Book Review of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times

Let me start this review by explaining what Leadership in Turbulent Times is NOT. It is not a commentary on the current White House; Donald Trump’s name is never even mentioned. The book is also not as lengthy as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s other titles. Without notes, Leadership is 370 pages. In contrast, Goodwin’s previous book The Bully Pulpit is 752 pages without notes.

Now for what Leadership in Turbulent Times IS. It is a survey of four presidents who, though imperfect, displayed extraordinary leadership qualities during their time in office. The men included are Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Goodwin spent years writing about each of these leaders.

The book is divided into three main sections. In Ambition and the Recognition of Leadership, Goodwin shows how important early ambition and the desire to take charge are to successful leadership later in each man’s life. Abraham Lincoln’s famous thirst for knowledge helped him walk for miles to borrow a book. He got no encouragement from his father, who thought a strong young man like Abe should be helping with the family farm. Yet Lincoln was determined to get ahead of other young people. A contemporary recalled how Lincoln would devote himself to books while the other kids played. Years later, when a law student asked him for advice, Lincoln said, “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other thing.”

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Abraham Lincoln, Feb. 1860 by Mathew Brady

The second section of the book, Adversity and Growth, demonstrates how each of these men became better leaders as a result of overcoming challenges. For example, Franklin Roosevelt came from a wealthy family and appeared to be living a charmed life until he contracted polio. Suddenly the pampered FDR had to work hard just to manipulate a wheelchair. He went to Warm Springs, Georgia after hearing about a man who gained strength in his legs by swimming in the warm mineral water. FDR invested money in a rundown hotel and turned it into a resort and treatment center for polio patients. He took an active interest in his investment and became known to other patients as Doc Roosevelt. Spending time listening and sharing his own struggles with others who had polio changed Roosevelt. According to his future cabinet member Frances Perkins, the experience made him “completely warmhearted, with humility of spirit and with a deeper philosophy.” FDR’s newfound empathy would later help him to understand what other people were going through as he worked to get the U.S. out of the Great Depression.

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Gubernatorial portrait of FDR, Dec. 1940

In the third section of the book, The Leader and the Times: How They Led, Goodwin shows how the ambition and personal trials of each man made him a better leader. She presents case studies from each of their presidencies to show how effectively they led their country at challenging times. For Lincoln, she uses the introduction of the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War. Theodore Roosevelt’s chapter discusses his response to The Great Coal Strike of 1902. For FDR, his first 100 days in office dealing with the Great Depression are examined. Finally, Goodwin discusses Lyndon Johnson’s work on behalf of civil rights.

I recommend this book for readers who want a relatively quick introduction to these four presidents and want to learn how they became great leaders. Leadership in Turbulent Times is also a good choice for people who may be hesitant about starting one of Goodwin’s larger tomes. If readers decide they want to learn more about a particular president, they can check out Goodwin’s other excellent books.

President Abraham Lincoln, The Moral Politician

In honor of Presidents’ Day weekend and African-American History Month, I am revisiting this post from last year on Abraham Lincoln.

Until the 1850s Abraham Lincoln was a frustrated one-term congressman who had decided to focus on his law practice. Lincoln was drawn into politics again during the Kanas Nebraska Act controversy. While he accepted slavery where it existed, he couldn’t abide its expansion into new territories.

He was not in favor of giving blacks full citizenship, however. In 1840 he criticized Martin Van Buren for voting to enfranchise blacks, and he did not support giving blacks the vote in his bid for the U.S. Senate against Stephen Douglas. He believed that blacks had the right to earn their own living without it being taken away by their masters. Though he lost to Douglas, the debates helped raise Lincoln’s political profile.

Although he did not officially campaign for the nation’s highest office, Lincoln cleverly placed himself in the public eye. Prior to the election he had the debates with rival Stephen Douglas published; the volume became a national bestseller. He also travelled to New York so people in that part of the country could listen to his arguments and see his talent as a public speaker.

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Photo of President-elect Abraham Lincoln, 1860

While in New York he had his photograph taken so it could be handed out just in case his name was mentioned at the Republican convention. After he was elected, more than sixty photos were taken of Lincoln, making him the most photographed president up to that time. Though opponents often made fun of his plain, slightly unkempt appearance, Lincoln also poked fun at himself. After being called two-faced, Lincoln said, “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”

Unlike Buchanan, who claimed that he could do nothing if a state wanted to leave the Union, Lincoln refused to bargain with secessionists and sent supplies to the federal fort in South Carolina. He also rejected the idea that the president could do nothing about slavery. While maintaining the Union was his first objective, he said that if freeing the slaves would save the Union he would free them.

Lincoln remained a great politician during the Civil War. He gave out contracts and government offices in exchange for votes. Yet he also knew how to unite people behind a moral cause such as the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.

