Award-winning Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin earned a long, loud standing ovation after her presentation on presidential leadership on Saturday morning at the ALA annual conference in New Orleans. And the first question asked in the Q&A that followed was a question surely on everyone’s mind: given the erratic nature of the current occupant of the Oval Office, one librarian asked, “can you give us hope for the future?”
Goodwin immediately pointed back to the monumental struggles faced by “her guys,” the subjects of her latest book Leadership: In Turbulent Times—Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and Lyndon Johnson. “Those times must have seemed even more perilous,” Goodwin noted about the struggles these presidents faced, “and America got through it. There’s something about the strength of this country that should give us hope.”
Still, while Goodwin said she is hopeful about the future, and pointed to a rise in voter registration, activism like the Women’s March, and the kids in Parkland, and a spike in the number of citizens standing for public office this coming November, she conceded that she is somewhat concerned about the state of our democracy.
“I’m not sure our best people are going into public life,” she said, citing a decades-long slide. “In the 19th Century, that’s where all the exciting people wanted to go—in the time of the Great Depression and the New Deal, everybody wanted to be in Washington who cared about the country. And I think because of the way we now have people running for office, because of the money, because of private lives being exposed, people are deciding to go in other directions, people who care about public life, but not politics. And until we start getting people to realize that in a democracy we have to have people in politics again, that we can’t just have celebrities jumping in, that it’s important to have experience as leaders, then I will be worried. If we continue to vote the way we’ve voted, if we don’t take a hold of what’s going on, if we don’t get out to those polls, I will begin to worry."
In her 45-minute talk, Goodwin delighted librarians and gave them a dose of much-needed perspective. She spoke of the “leadership traits” that defined her four “vastly different” subjects, and while she said she discovered no “master key” of leadership, there was a “familial resemblance” among the traits they shared, which include: the ability to lead by example; to set a standard of mutual respect; to share credit; to openly acknowledge errors quickly; find ways to release anger; and to know when to hold back, move forward, and when to risk it all.
And perhaps most of all, she spoke of how each of her subjects had the confidence to “surround themselves with strong-minded people, who could provide diverse perspectives, argue with them, and question their assumptions.” Goodwin pointed out how Lincoln appointed his chief rivals to his cabinet.
FDR, on the other hand, had no rivals in his cabinet, but had a secret weapon, Goodwin observed: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Goodwin recalled how Eleanor Roosevelt led something of a social revolution from the White House—for example, she held weekly press conferences but required they be covered by female journalists, the effect of which was that newspapers had to hire more women. And she also got the factories in the 1940s to open their doors to women, who during the war years came to make up 60% of the workforce, and led to a rise in productivity. When the factory owners conducted a study to see why productivity rose with female workers, Goodwin said they came back with a simple answer: unlike men, when asked to operate complex machinery women asked for directions.
Goodwin admitted she struggled with Johnson’s legacy because of the Vietnam War. But at a time when “our political system is broken” and Congress can’t seem get together to accomplish basic tasks, she noted, his skill in passing landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society stands out.
In a final question, a librarian asked if Goodwin could pick one of “her guys” to come back and counsel President Trump, who would it be? She picked Teddy Roosevelt.
“The turn of the 20th century is very similar to what we are experiencing today,” she explained. “People in the country felt as if they had lost their moorings. Change was happening so quickly: big companies were swallowing up small companies; a gap had developed between the rich and the poor; the industrial order had changed the whole agricultural order; the big cities seemed frightening to people in the rural areas; and immigration was coming in from abroad and it did produce this populist movement,” she said.
But Teddy Roosevelt, she said, was understanding about what was going on. "He was able to take that energy, anxiety, and fear and channel it into moderate reforms,” she said. “The Square Deal was for the rich and the poor, the capitalist and the wage worker.” And, Goodwin concluded, his persona and communication instincts would play well today, too.
"He’d be great on Twitter,” she said to laughs. “And he'd have intelligence behind the tweets.”