Are great leaders born or made? Do circumstances make great leaders or do great leaders change the times? These are a few of the big picture questions my guest explores in her latest book. Her name is Doris Kearns Goodwin, she’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and in her latest book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, she explores the makings of great leaders by looking at the biographies of four US presidents who led the country through periods of crisis: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson.
We begin our conversation discussing the ambition all four of these leaders had as young men to do something great and how they connected their personal ambition to the greater good. We then discuss the personal setbacks all of them experienced early in life and how these challenges influenced them as leaders. Doris then shares the leadership traits and skills all of them implemented during their presidencies as well as how they did things differently. We end our conversation discussing whether any other leader could have managed the crisis each of these presidents confronted or if these men were singularly suited to the circumstances.
- How Goodwin settled on looking at Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and Lyndon Johnson
- The ambitions of each of these presidents as young men
- What things did these 4 men have in common as they came of age?
- Are leaders born or made?
- Theodore Roosevelt’s definition of success (and his idea on the born/made argument)
- The personal struggles (and battles with depression) of these men before assuming office
- The turbulent times each of these 4 presidents led through
- How did they approach their crises?
- Could anyone else have led the US through the Civil War? Could another leader besides FDR have succeeded during WWII?
- How turbulence leads to the opportunity for greatness
- How LBJ’s legacy was cut in two and why he’s a more complicated case than the other 3 presidents featured
- Goodwin’s experience working for and with LBJ
- How these presidents refreshed and relaxed in order to recharge their energies
- Did they think about their legacies?
- Is there one overarching lesson that Doris hopes readers walk away with?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Goodwin’s other books:
- AoM’s numerous articles on Theodore Roosevelt
- The Libraries of Famous Men: Abraham Lincoln
- Leashing the Black Dog
- Should Men Be Inspired By History?
- How Truman Handled Being Out of His Depth
Connect With Doris
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
The Strenuous Life. The Strenuous Life is a platform for those who wish to revolt against our age of ease, comfort, and existential weightlessness. It is a base of operations for those who are dissatisfied with the status quo and want to connect with the real world through the acquisition of skills that increase their sense of autonomy and mastery. Sign up for email updates, and be the first to know when the next enrollment opens up in January.
Blinkist. Got a lot of books on your “to-read list,” but not enough time to read them all? Check out Blinkist. The provide 15-minute summaries of thousands of non-fiction books. Get a FREE 7-day trial by signing up at blinkist.com/manliness.
Thrive Market. Pay up to 50% less on all the best organic products. Get 25% off your first purchase, plus a free 30-day trial by visiting thrivemarket.com/aom.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Are great leaders born or made? Do circumstances make great leaders or do great leaders change the times? These are a few of the big picture questions my guest explores in her latest books. Her name is Doris Kearns Goodwin. She’s a Pulitzer Price winning historian, and in her latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, she explores the makings of great leaders by looking at the biographies of four US presidents who led the country through periods of crisis. Those are Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson.
We begin our conversation discussing the ambition all four of these leaders had as young men to do something great and how they connected their personal ambition to the greater good. We then discuss the personal setbacks all of them experienced early in life, and how these challenges influenced them as leaders. Doris then shares leadership traits, and skills all of them implemented during their Presidencies as well as how they did thing differently. And we end our conversation discussing whether any other leader could have managed the crisis each of these presidents confronted, or if these men were singularly suited to the circumstances? When the show’s over check out our show notes at aom.is/turbulent, and Doris joins me now via Skype.
Doris Kearns Goodwin welcome to the show.
Doris K Goodwin: I’m glad to be with you very much.
Brett McKay: So you got a new book out. Leadership in Turbulent Times. It’s basically four mini-biographies of four presidents you have Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson, and you take a look at how they handled their respective tumultuous times. What criteria did you use to select these four presidents?
Doris K Goodwin: Well I figured that I wanted to select the ones that I knew the best. Abraham Lincoln, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and LBJ all of whom did lead through times of turbulence. But since I was going to be looking at them in a new way through leadership, I figured I better know them well enough because I was going to be asking a whole bunch of new questions of them. Almost as if I were talking to them for the first time.
