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.

Presidential Pets: Herbert Hoover’s Dogs

President Hoover and his wife enjoyed having dogs in the White House. They had some trouble keeping pets in the busy executive mansion, however.

Hoover’s favorite dog was a Belgian shepherd named King Tut. King Tut met the future US President while Hoover was on assignment in Belgium for President Wilson. Hoover adopted the dog and brought him back to the US.

When Hoover ran for president in 1928, his political advisors looked for a way to soften the public servant’s stiff image. Hoover fished wearing a full suit, so his advisors had their work cut out for them. Their solution was to photograph Hoover with King Tut. In the photograph, a smiling Hoover holds up the dog’s front paws, as if he were begging for votes. After Hoover autographed the photo, it was sent to thousands of voters. King Tut and his master became more popular as a result. The New York Times called it “one of the happiest photos ever made” of Hoover. With the help of man’s best friend, Hoover was elected president.


Herbert Hoover with his dog King Tut before the 1928 election

After he arrived at the White House, King Tut took on the responsibility of guarding both the president and the grounds around his new home. The White House security chief considered Tut “a sergeant, not merely a sentry” as Tut made his rounds each night.

Unfortunately, being on guard 24/7 started to stress the dog out. Tut sulked and stopped eating. Hoover sent him to a quieter residence in the hope that King Tut would improve, but he died in late 1929.

Hoover didn’t make the dog’s death public for several months. The stock market had already crashed and people were feeling the effects of what would be called the Great Depression. Under those circumstances, Hoover didn’t think it was appropriate to grieve publicly over a dog.

Like her husband, First Lady Lou Hoover also liked dogs. She received an Irish wolfhound from a breeder and school friend when she moved into the White House. The friend thought the dog’s enormous size would make him a good guard dog for the president and his family. Sadly, the dog, whose name was Patrick, passed away from an infection shortly after his arrival.

To compensate for this loss, Mrs. Hoover’s friend sent another Irish wolfhound named Patrick II. A contemporary newspaper reported that Patrick was “sensitive, shy, and shaggy.” Mrs. Hoover decided the dog was too shy for the busy White House and traded him for Shamrock, another Irish wolfhound. Shamrock was definitely not shy, but he wasn’t friendly, either. He bit one of the Marine guards at Camp Rapidan. The Hoovers eventually gave Shamrock to a colonel.

Ultimately, neither President Hoover or his dogs stayed long at the White House. In 1932, Hoover ran for reelection without King Tut and lost to fellow dog lover Franklin Roosevelt.


Before the Great Depression: President Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover was born in Iowa, which made him the first president to be born west of the Mississippi River. Though he was orphaned at age nine, he managed to get a geology degree from Stanford University. When he was evaluating mines in Australia, he sent a telegram with a marriage proposal to his future wife and Stanford graduate Lou. Lou had always wanted to marry someone who appreciated the outdoors, and Hoover did. Even as president he took time to go fishing.

During World War I, Hoover headed a relief effort for starving Belgian citizens. In Europe he was known as “the food czar.” Back in the states he also organized a relief effort after a massive flood along the Mississippi River. As secretary of commerce under Harding and Coolidge, he opened up new markets for business and helped standardize products like car tires.


Official Presidential Portrait of Herbert Hoover

Hoover was so popular that he easily won the presidential election in 1928. Even he seemed to realize the possible dangers of people viewing him as “some kind of superman”, however. He worried that some catastrophe would occur during his time in office. When the stock market crashed and left many Americans unemployed and hungry, Hoover had the catastrophe he feared.

One of Hoover’s errors was his belief that local governments and volunteerism could stop the Great Depression. He opposed direct federal government aid for most of his presidency, though he did authorize loans for state and federal government projects in order to create jobs. Hoover also made some poorly thought out statements to the press that gave people the impression that the multimillionaire didn’t care about them.

To be fair, the depression continued for eight more years even with Franklin Roosevelt’s federal aid. Despite mistakes, Hoover’s administration introduced some progressive ideas. For example, he invited prominent black leaders to the White House, something his predecessors avoided. He also supported tax reductions for the poor.

