Political books have been a particularly hot category in 2018, starting with the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury at the beginning of January and continuing with James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty. In today’s divisive climate, publishers on both the left and the right are looking to political pundits to help people better understand where the country is heading under President Trump, and the nature of presidential leadership.
In Leadership in Turbulent Times (S&S, Sept.) historian Doris Kearns Goodwin argues that “more than ever before” there is a vacuum of leadership in the White House. “We were able to get through the Civil War and the Depression,” she says, because both Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were leaders who each rose to the occasion.
In the future, says Goodwin, if we want to continue to live in a democracy, we should examine the past histories of candidates to gauge their potential for successfully guiding the country. For her, keeping one’s word and controlling one’s temper are much more important than promises made on the campaign trail.
By contrast, historian Michael Beschloss, author of Presidents of War (Crown, Oct.), says that expecting one individual to provide leadership might not be reasonable. When the founding fathers drafted the Constitution, they wanted to make it virtually impossible for one person to take the nation into war. While the president is commander-in-chief, only Congress can declare war.
Of course, the founders never considered that one day, missile strikes against enemy nations could occur within minutes of the president pushing the red button in the Oval Office. “There’s no time for a vote in Congress,” says Beschloss, noting that the last time Congress declared war was in 1941, to enter WWII. “The president has unbelievable power that the founders did not intend him [or her] to have.”
Sociologist Michael Eric Dyson, whose latest book, What Truth Sounds Like (St. Martin’s, June), was inspired by the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, advocates a more populist approach to leadership, especially to eradicate racism. Dyson notes that when RFK met with a group of black intellectuals and artists in 1963 to discuss racism in America, he was at first put off by their dismissal of public policy. But Kennedy realized that more had to be done than simply enacting laws: hearts and minds had to be changed. He used his privilege to advocate for African-Americans for the rest of his life.
A half-century later, Dyson castigates the Trump administration for “giving people permission to be bigots.” Dyson urges white people to acknowledge their privilege and join the struggle against racism, which he regards as “the rot at the heart of the American empire.”