But I think what happened is that each time I moved from one president to the next, I felt a little guilty when I was deciding what to do next, as if I were leaving an old boyfriend behind. So I decided five years ago, instead of leaving my guys for a new boyfriend, I would keep them together. And look at this through this leadership. A subject I’ve really been interested in since my days in graduate school when we would sometimes stay up all night, at least much of the night, debating big questions. Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? Do the times make the man, or the man makes the times?
So it was really clear in the bigger sprawling biographies, I had their families, their colleagues, all the parts of their presidency, and this time I just wanted to zero in and shine a spotlight on questions I hadn’t thought deeply enough before. So it turned out to be a big adventure.
Brett McKay: Well let’s talk about some of those big picture questions. You talk about this idea of ambition and drive, and you take a look at these four presidents’ young life. When they were young, did all these men have ambitions to be “great men”? Like Thomas Carlisle great men?
Doris K Goodwin: No it’s interesting. I mean I think they all had a drive for success, which is ambition, without which I suppose success is really hard for anybody to achieve in any field. But not all of them at the beginning had an ambition in itself for the greater good. But rather just something for themselves. Lincoln is the outlayer in this respect because even when he’s 23 years old and he runs for office for the first time, he talks about ambition. I mean in the handbill that he had to give out to the public explaining why he was running for the State Legislature from this little town of New Salem, he had only been there for six months.
And he says, “Every man has his peculiar ambition. Mine is to be esteemed of by fellow man. And the sense to be worthy of that esteem.” So already he was looking in a different way, knowing I’m young and unknown, but if the good people don’t see fit to bring me into this, I will be disappointed but I’ve been so much disappointed I won’t be very much chagrined. But then the great thing he says is, “one failure won’t stop me, I will try five or six times until it’s too humiliating, and then I promise I won’t try again.” So he for some reason I think had this inborn sense that he wanted to be something deeper than what he was.
But for the other three it was different. I mean Teddy Roosevelt admitted that when he ran for office the first, that he simply went because it was an adventure, thought it would be fun to be in politics, he didn’t have any sense that he was going in he conceded, to make lives of people better. But then as he became involved in politics, and he began to see tenements that were decrepit, and people working who were little kids in factories. When he was police commissioner he began to see there were conditions of lives that he wanted to change, and would make a difference. And then his became a deeper ambition for the greater good.
And FDR too I think, when he first went into politics, he had a not very distinguished sort of ambitious career up til that point, not a great student in any of the schools he had been in, he was a clerk in a Wall Street Law Firm, and then somebody came to him and said, would you like to run for state democratic seat in the Dutchess County area. He immediately said, yes I would love to, showing that he wanted something more broad than his insulated, privileged world that he had led up til that time. And then once he got into politics, he realized it was his natural vocation. But even then, I don’t think it attained such a sense of for the greater, greater good until much later when I think the Polio made him think about himself and world in a different way.
Johnson I think loves politics from the time he’s like two years old. You just watch him following his father on campaign trail, going to the State Legislature, and just wanting to be in it I think for a sense of power. He really loved the idea of just gaining power. So even when he’s in college, somehow he figures out the way to get power is to get close to people who do have power. That’s the President of the College, so he takes a job mopping the president’s floors outside the office. Somehow starts talking to the president, next thing you know he’s in the office, next thing you know he’s a clerk, next thing you know he’s assistant, and soon he’s running the school and it was only much later I think that his sense of self got attached to a larger purpose.
So they all mostly, except for Lincoln start out with ambition for self, the critical thing is that eventually it becomes ambition for something larger than self.
Brett McKay: So besides this shared ambition that they had to do something great, what other things do these four men have in common when they were coming of age, when they were young?
Doris K Goodwin: Well I think what they had in common is that they all were loving to talk to people, and I think in the political world that’s really important. All of them were sort of gregarious if you put them on a 0-10 even though Lincoln had a melancholy spirit, he also took great pleasure in being with people. They all were story tellers, they loved to entertain people through stories, they knew how to translate experience from whatever they were going through into a story that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that became very important I think in their political career. They all had a sense of really being able to connect to people, and a natural ability even to want to listen to people.
I mean FDR when he’s on that first campaign trail, even though he’s not a great speaker at first, they said that he would start speaking, and then stop and they were afraid he’d never end, because he would have these huge pauses in between. But they loved the fact that he asked people questions, that he listened to them, and I think that was true of all four of them eventually too. So a lot of these traits that later become leadership traits, I think they show, when they’re young, probably most importantly learning and growing as they’re older.