Though he knew he would not win another term, Hoover’s love for America never wavered. After all, he had signed a law making The Star-Spangled Banner America’s national anthem.

Andrew Jackson’s Apprentice: U.S. President Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren was the first president born in the official United States of America. His ancestors were Dutch. Van Buren’s father managed a tavern in Kinderhook, New York. Politicians often dropped by for a drink and talked about their ideas. Listening to them gave young Martin an early interest in politics. His family couldn’t afford to send him to law school, but he studied on his own while he worked as law office clerk. Soon he entered state politics.

Van Buren got his nickname “The Little Magician” for his talents as a shrewd negotiator and political organizer. By the election of 1836 Van Buren had already helped to organize the new Democratic Party. His former party, the Democratic-Republicans, was crammed with members who just wanted to argue with each other. The new Democratic platform extended Andrew Jackson’s policies of limited federal government and promotion of states rights.

Official White House Portrait of Martin Van Buren

Official White House Portrait of Martin Van Buren

Though Van Buren was a gifted politician, he is largely regarded as a failure as president.

The economic crisis he inherited from Jackson only got worse under his watch. Not all of the factors were within his control: for example, England also had an economic depression and English banks stopped dealing with the United States. Unemployment among American workers soared and so did poverty.

Unlike future democratic president Franklin Roosevelt, Van Buren never offered the American people federal assistance. He thought the government should leave people alone. He did, however, want to make sure that the government had money. He proposed an independent treasury so the government wouldn’t have to keep its money in struggling individual banks.

The establishment of the U.S. Treasury would have been a victory for Van Buren, but it took him years to convince Congress to pass the bill. By then the public blamed him for the economic crisis and Van Buren was not re-elected.

Surprising Facts about US Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt, 1918

Theodore Roosevelt, 1918

As a young boy, Theodore Roosevelt often struggled to breathe at night because of his asthma. Although modern doctors would be appalled, Roosevelt’s doctors suggested that the boy smoke cigars to improve his symptoms.

The family thought Roosevelt’s brother, Elliot, later father of Eleanor Roosevelt, was most likely to succeed. Elliot struggled with alcoholism, however. Theodore soon outpaced his brother both physically and mentally. He was a voracious reader and would read almost anywhere about almost any subject. Even as president he snuck a few minutes between appointments to read nature books.

While in office he expanded the authority of the president. Roosevelt believed that the president could do whatever the law didn’t specifically prohibit him from doing.

Roosevelt engaged in a number of presidential firsts. He was the first president to understand and use the press to gain public support for his programs. In fact, Roosevelt enjoyed talking with the press so much that he spoke to a reporter during his morning shave. Roosevelt was also the first president to invite an African American (Booker T. Washington), to dinner at the White House.

Although he enjoyed being president, Roosevelt was disappointed to preside over the country in a time of peace. He believed that he could not be a great president without steering the nation through a great crisis.

Franklin Roosevelt


FDR’s Official Presidential Portrait

Though he was a Democrat and his distant cousin Theodore a Republican, Franklin always admired Theodore. Theodore gave his cousin Franklin his blessing on more than one occasion. He supported Franklin’s marriage to his niece, Eleanor. He also supported Franklin’s desire to become a politician. After Theodore’s death, animosity grew between the two branches of the Roosevelt family. Theodore’s sons saw themselves as the natural heirs to their father’s success, but none of them came close to Franklin’s political achievements.

After a series of political appointments, FDR was diagnosed with polio. In 2003, scientists called that diagnosis into question. They suggested that FDR might not have had polio, but Guillain-Barre syndrome, an aggressive form of neuropathy. Regardless of the medical cause, FDR’s paralysis made him terrified that he might become trapped in a fire. His home at Springwood near Hyde Park, NY has an elevator that FDR could operate by pulling ropes in case the electricity failed.

Like his cousin Theodore, FDR had a good relationship with the press as president. As a result, he was rarely photographed in his wheelchair. While trying to get the nation out of the Great Depression, he created a variety of government programs that became well-known. There was almost nothing FDR would not try in order to stimulate the economy. For example, he tried to move the Thanksgiving holiday backwards so that consumers would have more shopping days before Christmas.

