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Leading from the Past

By: Claude R. Marx
January 7, 2019

he key to good history writing is effective storytelling combined with an awareness that one shouldn’t apply contemporary standards and prejudices to past events.

Doris Kearns Goodwin has always followed the first half of that equation extraordinarily well. She is great storyteller, whose tales of people and events are so vivid that they are enjoyable even to non-history buffs. But her tendency to use her work to score points about today’s political discussions detracts from her overall effectiveness.

Goodwin’s latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, is an ambitious hybrid. She highlights what she sees as effective presidential leadership and contrasts it with what she sees as President Donald Trump’s flaws, without mentioning him by name. She also wants to bridge the literary divide between history books and leadership/management books. At times she is quite effective, at other times the book seems neither fish nor fowl.

There are clearly limits to how much we can use the past to solve contemporary problems. Historian Gordon Wood notes: “History does not teach lots of little lessons. In so far as it teaches any lessons, it only teaches one big one: that nothing ever works out quite the way its managers intended or expected.”

Goodwin focuses on Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, all of whom have been subjects of her earlier books. Her case studies mostly detail events she has touched on previously, but she explores them in more depth and accompanies the discussions with leadership lessons. If the late Claremont Graduate University scholar and management guru Peter Drucker and acclaimed historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had ever collaborated on a book, it might have been similar to this one, albeit with a more voice-of-God, less conversational tone.

Her discussion of Lincoln is the strongest part of the book and a stark reminder that our current tumultuous period pales in comparison to the 1860s. Those who read Team of Rivals will be familiar with much of the material, but by recasting it she will find a broader audience for some of her points.

Lincoln’s achievement putting together a successful war cabinet that contained many of the men whom he defeated for the GOP presidential nomination not only helped the North win the Civil War, but was also an effective management move. She notes that one of the lessons that can be learned is “anticipate contending viewpoints.” She elaborates on this by noting:

At various junctures, diverse [cabinet] members had assailed Lincoln as too radical, too conservative, brazenly dictatorial, or dangerously feckless,” she writes. “His process of decision making, born of his characteristic ability to entertain a full carousel of vantage points at a single time, seemed to some painfully slow, but once he had finally come to a determination to act, it was no longer a question of WHAT—only when.

Lincoln’s considerable emotional intelligence and empathy helped him manage some of his especially prickly cabinet members and inspired his desire for a gracious attitude toward the South when the war ended. Lincoln knew how to flex his muscles and get what he wanted, but he found ways to do so without being a bully.

Her discussion of Theodore Roosevelt focuses on his various domestic policy achievements and his successful mediation of a coal strike that paralyzed commerce and caused many citizens to suffer during an especially cold winter. She’s enthralled by his larger-than-life personality, as she was in The Bully Pulpit, and is happy to overlook his willingness to cut corners to achieve his goals. One of the lessons she discerns is: “Be visible: cultivate public support among those most directly affected by the crisis.”

Goodwin elaborates by noting that during his appearances TR’s “energy never flagged: he challenged his audiences to ‘look forward, not backward—when public sentiment was ready for the national government to find constructive ways to intervene in the workings of the economic order, to regulate the trusts, stimulate competition, and protect small companies.’”

TR coined the phrase “bully pulpit” to describe how the president can use his office to promote his policies and vision. His metaphorical parishioners included voters as well as journalists, many of whom TR enlisted to help sell his progressive agenda. He helped plan coverage and even reviewed stories before they appeared in print—he built an early, and more liberal, version of Fox News.

Goodwin applauds when disparate forces—such as TR and his frenemy William Howard Taft—work together to achieve progressive goals. But her book is weakened because she cites no examples of conservative presidents who took courageous and successful steps to move the country forward. President Dwight Eisenhower’s sending troops to help integrate Central High School in Little Rock, President Richard Nixon’s overtures to China and the Soviet Union, and President George H.W. Bush’s coalition-building during the lead up to the Gulf War are all potential case studies.

Her discussion of FDR focuses on his response to the Great Depression. She applauds the New Deal and is especially fond of his trial-and-error approach to figuring out what works. Among her lessons are: engage the public, address systemic problems, and launch lasting reforms.

But some of his techniques aren’t necessarily transferrable. His fluid administrative structure and development of rival power centers won’t work in all organizations or if you have a leader who is not as level headed as FDR.

Roosevelt’s polio made it hard to travel to see how his programs worked. Instead, he found other ways to gather information, the hallmark of an effective chief executive.

“To prevent imprisonment within the official pipelines, Roosevelt set in motion a nationwide reconnaissance. He tapped all manner of unorthodox sources of intelligence that allowed him to alter, discard, or revamp existing programs on the fly,” she writes.

Goodwin, who tackled FDR’s presidency in No Ordinary Time, does an effective job describing how his life experiences prepared him for the rigors of the office. She spends a lot of time discussing his struggle with polio and how his work building a treatment center in Warm Springs, Georgia helped him develop empathy for less fortunate people whom he never encountered in his otherwise privileged life.

LBJ is a more complicated and controversial subject for Goodwin. His triumphs on civil rights and other domestic policy issues would place him in the pantheon of the nation’s most significant presidents. The devastating failure of the Vietnam War, however, and his dishonesty about it complicates his legacy.

Goodwin spends most of her time on his domestic accomplishments. She is in awe of LBJ’s legislative prowess and one of the lessons she discerns from it is that effective leaders should prepare vigorously to take advantage of any opportunity, especially one that is unexpected. She notes that when he became president after JFK was assassinated he was ready to seize the moment and push through his agenda.

She notes that LBJ’s “gargantuan ambition, driving temperament, and unique legislative experience all converged to make the most of this rare moment of opportunity. To this day, the lightning pace of the 1965 congressional session, the quality and quantity of the landmark laws it would produce, glazes the mind.”

 Goodwin doesn’t go into the mixed record of success of some of these programs. Alas, that might have diminished some of that glaze.

She spends just 5 1/2 pages chronicling the failure of Vietnam and concedes that LBJ’s tendency to apply the rules of domestic politics to foreign policy was a fatal flaw and sowed the seeds of years of distrust of government.

Goodwin, who dealt with some of these topics in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream and helped LBJ write his autobiography, also recounts some of her conversations with him in which he mused about his legacy.

After leaving the White House, he told Goodwin that at the height of his power he had a “dream of making life better for people than even for FDR seemed impossible. Think of how far we might have reached if things had gone differently.” Goodwin recalls that after saying that: “He sucked in a deep breath, shook his head, and exhaled, his expression revealing a deep and unsettling well of sadness.”

This poignant view of LBJ brings the stark reality of the triumph and tragedy presidential leadership into close focus. And it is great evidence of Goodwin’s skills as a historian and storyteller.

Had there been more stories and analyses like this, and fewer attempts to make this a management book, Leadership in Turbulent Times would have been even better.