In the beginning Lincoln for example, when had an opponent and he mocked him, he was very quick with his tongue, and he made so much fun of him that everybody laughed, and the opponent left the room in tears. And he went over to the opponent’s house, and when he said not only was he sorry, but he would never do that again. He would never use his ability to get people uproariously laughing against somebody else to his own advantage.
And Teddy too, I think he learned when he was first in the State Legislature, he had this blistering language, he was screaming and yelling at the Democrats from the Republican side, and he made headlines. And then he realized that he rose like a rocket and fell like a rocket. He said that he had gotten a swelled head, and so he had to learn from that mistake.
And I think FDR was still a little arrogant at first too, and would be very harsh in the way he’d handled his opponents. And realized that compromise and collaboration was essential if you’re going to get along. So there are similarities in them. They come from incredibly different backgrounds, obviously the two Roosevelts from very privileged backgrounds, and Lincoln from an almost impossible background to imagine even existing in. And LBJ having hard times.
They had different temperaments. They had different ways in which they dealt with people. But somehow they kept moving through politics, and I think what was most similar is that they all found at a certain point, what William James the philosopher calls “that voice within” that told them this is the real me. They found that in politics when they were young.
Brett McKay: Yeah and it was all about the same age too, like in their 20’s.
Doris K Goodwin: In their 20’s yeah what spurred me to do that was that I was at a college campus talking about the Roosevelts when I had written the biographies, and a student raised his hand, and said well how can I ever aspire to be one of them, they’re too distant, they’re on Mount Rushmore, they’re on the currency, they’re in movies. And so I realized if I started when they were young, they are going to struggle, they’re going to make mistakes out of cockiness, and they’re going to learn from them that people could identify with them more easily, than if we waited until they became presidents and just did short shrift to those years beforehand.
Brett McKay: So it sounds like this idea, the question you had, are leaders born or made? All of them seem to have an innate ability for certain leadership traits. Talking to people, socializing, story telling, but as you said, at the same time they were fine tuning that. They were learning from mistakes they made along the way. So it sounds like are leaders born or made? It sounds like it’s both right now.
Doris K Goodwin: Absolutely. In fact if I had to carry which one had more weight, it will be the making part. I mean it’s true that Lincoln is born with a gift for language that probably no matter how hard you might try to give one of his great speeches, like the second inaugural, or the Gettysburg Address it would be very difficult because you gotta pull that gift.
Teddy possessed an almost photographic memory for everything that he had seen and read. FDR was just lucky to have that optimistic temperament, and LBJ had almost an unbounded energy. But as Teddy Roosevelt pointed out, he said “there’s two kinds of success in the world. One is where a person has a gift that no matter how hard you try you can’t emulate. But most success means taking the talents you have and then developing those ordinary talents to an extraordinary degree through the application of hard sustained work.” And that certainly is something that’s similar to all of them. They really worked hard. And I think that’s key for success in any field I would argue.
Brett McKay: Well another thing that these four individuals had in common, besides ambition, and besides finding their calling when they were in their 20’s. Was they all experienced a personal struggle before they assumed the mantle of leadership. Talk about some of these personal struggles these guys went through.
Doris K Goodwin: In some ways their personal struggles are so harrowing that it seems almost impossible to think we could take some kind of learning from them. But I think all leaders, all of us go through lives of personal struggle, and it depends on whether you come out of it with wisdom or perspective. Ernest Hemingway once said, everyone is broken by life, but afterwards some people are stronger in the broken places.
For Lincoln the struggle was almost from the beginning of his childhood. When his father didn’t really want him to read, and thought it was kind of lazy that he would be wanting to read books so much. And he had to scour the countryside for books, and read everything he could lay his hands on. And then he began that slow upward climb. He didn’t win that first race for the State Legislature but he won his second one. He was in the State Legislature, but then what happened is he considered as he was moving upward that the gem of his character was in keeping his word.
And he had promised the constituents from the time he ran that first time that he would bring infrastructure projects to Illinois so that poor farmers could get their goods to market. And he backed like a million dollar bill to dredge harbors, and widen roads, and build new harbors, and roads so that people could get their good to market. But then the state went into a recession, the projects were never finished they were left half finished. The state went into debt and it was a humiliating time for the state, and it was blamed on Lincoln.