As the war drew to an end, he offered friendship to the defeated Southerners “with malice toward none, with charity to all.” Americans can only imagine what Lincoln would have accomplished during his second term in office. On April 14, 1865, he was the first president to be assassinated.

More Abraham Lincoln Pets and the First Presidential Turkey Pardon

Despite the fact that they left their dog Fido behind in Springfield, the Lincolns had other pets in the White House. Tad and Willie had two goats named Nanny and Nanko, both of whom had the run of the White House. The goats drove the staff crazy by chewing almost everything in sight and eating the flower bulbs in the garden. In addition, the Lincoln boys would hitch the goats to either chairs or carts and have the goats pull them around. On one occasion, Tad scared White House visitors by driving one goat-pulled chair through the East Room while shouting, “Get out the way!”

Lincoln told Elizabeth Keckley, his wife’s seamstress, “I believe they are the kindest and best goats in the world.” According to Keckley, Lincoln and the boys would play with the goats in the yard “and when he called them they would come bounding to his side.” The White House staff was so frustrated with Nanny, however, that she was taken to the Soldiers Home. Unfortunately, she also chewed up the garden there and was sent back to the White House. Nanny, probably confused by the move, disappeared one day. Lincoln reported the loss to Tad who was on a trip with Mrs. Lincoln. “Poor Nanny goat is lost,” he wrote. By the next spring, Nanny was either found or replaced by another goat. Lincoln sent his wife a telegram saying “Tell Tad the goats and father are very well– especially the goats.”

If goats made for unusual White House pets, Tad managed to find yet another exotic friend. In 1863 the Lincolns were sent a live turkey. It was to be eaten at Christmas dinner. Tad became attached to the turkey and named him Jack. When Tad found out his new friend was going to be cooked for Christmas dinner, he interrupted Lincoln during a cabinet meeting to plead for the bird’s life. Lincoln stopped the meeting and wrote an “order of reprieve” for the turkey. Jack continued to live at the White House.

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Lincoln and his Cabinet. William Seward, who gave Lincoln kittens, is seated in front of the desk.

The tradition of presidents pardoning turkeys was thus started by Lincoln even though his turkey was for Christmas dinner. The presidential turkey pardon did not become an annual tradition until years later. John F. Kennedy was the first modern president to let a Thanksgiving turkey go.

Lincoln himself seem to derive the most comfort from the company of cats. When asked if her husband had a hobby, Mary Lincoln might’ve answered cats.  Lincoln received two kittens as a gift from Secretary of State William Seward. He named them Tabby and Dixie. He reportedly spent quite a few hours of his time talking to them. At one point he exclaimed that they “were smarter than my whole cabinet.” During one White House dinner, Lincoln had Tabby seated next to him. This embarrassed Mrs. Lincoln but did not seem to trouble her husband.

Lincoln was also fond of stray cats, but he didn’t bring them home too often because Mary didn’t appreciate it. While visiting Gen. Ulysses S Grant at army headquarters in 1865, Lincoln spotted three stray kittens. He scooped them up and petted them. Before he left he made sure that someone would look after them. Grant aid Horace Porter stated that it was a “curious site at army headquarters upon the eve of a great military crisis” to watch the president “tenderly caressing three stray kittens. It well illustrated the kindness of the man’s disposition, and showed the childlike simplicity which was mingled with the grandeur of his nature.”

Presidential Pets: Abraham Lincoln’s Dog Fido

Abraham Lincoln’s dog Fido was the first presidential dog to be photographed. Lincoln had the photo taken in 1861 just before he left Springfield, Illinois for his presidential inauguration. He told his sons Tad and Willie that they could take the photo with them to Washington, but not the dog.

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Official Portrait of Fido, Abraham Lincoln’s Dog

During his time in Springfield Fido was a great companion to Lincoln. The yellow-and-brown mutt accompanied Lincoln on errands and often waited outside the barbershop for him. Unlike his master, however, Fido wasn’t meant for public life. After Lincoln’s presidential nomination, local politicians came to the house and tried to greet Fido, who retreated under the family sofa. Fido also was less than enthused about the fireworks and cannons going off when his master won the election.

Mary Lincoln was not a big fan of dogs and she was probably happy not to have to clean up after Fido anymore. Lincoln, however, loved dogs and made sure that Fido had a good home. Lincoln gave the dog to the Roll family who were friends and neighbors of the Lincolns and their children.

Before giving away his pet, Lincoln gave the Rolls strict instructions about Fido’s care. For example, Lincoln insisted that Fido never be punished for coming inside with muddy paws. He also wanted the dog to be allowed in the dining room where he could beg for table scraps. The Rolls were also given the Lincoln family sofa to make Fido feel more at home. It was his favorite place to sleep. Finally, the Rolls promised to give the dog back when the Lincolns returned to Springfield.

