically, from including in his cabinet the men he had defeated for the Republican nomination; it meant that when he floated the idea of the Emancipation Proclamation that would eliminate slavery throughout the United States, he could rely on critical eyes to pick up both obvious and less obvious risks. But FDR benefited, less paradoxically, from surrounding himself with allies with whom he had worked for years, allowing him to delegate responsibility for the creation of the plethora of new government initiatives.

The urge to complain is not strong. Setting aside the fact that no business school has yet mastered the art of teaching leadership, it is impossible not to admire the skill with which Goodwin tells four absolutely riveting stories. LBJ’s legendary ability to corral recalcitrant southern senators is familiar, as is Lincoln’s steering of emancipation through Congress – if largely through Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln. FDR’s “hundred days” were especially astonishing. Within a week of his inauguration, he got Congress to pass the legislation needed to reopen the banking system; the administration then embarked on creating an alphabet soup of new agencies, from the Tennessee Valley Authority to the National Youth Administration. By the end of a hundred days, Congress had authorised the expenditure of billions of dollars to lift the economy out of the Great Depression and created the agencies to put the nation back to work.

British readers will be least familiar with the career of Teddy Roosevelt, whose handling of a coal strike that came close to leaving the north-eastern United States without heat and power as winter drew near has the tension of a good thriller. In 1902, the president had no power to order a settlement, indeed by common consent no role in steering the economy at all. That was the ground the owners stood on, resisting all suggestions for a commission to investigate the miners’ grievances. The ordinarily impulsive Roosevelt, famous for leading his “Rough Riders” up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American war, bided his time, waited to get JP Morgan to urge the good sense of a commission on the owners, and finessed their opposition to having a union representative on the commission by appointing a former union official as the “sociologist” that the owners would accept. The miners went back to work as soon as the commission was set up, and in due course it largely found in their favour. But, it was, as Wellington once said, a “damn close-run thing”.

Conservative readers will notice that all four of Goodwin’s guys are progressives of one stripe and another. Squeamish readers will be happy to see that the name of Donald Trump appears nowhere in the text or the index. Those who read between the lines, though, will see that the whole book is a sort of commentary on Trumpism. Every skill, and every character trait that Goodwin picks out as essential to great leadership is markedly absent in Trump, and the achievements of her heroes cast an unsparing light on Trump’s boasts about his administration’s success. Still, it is possible to read this book simply as a rousing story of great leadership in the past, without dwelling on the failures of the present.

Alan Ryan was Warden of New College, Oxford and professor of politics at Princeton

Leadership: Lessons from the Presidents for Turbulent Times
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Viking, 473pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war