And at the same time he broke his word to Mary because they were engaged and he realized he wasn’t sure he wanted to marry her. So he cycled into a huge depression. And his friends were so worried about it, that they took all knives and razors, and scissors from him room. And his great friend came to his side Joshua [Speed 00:14:05] and said, ‘Lincoln you must rally or you will die.’ And he said, ‘I know that, but I would just as soon die now, however I’ve not yet accomplished anything to make any human being remember that I have lived.’
Which is incredible that same dream he had when he was 23 helped to get him through that struggle. And then even then when he lost to Senate races, he still tried again as a dark horse candidate for the Presidency. So there’s no question that perseverance and resilience proved to be critical in his life to get him through all the tough battles of war before victory was finally achieved.
And I think with Teddy Roosevelt, I mean he had been learning already, as I said, when he was in the State Legislature but there was still sort of a sense of I’m going to move on from the State Legislature to the State Senate, and then maybe I’ll be a congressman, then maybe a senator, then maybe a governor, and then maybe president. He was thinking of moving up rung by rung.
And then all of a sudden tragedy struck. He was in the State Legislature he got word from a telegram that his wife of 22 years old had given birth to their first child, a daughter, they celebrated with cigars, and putting their arms around him, and he was so happy. And then an hour later another telegram arrives saying you must come home immediately your wife is dying, and your mother is dying too.
His mother was only 49, but she had come to help her daughter in law with the baby’s birth, she contracted a sudden case of typhoid fever and died as soon as Teddy came home. And then hours later his wife died. So that double death in the same house, on the same day sent him into a depression. And he left the State Legislature and decided to go live in the Badlands where he became a cowboy. Somehow he thought that physical activity could prevent over thought, and he’d finally be able to sleep at night.
But while he was there, I think he changed his attitude toward life, and he fell in love with nature which becomes of course, his great legacy in conservation. He decided he would just go back to the East Coast after that, and take whatever job seemed interesting to him, because it might be the last job he’d ever have. So he took a job as Civil Service Commissioner, Police Commissioner, he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy then he went downward or so it seemed to be a soldier in the army. People saying, why are you doing that, you have more power the other way?
But he just decided these are the jobs I want to do, and then eventually that winding experience I think, made him into a much better even though young as he was, candidate for the presidency, or President rather, and his experience in the West widened his image so that he wasn’t just an Easterner, he was a Westerner.
So those two had harrowing experiences. But probably nothing really was as strong and developmental as FDR’s Polio. I mean here is this athletic man in his 30’s. Loving to swim, and to fish, and ride his bicycle, and to walk in the woods, and he wakes up one day, and by the end of that day he paralyzed from the waist down. And I think the Polio just made him a much more patient man. It took years before he could finally learn to maneuver the wheelchair. He had to be put down on the carpet to crawl around to somehow get his chest and back stronger than it was to allow him to be lifted in and out of the wheelchair.
And eventually when he went to Warm Springs, the rehabilitation center he created for his fellow Polio patients, he became what he said later, with great pride, Doc Roosevelt. He would supervise the play, he would supervise their exercises in the pool, and it wasn’t just making their limbs better, he wanted to make them feel a sense of joy in life once more.
And he worked on that. So they had wheelchair dances, and theatricals at night. And they all said later, in oral histories that you read, that he changed their life. He gave them a sense that they could live strongly again. So he brought I think, when he went to the Presidency that sense of joy in living that could be recreated even when some terrible tragedy had approached you.
And then Lyndon Johnson had gone from power to power from the time he was young to finally becoming Majority Leader of the Senate, but he then had a sort of sense of questioning himself when he had a massive heart attack. And he came into a depression and came out of it saying well what if I died now, what would I be remembered for? And that’s where his ambition got connected to something larger.
He had exhibits of that when he was a young boy, when he first went to this Mexican-American school, and was a fabulous Principal of this poor school, and New Dealer, but then once he lost the first Senate race he wanted to become a conservative to fit Texas, so he had lost that earlier sense of the larger good. But he regained it again after that heart attack, and then went on to get the first Senate bill through on Civil Rights, and then of course Civil Rights became his legacy in the presidency.
So each of these men was totally marked I think by those crucibles that they went through. Those moments of trials of fire.