Doing Research at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

Statue of FDR's dog, Fala at the visitor's center in Hyde Park, NY

Statue of FDR’s dog, Fala at the visitor’s center in Hyde Park, NY

Two years ago this week, I was conducting research for my book at the FDR Library. Well, that’s not entirely true. I was in Hyde Park, New York and I was using the library’s resources, but both the library and the museum were undergoing renovations. The library was off-limits to visitors, but the library staff set up a cozy room in the visitor’s center for researchers to view the library’s archives. Every morning the other patrons and I arrived early to request the boxes of materials we needed, and one of the archivist’s assistants brought them in on carts.

Sometimes I wish I had the chance to see the actual library, but that didn’t bother me at the time. I was too focused on reading documents from the War Refugee Board files and taking pictures of them with my digital camera (photocopying was not allowed because some of the documents were fragile). I also remember thinking that the presidential library might be large and intimidating. Frankly, doing research for my first book was intimidating enough, so I was content with the smaller room.

The visitor’s center also had a statue of FDR’s dog, Fala, near the entrance. I love dogs and missed my beagle mix who stayed with my mother in Illinois. The staff at the center may have thought I was a little odd when I said, “good morning, Fala” and “see you tomorrow, Fala” every day, but then they were probably used to eccentric researchers.

The best part of the library/visitor’s center was Virginia, the archivist. The library had a great online finding aid, so I knew which documents I needed and the boxes they were located in. Unfortunately, there were two documents that I had only seen cited in other history books, and I had no idea how to locate them. Virginia didn’t, either because the filing system was changed after those books were written, making the citations almost worthless. Fortunately for me and my book, Virginia was determined to find what I needed. She seemed to take it personally when she couldn’t find a document. I thought, this woman is a researcher’s dream come true. I still can’t figure out how she located those documents, but she managed it somehow and I went back to Illinois with all the sources I needed.

Some day I want to return to Hyde Park as a tourist, but I enjoyed almost every minute that I spent researching my book.

The Detroit Race Riots of 1943

The riot that broke out on the evening of June 20, 1943 at a popular beach park wasn’t the first sign of racial tensions in Detroit. During World War II, Detroit, a town already known for its manufacturing plants, produced one-third of America’s military equipment. The demand for blue-collar workers grew, and thousands of Southern African Americans flooded the city. They wanted better pay and better treatment than they received in the South’s sharecropping system.

By the early 1940s, one major problem existed: the manufacturing plants provided jobs but not housing. Where would the new migrants live? White workers made it clear that they didn’t want to live next door to African Americans. Across town signs like “we want white tenants in our white community” were put up. Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries finally succeeded in obtaining some additional housing for blacks, but his efforts required a show of force. Blacks moved in to their new neighborhood only after the Detroit police and the National Guard escorted the new tenants.


Life Magazine printed an article in August 1942 that predicted a larger clash between whites and blacks. The article said, “If machines could win the war, Detroit would have nothing to worry about. But it takes people to run machines and too many of the people of Detroit are confused, embittered and distracted by factional groups that are fighting each other harder than they are willing to fight Hitler. Detroit can either blow up Hitler or it can blow up the U.S.” The article proved to be prophetic.

On a hot summer day in 1943, tensions between the two races boiled over again. To escape the heat, over 100,000 Detroit residents went to an integrated beach called Belle Isle. The majority of the beachgoers were black. At first, small fights broke out among black and white teenagers. Black youths mugged whites, and white and black teens got into fistfights. By evening, however, the situation escalated. People tried to leave the island for the mainland, causing traffic jams. Stuck on the Belle Isle Bridge, a fight started between 200 blacks and white sailors. On the mainland, thousands of whites threatened blacks trying to cross. Though the Detroit police arrested dozens, rioting had already spread to other parts of the city.

Rumors only made the riots worse. Among whites, a rumor spread that blacks had murdered a white woman on the bridge. Among blacks, a similar rumor claimed that whites threw a black woman and her baby off the bridge. Whites attacked patrons exiting a theater patronized by African Americans. Streetcars filled with black people trying to go to work were stopped and passengers were thrown out. African Americans smashed windows of white owned stores and attacked anyone with white skin, including a doctor responding to an emergency call.

