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.

George Washington and the American Press

As we prepare to celebrate President’s Day and George Washington’s Birthday, it’s tempting to think of our first president as an icon who was beloved by the American people at all times. As the victorious general in the American Revolution and the first president, much of the public admired Washington. Like all presidents who came after him, however, even George Washington could not escape criticism in the press.

In the late eighteenth century, newspapers didn’t claim to stick to the facts or be objective. One particular paper, the National Gazette, criticized President Washington throughout his presidency. Every time Washington threw a birthday party for himself, the Gazette complained about it. After his sixty-first birthday, the Gazette stated, “who will deny, that the celebrating of birth days is not a striking feature of royalty? We hear of no such thing during the republic of Rome.” Perhaps the Gazette failed to realize that most people in ancient Rome did not live to be sixty-one. Anyway, the paper was determined to label Washington as wishing to act as a king—an idea that horrified revolutionaries who had just escaped the rule of the King of England.

Another paper, the Aurora, published rumors about Washington’s disloyalty to America when he served as General of the Army. The letters portrayed him as a “lukewarm patriot”, which was untrue. Even when the army suffered from bad weather or defeat in battle, Washington was determined to defeat the British. The paper did not bother to check the source of the letters as might be expected today. Instead the paper’s owner printed what he liked, and he liked to criticize Washington.

The usually mild-mannered Washington lost his temper with these attacks on his character. According to Thomas Jefferson, he once swore at an article in the Aurora, something he rarely did in front of others. Even before becoming president, Washington had never been a fan of the press. As a general he complained that reporters hurt the American cause by revealing too much information. As president, he publicly pretended not care what the press said, though in letters to friends he wrote that he was tired of being attacked “by a set of infamous scribblers.” Personal attacks by his countrymen hurt him in a way that no enemy ever had.

Some historians claim that Washington retired from the presidency after two terms to show the press that he did not want to become king, though other reasons like ill health also played a role. Still, by retiring to his plantation, Washington could finally silence critics who wanted to portray him as a man obsessed with power. Now the press would have to turn its wrath on another president.