Brett McKay: Yeah your book, you made me cry Doris when I was reading about FDR and his Polio experience and it was the moment you described where he kind of withdrew from public life for a bit, and then he decided to go to some meeting at some building that had marble floors, and he just had the crutches, and the braces, and he’s walking, and he slips in front of all these people. And he falls down, and I don’t know what it was, I don’t know what it was about that. I guess the image of him being this very outgoing, athletic guy, and then just being in such a vulnerable position.
But the thing that was, I mean it’s pitiful but at the same time it was inspiring because he was optimistic during the whole entire time. He was just like, it’s all right, let’s just get up, it’s okay, nothing to see here, and he moved on. So that moment really hit home for me for some reason.
Doris K Goodwin: It did for me too, and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because you know we’ve all walked in those buildings before with those long marble floors which are kind of slippery anyway, and picturing, I could just picture him trying to walk in as if he could walk, splat on the floor, people looking at him, his hat falls off his head, and ever since then when I’ve been in one of those big lobbies before elevators, I can picture it, its’ weird.
I felt that same emotional identification, and you’re absolutely right, what he does is get my hat on the bed, I’ll get up from here, here I go. And there’s a similar time so many years later when he’s running in 1936 for the race for the second time, and he goes to deliver the acceptance speech. And he’s being helped to walk down the aisle. If he had his braces on, and they were locked in place, and he had canes or he could lean on two strong people, he could appear to be walking though he never really could propel himself forward by his own motion.
But he reached over to shake someone’s hand, and he lost his balance, his braces unlocked, his speech, the acceptance speech fell, and this is now a national convention. And he says, get me up again, and his speech is all over the place. He comes up, gets to the podium and all of a sudden he has this huge smile on his face and he begins the Rendezvous with Destiny speech. One of the great speeches.
Now in those days the photographers never took a picture of him falling on the ground, there was nothing said about his wheelchair, and then they never mentioned that he had even fallen in the stories the next day. But there’s so many times when that’s going to happen to him again, that embarrassing thing, and somehow he was able to contain it within himself and make other people feel at ease by that huge smile.
So it’s weird. That one got to me as well, and then all the other ones followed in its wake in a certain sense.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about the tumultuous times these four presidents were presidents. So Lincoln obviously, President during the Civil War. Theodore Roosevelt was President when the big coal strike was going on. And the Franklin Roosevelt, Great Depression, World War II. And then LBJ becomes President after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
As you looked at these four men, they’re all different, they’ve all different temperaments, but did they have anything, did they approach their crisis’s the same way, or any similarities there?
Doris K Goodwin: Well you know I think the most important thing that I began to see was that each one of them was fitted for that moment that they were then challenged with. Even if you interchanged them, I’m not sure they could have been able to do it in the same way. And that’s where I think history gave them the opportunity that’s presented then what the person does with it becomes so important.
Because when you think about it, only Lincoln I think, could have had the patience and the perseverance to really just go through those terribly long years. When the Union was not only not winning, but was really losing that war. And of course he had the gift for language to give the struggle the meaning that it provided for the people that kept them going.
And I think for Teddy Roosevelt, he was so used to that fighting spirit that he was the perfect person to come into office and really deal with the problems of the Industrial Era, because they’re so similar to our own in many ways. You know the globalization and technological revolution that shaped us today, was similar back then when the Industrial Revolution changed the nature of the economy in America. There was a big gap between the rich and the poor, and a lot of anxiety and the working class really was in struggle against the Capitalists.
Their nationwide strikes of which the Coal Strike that you mentioned is one. And violence in the streets. But he comes into it with that ability to fight. But instead of fighting for one side or the other, he argued that he was fighting for both sides. That he wanted a square deal for the rich and the poor, for the capitalist and the wage worker. And that sense of fundamental fairness really, and the desire to knit up sort of the problems that polarized the society that he came into, was part of him I think from early on. So he was perfectly suited for that.
And then of course, FDR coming in with that optimism, and that contagious actual confidence having gotten through his Polio struggle to the point where he could become President of the United States, paralyzed himself, now confronts a paralyzed country. And is able to project that optimism onto the country.
And then of course Lyndon Johnson, a southerner, whose roots are so deep in the south, but believes strongly in the importance of civil rights, and who know how to handle the Congress. I don’t know who else could have gotten us through that bipartisanship as well as he. He knew every single Congressman, ever single Senator, knew what would move them, would call them at five in the morning and twelve at night. He even called a Senator at two am, I hope I didn’t wake you up, here I am.