After nearly twenty-four hours of chaos, Michigan Governor Harry Kelly finally asked President Franklin Roosevelt to send in National Guard troops. Federal troops arrived the following morning and restored order. The riots left twenty-five African Americans and nine whites dead. Almost 1,000 people were injured.

Why I Decided to Self-Publish My History Book

After sending my manuscript to both academic and small presses, I have decided to self-publish my book on America and the Holocaust. (Specifically, it’s about the War Refugee Board—a government agency created by President Franklin Roosevelt whose members tried to save Jews who were still alive in Europe in 1944). While all of these publishers said “no,” they did not say, “this book is badly written” or “the topic is boring.” Instead, I got objections that I believe I can overcome with self-publishing. I listed a handful of them below.

Objection One: This is not a good fit for our list.

As a self-publisher, the only list I have is for books written by me. Some editors were nice enough to recommend other places where I might send my manuscript, though those presses had other objections.

Objection Two: Investing in a new author is risky.

As my uncle would say, a bus could hit any one of us tomorrow. His point? Life is inherently risky. I’ve read that self-publishing is risky, too, but I decided to defer to my uncle.

Objection Three: The book is too short.

My book and I prefer to be called vertically challenged…I’m kidding. Still, if I self-publish, length doesn’t matter. Having a shorter book will probably make the process a bit more affordable. As someone who also reads books, I appreciate writers who use as much space as they need to tell their stories–no more, no less.

Objection Four: People who do not have PhDs in History could understand this book.

I know some really wonderful people with PhDs, but I don’t want to limit my book’s audience to people who a. have PhDs in History and b. are interested in the Holocaust and/or President Roosevelt’s administration. Since most people don’t know much about what the members of the War Refugee Board accomplished, I want as many people as possible to understand it.

So, that tells you why I’m self-publishing my book. How I’m going to self-publish is still a work in progress. I’ll have more on that topic later on, as well as more general history posts.

If you’ve self-published or are working on a self-published project, what made you decide to do it?

Surprising Facts about Eleanor Roosevelt

Official White House Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt

Official White House Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt

  • She was very shy. Though she did a lot of public speaking as First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was a shy child. Even as a teenager, she worried that she would not attract a husband. Despite her worries, Eleanor became the first wife of a U.S. president to hold press conferences, speak at a national party convention, and write her own newspaper column. As she looked back on her life, Eleanor hoped others would see that “in spite of timidity and fear, in spite of a lack of special talents, one can find a way to live widely and fully.”
  • First wife of a president to drive a car by herself. As First Lady, Eleanor insisted on driving her own car, and wanted to go for drives without the Secret Service. President Franklin Roosevelt’s concern for her safety caused Eleanor to make some compromises. She sometimes traveled with a private bodyguard, and she also learned how to shoot a small gun. She admitted to the readers of her newspaper column that she was not an expert, but “if the necessity arose, I do know how to use a pistol.”
  • Loved to fly in airplanes and wanted flying lessons. Eleanor was the first president’s wife to ride in an airplane, and she told her friend Amelia Earhart that she hoped FDR would let her take flying lessons. FDR said no to the lessons, but that didn’t stop Eleanor from traveling by plane. Most Americans thought flying was dangerous in the 1930s, so Eleanor’s frequent plane rides helped airlines change some people’s minds.
  • Helped African Americans serve as pilots in World War II. In 1941, Eleanor traveled to the Tuskegee Institute, which provided education and job skills for African Americans. The Institute had an aviation program so students could learn to fly. Many hoped to be included in the air force in World War II, but the public doubted if blacks could really be good pilots. When Eleanor visited the program, she asked to fly with one of the Tuskegee pilots. He flew her over Alabama for an hour. After the flight, the pilot and Eleanor had their picture taken in the plane. The photo of the smiling First Lady sitting next to a black pilot made people think that African Americans might be competent airmen. With a little help from Eleanor, President Roosevelt decided to use Tuskegee pilots in combat.