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.”


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.


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.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

At 4:45pm on Saturday March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of a factory in New York City. Workers had finished their work on shirtwaists–the women’s blouses produced in the Triangle Factory–and were ready to collect their paychecks. They were interrupted by shouts of “Fire!” Samuel Bernstein, one of the managers, tried to throw buckets of water on the fire, but the material used to make shirtwaists was highly flammable.

Bernstein got nowhere with the water buckets. When he attempted to turn on a fire hose, no water came out. He and the women working on the eighth floor realized they had to escape the flames. They pushed each other toward one of the exits, but the door was locked. Finally, someone came with a key and opened it. One of the girls used the telephone to warn the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, on the tenth floor.

Escape Attempts

Horse-drawn fire engines raced to the scene. Unfortunately, their hoses could not reach the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch building where the factory was located. Some people from the eighth floor managed to get down from the stairwells to safety. Workers on the tenth floor tried to escape the flames by climbing up on the roof. The quick thinking of a professor teaching a class in the building next door saved them. When he saw the flames, the professor and his students set up ladders so that employees could climb from the factory roof to the roof of the school.

Trapped Workers

Not everyone could find an escape route. Some tried climbing onto the fire escape, but it collapsed under the weight of so many people. With the flames trapping them inside, many workers decided to jump out the factory windows. Firefighters held nets below in an attempt to catch the jumpers. The nets weren’t strong enough. No one who jumped survived. After half an hour, the firemen managed to stifle the flames by taking their hoses inside the building. By that time, 146 people were dead.

At ten feet tall, the building was one of New York’s skyscrapers. Hundreds of people worked long hours at the sewing machines, sitting elbow-to-elbow and receiving little pay. Most of the workers were female Italian and Russian immigrants, though some men worked there, too.

Call for Fire Safety in Factories

After the tragedy, many people called for better safety standards for factories as well as better working conditions. Survivor Pauline Cuoio Pepe said, “We [the survivors] didn’t sleep right, always afraid. We were also angry. ‘What did they close the door for? What did they think we were going out with? What are we gonna do, steal a shirtwaist? Who the heck wanted a shirtwaist?’”

Owners Harris and Blanck were criticized for not following fire safety procedures. They kept doors locked while workers were inside, the fire hoses didn’t work, stairways were too narrow, and the fire escape didn’t reach the ground. New York State government officials set up a commission to study factory safety. Among other improvements, the commission required tall buildings to have sprinkler systems. Many laws passed to increase the safety of workers in factories as a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. As committee member Frances Perkins stated years later “they [the Triangle Factory workers] did not die in vain and we will never forget them.”