If the Senator’s not there he talks to the wife. If the wife’s not there he talks to the kid. Now you tell your daddy to come along with me on this bill. So I thought about it, and I thought so each of them had different kinds of strengths that fit the time, and if you try to imagine you can and will [inaudible 00:26:56] before Abraham Lincoln, and the country was already splitting apart.
And he exacerbated the divisions rather than healing them the way that Lincoln eventually would. I don’t think that McKinley the Conservative Republican could have dealt with the Industrial or its problems in the same way that Teddy Roosevelt as a greater progressor was able to do so.
And clearly Herbert Hoover couldn’t have dealt and didn’t deal with the Depression, had a more fixed ideology and not that experimental as was so marked by FDR.
And I don’t think that John F. Kennedy could have gotten the Civil Rights Bill passed with a filibuster in Senate. So it’s just lucky I think for us, and for them that they come into office at the moment when their particular set of strengths fit the challenge of the time.
Brett McKay: That goes to that question, is it just circumstances, or can a single individual shape the ages? And it sounds like it’s a mixture of the two again.
Doris K Goodwin: No I think it is a mixture of the two. I mean Teddy Roosevelt actually wrote about this, he wrote about a lot of things. He loved to think about things, and his big essays. In this case he right when he said, if there were no war, nobody would know Lincoln’s name now. Nobody would know the Generals, General Grant, and of course he’s right about that. Nobody in the nation would have known Lincoln’s name.
I think people in Illinois would have known it no matter what just because he made such a marked impression on the people he knew. But the point is that you may have a greater opportunity when there’s a crisis. Abigail Adams says, “Great necessity creates great virtues. That most people would want to live in some dramatic time like this.”
But you have to be ready when that opportunity presents itself. And really have the right set of skills, and be prepared for it. So that’s why I think it is definitely, there’s no great man that can just go through any period of time probably, and you do need the opportunity. If there hadn’t been the war, then perhaps if there hadn’t been slavery, and its problems, Lincoln may have never become President, much less been the wartime President.
But on the other hand, when that opportunity was given to him, he surely exceeded making the most of it because of who he was.
Brett McKay: So of all these four presidents, I think most people, most Americans Lincoln, Roosevelt, both Roosevelts, kind of hold them in sort of this it’s almost Apotheosis almost right? But LBJ’s an interesting case because what most people think when they think of LBJ, they think Vietnam. So what do you think happened there? Because you talk about in the book he ushered in the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the big tax cut in the 1960’s that JFK wasn’t able to do.
Why is he remembered for Vietnam and not for those other things?
Doris K Goodwin: Well I think history is beginning to accord him greater credit for what he did domestically, because so much of the foundations of a great society are still with us, whether it’s voting rights, or civil rights, ending segregation in the south, or fair housing, or Medicare, Medicaid, Aid to Education, Head Start, MPR it’s extraordinary. But the war in Vietnam cut his legacy in two, there’s no question.
And the closer we were to the war the more the memories of the horror of that war, and the failure of his leadership I think remained with us. So I think over time now, there’s a way of looking at him a little bit more empathetically, but still I think his leadership in war was almost the opposite to his domestic leadership.
He had a concrete vision for what he wanted to do in the great society right away, that first night he became president, when Kennedy was assassinated and he sat on his bed with a couple of his aides, and he said, I know what I’m going to get done. I’m going to get a tax cut to make the economy broaden so that we can use the money for social programs. Then I want to get the Civil Rights Bill through, and then the Voting Rights Bill, and then I want to get old Harry Truman’s Medicare through.
And it was incredible that he solved all those things at once. But in Vietnam was happened is he was simply trying not to fail, it wasn’t where his energies were, it wasn’t where his experience was, so he’d be told you have to send more troops or it will fail. And he couldn’t bear the thought of the failure so he incrementally sends troops, and then he never really lets the American public know what he’s doing.
So that when the war doesn’t do as well as we’re telling them the war was doing, he lost his credibility, and eventually had to say that he wasn’t going to run for the presidency again in 1968. He also thought he could transfer some of the characteristics of his Senate leadership over to Vietnam. I’ll just meet with Ho Chi Min and I’ll promise him a Mekong River Delta project, and he’ll agree to come to the bargaining table.
