Author interview: Doris Kearns Goodwin on leadership, her new book, and her upcoming visit to Denver

Although noted historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin has spent countless hours researching and writing about presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, she learned something new about each of the men as she wrote her newest book, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times” (Simon & Schuster).

Doris Kearns Goodwin says someone able to consider radically different opinions while shaping policy — such as Abraham Lincoln — is what’s needed in the Oval Office.

Each man – and the challenges they faced – were different, sometimes vastly so, but they shared common traits: resilience, a moral compass, and the ambition to serve the greater good. They summoned their skills to overcome crises through collaboration, compromise and civility – elements often missing in today’s charged political arena.

Goodwin will be at the Tattered Cover Book Store on East Colfax Avenue in Denver on Oct. 21 for a presentation and book signing.

She began writing the book five years ago, inspired by a student who wondered how to recognize leadership qualities in himself.  With knowledge gained from five decades of studying presidential history, Goodwin tells stories of each man’s political beginnings, failings and development that led them to become uniquely able to address crises of the times.


Doris Kearns Goodwin will appear at the Tattered Cover Book Store, 2526 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, at 2 p.m. on Oct. 21 for a presentation and book signing. For information and to purchase tickets, click here.

“Leadership” also highlights the absence of leadership in the country today. “We ignore history at our peril, for without heartening examples of leadership from the past, we fall prey to accepting our current climate of uncivil, frenetic polarization as the norm. The great protection for our democratic system, Lincoln counseled, was to ‘read of and recount’ the stories of our country’s history, to rededicate ourselves to the ideas of our founding fathers,” said Goodwin.

Q: How did the idea for the book develop?

A: After I finished “The Bully Pulpit,” I had to find a new person to write about. It’s a big process because I have to take all my thoughts away from one person and move on to the next person, and I feel sort of like I’m leaving an old boyfriend behind. I thought I could take my four guys – Lincoln, the two Roosevelts and LBJ — and look at them through the lens of leadership. In graduate school, we used to sit around and talk about what makes ambition, when do you get to recognize yourself as a leader, and does the man make the times? And I’d been lecturing on leadership from the White House for the last decade and a half.

So I thought, what if I start a new book with my four guys and they are starting out in public life, they are in their 20s, they are going to fail, they’re going to struggle and learn from their mistakes, and that way aspiring leaders could learn from them. Then I started thinking about how much adversity affects leadership, and that became the second part of the book. The last part of the book would involve taking the pivotal moments of their leadership – the Emancipation Proclamation, the Great Coal Strike of 1902, the whole turnaround with the Hundred Days, and LBJ on civil rights.

Q: As you write about Lincoln in this book, I sensed you have a special affinity for him. Is that the case or do you have another favorite?

A: Really, I feel loyal to whomever I’m writing about at the time. But the humanity of Lincoln overarches even the others’ leadership qualities. If he would feel normal human emotions, like anger or envy or jealousy, he would tamp them down. He’d say it would poison you if you allow these things to fester. He was able to put past resentments behind him, and he had this extraordinary sense of humor and could laugh at himself. I love one of the moments during a debate when somebody said to him, “Lincoln, you are two-faced.” And he said, “If I had two faces, do you think I’d be wearing this one?” My favorite story about him that touches me emotionally, and not just as a study of leadership, was when he prepared to try a case with the very famous lawyer Edwin Stanton, who later became his secretary of war.

In the 1850s, Stanton was well known all over the nation, and Lincoln was only known in Illinois. Lincoln was excited he’d be working with Stanton. The case was going to be in Illinois and Stanton’s team had chosen Lincoln because they thought it would be good to have somebody who knew the judges. When the case was transferred to Ohio, they didn’t need Lincoln anymore, but they didn’t tell him. He kept working on his brief and went to Cincinnati on his own. He walked up to Stanton, who took one look at him: Lincoln had a stain on his shirt, his hair was disheveled, his trousers were too short for his long legs. Stanton turned and said out loud, “We have to lose this long-armed ape; he’ll hurt our case.” Even though Lincoln was humiliated, he stayed for an entire week to listen to Stanton argue the case. Lincoln said he’d never heard anything more brilliant, and he decided he had to become a better lawyer. Years later, when Lincoln was president, his first secretary of war was gone on a corruption charge. Everyone said Stanton was the person for the job, that even though he was sometimes a bully and could be difficult, he would be able to mobilize the War Department. Lincoln was able to put the past hurt behind him and make Stanton the secretary of war. Stanton ended up loving Lincoln more than anyone outside his family.

All of these other leaders thought about Lincoln, too, and he is revered by Democrats and Republicans. So, yes, he’s my guy.

Q: Do you think these four men just happened to be in the right place at the right time? Or would they still be as effective as leaders had they been dropped into a different crisis and a different time?

A: I think they were in the right place at the right time. A certain kind of challenge demands certain qualities on the part of the leader, and we’re just lucky that that leader was there at that time. Look at Lyndon Johnson. The major issue was civil rights. The bill was stuck in Congress and the civil rights movement was heating up, sometimes becoming violent.

