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What makes a leader great? Sharing lessons from 4 presidents

David Vogin for The Boston Globe

Four men, products of different eras in American history, civic figures of great persuasive powers matched by great visions: These are the raw materials of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest foray into presidential history and the subjects she uses for an extended meditation on the qualities of leadership and the requirements for political success.

These presidents — Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson — all have been subjects of Goodwin’s earlier books. But “Leadership in Turbulent Times’’ is not a reprise of familiar themes but instead a fresh examination of four men who have defined the presidency and, in doing so, helped define America. United by ambition, drive, and ceaseless work, they fought to end the country’s racial divide and reposition the country in the world.


“Their paths were anything but certain,’’ she explains. “Their stories abound in confusion, hope, failure and fear.’’ They are among the most compelling figures in our national story. Their lessons are among the most important as we plot our future.’’

Goodwin finds in the early Lincoln special intelligence, empathy, wit, irony, and robust good humor. Self-educated and self-motivated, he was possessed of unusual perseverance. In the young Theodore Roosevelt, she sees mental vitality rather than personal virility. He had “irrepressible energy and lack of self-consciousness.’’ Of Franklin Roosevelt, she sees ambition, like so much about the 32nd president, hidden beneath a sunny veneer. He had “warmth and charm.’’ And LBJ? She identifies an intuitive sense of where power lay, how to get it, how to use it. He was consumed by a “ravenous drive for success.’’

These men were determined not to fade from memory once their days were over but instead to leave footprints in the soil and soul of the nation. For each, that meant steely determination and, even for the blithe FDR, constant self-examination. When Goodwin speaks of Lincoln’s “willingness to confront weakness and imperfection, reflect upon failure, and examine the kind of leader he wanted to be,’’ she is really making a broader point, one that applies to almost all our presidents, the current incumbent excepted.


No one turns up in the White House by accident, even “accidental presidents’’ like Harry Truman. Read that quote about “willingness to confront weakness’’ again, and you will also see John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

Then again, what Goodwin calls “acquired courage’’ — the reference is to TR’s transformation in the West after losing his wife and mother on the same day, though it could also apply to Lincoln and LBJ’s struggles with depression or FDR’s resilience amid polio and other setbacks — is a vital element of leadership. Of TR she writes, “In this two-year interval [of his time out West] Roosevelt had recast himself as a new kind of American man, a hybrid of the cultivated easterner and the hard-bitten westerner.’’ Indeed all four subjects of this book remade America (and the conception of the American) in their own images, just as Woodrow Wilson did (as the symbol of American idealism) and George H.W. Bush did (as the symbol of American grace, particularly in his post-presidential years).

What is clear is that Goodwin likes these four. There is no snarling Richard Nixon, no bumbling James Buchanan, not even the halting but worthy William Howard Taft, who shared the spotlight with TR in her last book. The four men who have her attention, to be sure, have what we today would call a liberal bent. There is no conservative William McKinley, no optimistic Ronald Reagan. In another’s hands this might be a shortcoming. In Goodwin’s it is an irrelevancy. This is a celebration of leadership, not ideology, and besides, she is not blind to these men’s deficiencies, such as FDR’s “willingness at times of urgency to employ questionable means to achieve his goals’’ or Johnson’s doomed obsession with Vietnam.


One clue to leadership might be found in a highly unlikely place: Lincoln’s eulogy for Zachary Taylor, in which he said that the 12th president had succeeded “by the exercise of a sober and steady judgment, coupled with a dogged incapacity to understand that defeat was possible.’’ That quality surely was present in FDR, who faced global armed conflict and the economic collapse while physically compromised.

In the course of describing these men’s presidencies she identifies several additional lessons: “Acknowledge when failed policies demand a change in direction’’ (Lincoln’s firing of General George B. McClellan). “Share credit for [a] successful resolution.’’ (TR and the coal strike of 1902). “Strike the right balance of realism and optimism’’ (FDR and the Great Depression). “Set forth a compelling picture of the future’’ (LBJ and civil rights).

Some of the lessons of the Lincoln presidency seem particularly appealing, if poignantly quaint, today. Here’s one: “Refuse to let past resentments fester; transcend personal vendettas.’’ Here’s another: “Set a standard of mutual respect and dignity; control anger.’’ These are concepts lost in today’s Washington, where they are so desperately needed. Goodwin’s volume deserves much praise — it is insightful, readable, compelling even — but the strongest compliment might be this: Her book arrives just in time.



In Turbulent Times

By Doris Kearns Goodwin

Simon and Schuster, 473 pp., illustrated, $30

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.