And those were not translatable when you have ideology on the other side. I mean I had my own experience of working for him as a White House fellow when I was 24, and then accompanying him to his ranch to help him on his memoirs those last years of his life. And I saw him in those last years, and the sadness he felt that war had cut that legacy in two. And he was so much happier instead of talking about the war, luckily I was working on the chapters with a group of people helping with the memoirs on Civil Rights, and the Congress.
So I had the happy LBJ, when he remembered those things, he would come to life, his voice would have a great energy in it when he talked about the war there was a sense of almost dropping his voice to a whisper. And I ended up feeling in that experience I had been anti-war in the first place, I had been involved in the anti-war movement, and had actually written an article against him, which came out shortly after I was selected as a White House Fellow with the title “How to Remove Lyndon Johnson from Power”.
So I was certain he would kick me out of the program, but instead he said, I’ll bring her down here for a year, and if I can’t win her over no one can. So I did end up working for him, as I say, and I did end up feeling empathetic for him even then. But now, 50 years later, I think I put it into even deeper perspective and say, while that war will always hurt who he was, and rightly so, what he did domestically deserves to be on a par.
And that’s why I think he belongs in this book with the other three people. Not just because I knew him, and he was the first president that probably made me into a Presidential Historian, because of that extraordinary experience of working with him.
Brett McKay: So he’s a good lesson then, that just because a leader is good in some area, it might not translate over to other areas as well.
Doris K Goodwin: Exactly. I think that’s the lesson that the terrain of leadership that a person faces will demand certain kinds of qualities, and the person may or may not have them. It’s not a universal thing. There’s no one size fits all, there’s no precepts that you can take.
I mean there are certain human things that I think any leader whether it’s a business leader, a university leader, or a political leader share, and they have to do, I think, with the ability to create a team, and then to give that team a sense of being able to argue with you, and question your assumptions. To create purpose, and a sense of common mission for that team. Or my favorite is the ability that they needed to do to relax and replenish their energies so that they could really deal with the anxieties of the moment.
And again, Johnson’s an outlayer but the other three were amazing that way. Lincoln went to the theater a hundred times during the war. He said when the lights came down he could imagine himself back in the world of roses, and for a few moments channel his thoughts to a different place.
Teddy Roosevelt exercised two hours every afternoon no matter what, how busy he was, and we think we’re so busy today. These guys certainly were busy, but they found time to do the things they needed to replenish their energies and FDR had a cocktail party every night in the White House during World War II, where the rule was you couldn’t talk about the war. You could discuss movies, books, anything as long as you didn’t talk about the war.
And LBJ unfortunately was never really able to relax. When I was with him at the ranch, he had this pool, and presumably he would go swimming in it, but there were all these floating rafts, with floating notepads, and floating phones on them so that you could work at every moment in the pool.
So those kind of qualities that you see, they’re able to communicate to people, and the technology of their time, they all shared that. They were able to control their emotions pretty much so. They had humility, which means learning from their mistakes. But none of these qualities are universal, and none of them were always necessary for the problem that they faced.
So you’re absolutely right, it just depends on what the situation is and whether the person is fitted for the time.
Brett McKay: Did these men as soon as they assumed power start thinking about their legacy? Did it become very self conscious of that? And did it influence the decisions they made or how they acted?
Doris K Goodwin: Well the interesting thing is, that I think all of these men from early on sort of had a sense of what is it that I will be thinking about later on. What will people think about me? Once you get into the presidency I think, it becomes escalated that feeling.
In fact I think more so today than ever before. Because the media starts talking about the presidential legacy when they’re in there for about a month. You know and you see you’re surrounded by all these pictures of other presidents, there are not these historians polls that rank them. So that there’s a much more consciousness of it I think now. But these individuals I think really did have that ambition that was different from just wanting to be a celebrity of the moment.
They wanted to leave something behind. And I think that’s what made them from good leaders into potentially great leaders. Because if you’re thinking about that, hopefully you’re thinking about how will I be remembered for having done something positively, having made life better? More opportunities for the lives of the people? And then they do create these libraries now, it has become much more conscious but I think it was psychologically in these people at that moment.
That’s what distinguished them maybe from other people who go into office, and they’re not quite thinking in those futuristic terms.