Johnson was a legislative wizard. I don’t think that John Kennedy could have gotten that bill through Congress; I’m not sure anyone else could have, expect Johnson, the Southerner who knew every single senator and knew how to break the filibuster by dealing with the bipartisan head of the Republican minority party. It’s also hard to imagine anybody but Lincoln having the patience and perseverance and the gift for language and the ability to bring in all the people from different factions and to make them work toward a common purpose. Similarly, Teddy Roosevelt came in at the Industrial Revolution, when, much like today, there was a gap between the rich and the poor, there were a lot of inequities in the system, there were rural people who felt cut off from the cities, there was a lot of immigration going on, and the working class was in the mood for rebellion. Yet he was able — with his fiery, colorful personality — to channel a lot of that into what he called the Square Deal for the rich and the poor, for the capitalist and the wage worker.

If anybody was to come back today and be able to exist in the world of Twitter, it would definitely be Teddy. He would be able to be entertaining, if that is what the celebrity culture is demanding right now. He loved being the center of attention. They said he wanted to be the baby at the baptism, the bride at the wedding, and the corpse at the funeral. He could run the circus, but hopefully he would be using those skills to unite the nation rather than divide the nation. He said that the rock of democracy would founder if people from different regions and classes and parties thought of each other as “the other.” It was important to him to unite the country and that is why he took a train around the country, going from one place to another and talking about the commonness of being an American and what the duties were as citizens to overcome party and regional divisions.

FDR was born with an optimistic temperament. He’d been through his paralysis and he knew how to deal with a wheelchair and strengthen his body with all sorts of experimental methods. He came in at a time when the economy had collapsed and the country was paralyzed, and his optimistic temperament was able to project itself on to the people.

People often say that crisis creates the person. Abigail Adams said great necessities create great virtues. We almost need a crisis in the country to be able to mobilize together. We had presidents before each one of these men who could not deal with the job. You have to have the temperament and character to be able to lead.

Q: Is there a reason you haven’t written about more contemporary presidents?

A: I’m most comfortable when I’m writing about these presidents because of the written primary sources. I love diaries and letters. When somebody writes in a diary every night or they write a letter that is handwritten, you feel like you are looking over their shoulder reading it. Teddy and (William) Taft wrote 400 letters to each other and, in Lincoln’s Cabinet, William Seward wrote thousands of letters to his wife, and Salmon Chase and Edward Bates kept diaries.

Nowadays, you can interview people and maybe someday historians will have emails to look at, but they are much more staccato than what people were communicating so thoroughly through letters and diaries.

Q: You’ve said that it is up to citizens to connect with leaders in Washington to change the state of things. Are protests or contact with representatives, even voting — which, in some states, is in the shadow of voter suppression — effective?

A: In the past, there were movements. When Lincoln was called the liberator, he would say the anti-slavery people did it all. The progressive movement was critical for Teddy Roosevelt. People already had started settlement houses, they were worrying about child labor and the social gospel was there in the churches. That gave him a foundation. And, obviously, the civil rights movement was key for anything to happen with Lyndon Johnson.

After Trump took office, we saw the women’s march and the young people marching and gathering together after the Parkland shooting. Those people were saying they wanted people to vote. Voting is the first thing to do because it is absolutely the essential thing that makes democracy work. If the vote is going to be suppressed in places, then we’ve got a real problem. Citizens need to know their votes are counted, not unfairly undone, and that they don’t have circles they have to go through to vote. Obviously, the vote was being suppressed for black Americans in the South for a very long time period until the Voting Rights Act made that harder to do. If the numbers of people who are feeling like they want to have a change in the situation today come out and vote, that is step one. Then you get power. Then possibly you aren’t protesting against somebody who doesn’t believe what you believe. Protests still matter, and they are not mobs. Think about civil rights workers, suffragettes, the gay rights activists: They’ve all made changes in the country that have made the country a better place.

Q: You are on a three-month, 32-city book tour. It must be exhausting. Is there a theme or a question that your audiences want to discuss?

A: Sometimes I wonder why I agreed to do this. But then I remember when I get to the book signings. This book is short enough that people have already read it by the time they come to get it signed, which has never happened to me before with my other thousand-page books. ‘The Bully Pulpit’ was so fat, a woman wrote me and said that she was reading it in bed and fell asleep and it broke her nose. Really, it is a wonderful thing to be able to have people who have read this book, or my other books, talk to me about what it meant to them. That’s the whole reason for doing it. You aren’t writing it for yourself, you are writing for people who hopefully love history. I am catapulting them back to other times to learn from the past and care about the characters. When people tell you that has happened, it really gives you the energy to keep going.

I think mostly what the audience wants from me, because of my general optimistic nature, is for me to tell them that this is not the worst of times. I can assure them it is not. It is not as bad as what Lincoln faced coming in with the Civil War that was about to claim 600,000 lives and with a country split in two. Even Teddy’s Industrial Revolution era was more complicated than this one. Obviously, FDR came to office when the Depression was at its height, and LBJ came in after an assassination and with the whole civil rights struggle unfinished.

And yet there was that combination between the people and the leaders that made us get through it. We have to remember that and know that what seems normal now is not. We still have control over what happens. That is what they are asking me for, some assurance, and to shine a light on the leadership traits that we saw in these people and where we are, or are not, regarding those traits today in Washington. I’m talking about the traits of humility, empathy, resilience and the ability to create a team of strong-minded people who grow together to control negative emotions. And to communicate and ensure their word can be trusted rather than it being alternative facts and fabrications.

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