Fido was never reunited with his master, though he did watch the funeral procession in Springfield after Lincoln’s assassination. Several months later Fido ran away from the Roll’s home. John Roll wrote, The dog in a playful manner put his dirty paws upon a drunken man sitting on the street curbing. In his drunken rage the man thrust a knife into the body of poor old Fido. So Fido, just a poor yellow dog was assassinated like his illustrious master.” The Roll children buried Lincoln’s beloved dog in their yard.

 

Lincoln’s Former General: The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant

As a young man Grant hated working in his father’s leather business. He didn’t especially want to go to West Point either but thought it a better alternative to manufacturing. The “S.” in his name was a typo made on his application to West Point. Grant kept the initial and was affectionately known as U.S. Grant during the Civil War.

Although West Point graduates were in demand, Grant had a tough time getting a position in the army due to his heavy drinking. His talents outweighed his faults, however. Grant was the first man since George Washington to earn the permanent rank of lieutenant general. That rank gave him the responsibility for the Union’s strategy.

Though he was a hero to Northerners at the end of the war, Grant still had to earn a living. With a family to support, he reluctantly went to work for the family leather business. In 1868 Republicans and Democrats both wanted the hero of the Civil War to run for president. He ran as a Republican. Though he was a great leader during the war, Grant had no political experience. It’s one thing to fight a war with a clear enemy–quite another to determine who one’s enemies are in the game of politics.

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Official Presidential Portrait of President Grant

Grant’s greatest problem as president was his trusting nature. Though honest himself, he surrounded himself with others who were not. He also felt inferior to intellectuals and tended to follow Congress’ lead. As a result his presidency was marked by multiple scandals. For example, his secretary of war was accused of accepting bribes from merchants who traded at army posts with Native Americans.

After two terms in office the administration’s scandals prevented him from trying for a third term. His trusting nature failed him again when he became a victim of Wall Street fraud.

Knowing that Grant was broke, his friend Mark Twain suggested that he write his memoirs in order to make money. Grant had just started writing when he developed throat cancer. He was determined to finish his memoirs before he died, however, and they are still selling today. Unsurprisingly, they focus on the time period that brought Grant the most success: the Civil War.

 

Lincoln’s Replacement: The Controversial Presidency of Andrew Johnson

Like Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson was self-educated. He was the only senator from a state that left the Union (Tennessee) to stay in Washington. Because of his loyalty he was chosen as Lincoln’s vice-president in 1864. It was soon obvious that the choice was a mistake. Johnson showed up drunk to the inauguration and harangued Lincoln’s cabinet in his acceptance speech.

The main reason the Democrat Johnson stayed a Unionist was because he hated plantation owners whose wealth and resources hurt opportunities for small farmers. Unfortunately for the newly freed slaves, Johnson hated them just as much. After Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson took over, he stated, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”

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 Official Presidential Portrait of Andrew Johnson

Yet Johnson proved that he couldn’t get along with many white men either, at least not if they happened to be Republicans. His policy towards the former Confederate states was so liberal that these states elected Confederate leaders to Congress. Furious Republicans refused to seat the delegates.

Johnson especially fought with Radical Republicans who favored equality for blacks. He vetoed the 1866 Civil Rights Act, which stated that everyone in the U.S. should have “full and equal benefit of all laws.” Congress overturned this veto and several others during Johnson’s presidency. During his fights with congressional leaders Johnson was nicknamed “The Grim Presence.”

Johnson is best known for being the first president to have an impeachment trial. Fortunately for him, a few Republicans thought that his disagreements with Congress did not add up to the “high crimes” required by the Constitution to oust a president. He escaped impeachment by one vote.

Though his presidency was a failure, Johnson later became the only former president elected to the U.S. Senate. After hearing the news, Johnson said, “Thank God for the vindication.”

Abraham Lincoln: The Moral Politician

Until the 1850s Abraham Lincoln was a frustrated one-term congressman who had decided to focus on his law practice. Lincoln was drawn into politics again during the Kanas Nebraska Act controversy. While he accepted slavery where it existed, he couldn’t abide its expansion into new territories.

He was not in favor of giving blacks full citizenship, however. In 1840 he criticized Martin Van Buren for voting to enfranchise blacks, and he did not support giving blacks the vote in his bid for the U.S. Senate against Stephen Douglas. He believed that blacks had the right to earn their own living without it being taken away by their masters. Though he lost to Douglas, the debates helped raise Lincoln’s political profile.

Although he did not officially campaign for the nation’s highest office, Lincoln cleverly placed himself in the public eye. Prior to the election he had the debates with rival Stephen Douglas published; the volume became a national bestseller. He also travelled to New York so people in that part of the country could listen to his arguments and see his talent as a public speaker.