Brett McKay: So there’s a lot of lessons in this book, and we’ve talked about a few of them. But what do you hope the big lesson is that you hope that readers walk away with after they finish your book?
Doris K Goodwin: Well you know what I’d really hope in this really difficult time that we’re living in right now, where so many people come to me and say, are these the worst of times? That the reassuring answer that history provides is, no these are not the worst of times. I mean we talked a little about it, but remember obviously when Abraham Lincoln enters office, the country’s about to rupture into a civil war.
It’s going to lead to more than 600,000 people dead, to have lived through that time and not know how that war was going to end. Would the country be split in two? What would be the whole idea of America? Would it be undone? Is a much greater psychological existential worry than what we can face today.
When Teddy Roosevelt comes in there really was a fear that revolution might be in the air because of the intensity, the intenseness of relationships between labor and management. And obviously when FDR comes in, people are taking their savings out of the banks, and the banks are collapsing, and the job market is gone. And there’s a sense maybe that capitalism is under siege. And for LBJ when the assassination first took place, there was no question or not of could it be a conspiracy. The Russians or Cuba, or the Mafia, and the country was transfixed with the former president while the new president’s trying to take office.
And racial issues are searing the country. Which get healed in part through his leadership of civil rights, so what makes you know each one of those moments called for leadership, but they also called for a two way street. We had the right leader at the time, but what we had also was citizenry that was active and able to really mobilize themselves to do what was necessary.
When Lincoln was called the Liberator. He said, don’t call me that, it’s the anti-slavery movement that did it all. And there’s truth to that, without the anti-slavery movement the Republican Party wouldn’t have been born. It wouldn’t have been strengthened, it wouldn’t have produced Abraham Lincoln.
And clearly the progressive movement had emerged before Teddy Roosevelt to worry about the Industrial Revolution and it’s hurt on the economy and on the people. Settlement houses were working, there was a sense of a social gospel in the churches. And so when he began to use his leadership to help get laws to regulate this, or break up the big monopolies, there was that progressive movement on the part of the states and the cities that was already in place.
And same true for FDR. And obviously the Civil Rights movement was essential without whom Lyndon Johnson couldn’t have done what it did. So I think the best lesson that I’d love to give to people right now is, that if we’re fearful of where we are as a nation, if there is a worry about the frenzied activity of every day breaking news, and indictments, and not a lack of a shared political truth.
We may not think that we have the means to reform our broken political system which I believe it really is. But we do. I mean that’s what FDR would always say, “problems created by man, can be solved by man.” And there are things that can be done.
Congressional districts could be drawn by non-partisan commissions instead of the [inaudible 00:39:04], and there’s movements in states right, it always starts in the states I think, the changes that can take place in the national level.
To do precisely that, there are movements in the states to do something about the money in politics by overturning the Supreme Court decision perhaps on citizens united. There’s a movement abroad which I love hearing about, for a National Service Program to bring people from the rural areas to the cities, or the cities to the rural areas and let them work on a common mission to overcome that sense of otherness that’s created between cultures of our country.
Teddy Roosevelt said, that the rock of democracy would founder if the people in different regions and parties, and religions, and races started thinking themselves as the other. So we have to figure out ways through education, through mobility, through moving people around, through having some sort of possible national service program which Eleanor Roosevelt wanted, Teddy Roosevelt wanted.
There are answers to these problems as long as the citizens awaken, and will see what happens if they go to the polls and they vote. And more than that, if they become more active. So we’ll just see if citizens keep that awakening but it happened in every one of these times. And history will tell you, that the combination of that and leaders can really go through these much worse problems than we have and we come out the other end.
And if the book can make people feel that. If history has that power, then I’ll feel that it’s done something that will motivate people to action, not simply allow them to sit back and worry about where we are right now.
Brett McKay: Well Doris this has been a great conversation. Thanks so much for coming on.
Doris K Goodwin: Oh thank you so much, I really, really enjoyed it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Doris Kearns Goodwin, she’s the author of the book “Leadership in Turbulent Times” it’s available on Amazon.com, also check out our show notes at aom.is/turbulent where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast for more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website, at artofmanliness.com. We’ve got over four thousand articles in the archives over there. If you haven’t explored that, go over there. Artofmanliness.com, and if you haven’t done so already, we’d really appreciate it if you’d give us a review on Itunes, or Stitchard. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it.
As always thank you for your continued support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.