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Photo of President-elect Abraham Lincoln, 1860

 

While in New York he had his photograph taken so it could be handed out just in case his name was mentioned at the Republican convention. After he was elected, more than sixty photos were taken of Lincoln, making him the most photographed president up to that time. Though opponents often made fun of his plain, slightly unkempt appearance, Lincoln also poked fun at himself. After being called two-faced, Lincoln said, “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”

Unlike Buchanan, who claimed that he could do nothing if a state wanted to leave the Union, Lincoln refused to bargain with secessionists and sent supplies to the federal fort in South Carolina. He also rejected the idea that the president could do nothing about slavery. While maintaining the Union was his first objective, he said that if freeing the slaves would save the Union he would free them.

Lincoln remained a great politician during the Civil War. He gave out contracts and government offices in exchange for votes. Yet he also knew how to unite people behind a moral cause such as the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.

As the war drew to an end, he offered friendship to the defeated Southerners “with malice toward none, with charity to all.” Americans can only imagine what Lincoln would have accomplished during his second term in office. On April 14, 1865, he was the first president to be assassinated.

 

President James Buchanan: Career Politician

James Buchanan had more political experience than most presidents. He had served in Congress for 20 years and was President Polk’s secretary of state. He was more effective socializing in small groups rather than making public speeches, however.

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Portrait of James Buchanan

As the only president who never married, he asked his niece Harriet Lane to be White House hostess. She ably presided over dinners with Buchanan’s cabinet members whom he thought of as his family.

President Buchanan was a Northerner who thought the Constitution supported slavery. Before his inauguration he convinced a Supreme Court Justice to vote pro-slavery in the Dred Scott case. The case decided that slaves taken to the North for a period of time were still slaves if their owners brought them back to a slave state.

Buchanan responded to the vote on secession in South Carolina by saying that while secession was wrong, the Constitution gave him no power to tell states what to do. He thought he could preserve the Union by making concessions to the South, but he only succeeded in angering anti-slavery and pro-Union voters.

Eager to let someone else deal with the country’s problems, Buchanan refused to run for a second term. He also refused to back Stephen Douglas in the presidential election. By causing a rift within the Democratic Party, he ensured that Abraham Lincoln would be elected.

Not What their Party Ordered: The Surprising Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore

Zachary Taylor

Official White House Portrait of Zachary Taylor

Official White House Portrait of Zachary Taylor

Taylor was best known as a general rather than a politician. In fact, he had never voted in a presidential election. That was somewhat understandable since he was usually busy fighting battles. He earned his nickname “Old Rough and Ready” during the Seminole War in Florida. His men admired the fact that he fought beside them on the front lines. They also liked his independent spirit. Instead of a uniform Taylor wore a straw hat and civilian clothes.

At age sixty-one he led troops into Mexico in the fight for Texas. A new invention, the telegraph, was used for the first time to provide daily progress of the war. News of Taylor’s victories in the Mexican American War made him very popular. Despite or perhaps because his opinion on most issues was unknown, the Whigs chose him as their candidate in 1848.

Since Taylor was a slave owner, southerners expected him to support the expansion of slavery in the new territories of California and New Mexico. Taylor surprised almost everyone. He resolved to leave slavery in states where it existed but opposed its expansion. When Congressmen tried to work out a compromise, Taylor threatened to veto it. He said of the Union, “Whatever dangers may threaten it, I shall stand by and maintain it.”

Taylor never had a showdown with Congress. After a July 4th celebration he drank some tainted milk and died days later of gastritis.

Millard Fillmore

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Official White House Portrait of Millard Fillmore

Taylor’s vice-president Millard Fillmore took office after Taylor’s death. Fillmore grew up in extreme poverty. He was mostly self-educated, but he was encouraged by a schoolteacher named Abigail to study law. Later, Abigail became his wife. Ironically, he was chosen to balance the Whig ticket as a non-slave owner from New York. Yet, unlike Taylor, he was prepared to allow the spread of slavery.

He supported the Compromise of 1850 under which California was made a free state while the New Mexico and Utah territories were left open to slavery. Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia, but a new fugitive slave law offered $10 to anyone who handed over an African-American to federal authorities. Although Fillmore disliked slavery, he thought that states and not the federal government should decide where it would or would not exist.

After the passage of the Compromise of 1850, Fillmore thought the slavery issue was resolved. Yet both North and South were dissatisfied with the Compromise. The Whigs chose not to nominate Fillmore in the next election. Fillmore looked forward to a happy retirement with his beloved Abigail. Sadly she died before he left Washington.

Fillmore lived for over twenty years after his presidency. He even ran for the office one more time as a third party candidate but lost. During the Civil War he supported the Union. Nevertheless, some never forgot his support of the Fugitive Slave Law. After President Lincoln’s assassination a mob tried to paint Fillmore’s home black.