Nelson Mandela is dead. Barack Obama is out of office. Strongmen are thriving from China to Egypt, from North Korea to Turkey. Britain’s prime minister looks weak as Brexit looms and Europe threatens to unravel. America’s president is seen by many as a dangerous demagogue surrendering the primacy his nation held for seven decades. The world is crying out for leadership.
Few are better placed to explain the current vacuum, and predict what might fill it, than Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitzer prize winner and New York Times bestselling author described by New York magazine as “America’s historian-in-chief”. The 75-year-old swam with Lyndon Johnson at his ranch, worked with Steven Spielberg on Lincoln and dined with Barack Obama at the White House.
Now she has delivered a book called Leadership in Turbulent Times. It is not, as the title implies, an opportunistic entry into the ever-expanding Trump canon. She began work on it five years ago, perhaps because a historian’s sixth sense told her leadership, or the lack of it, would become the story behind the story.
The book constructs Goodwin’s own version of Mount Rushmore by examining four presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. She considers what lessons they offer for transformational crisis management, turnaround and visionary leadership, but sugars the pill with telling details and funny anecdotes.
Goodwin lives in Concord, Massachusetts, and her website proudly notes that she was the first woman to enter the locker room of the Boston Red Sox baseball team. But her Guardian interview takes place in another of her favourite haunts, the bar at the Willard Hotel in Washington, where Lincoln lived for 10 days prior to his inauguration, Roald Dahl stayed during the second world war and Martin Luther King made final edits to his “I Have a Dream” speech.
The White House is a short walk away. Having made the study of presidents her life’s work, does she think leaders are born or made?
“I would say mostly made,” Goodwin says. “Does the man make the times or the times make the man? It’s a mixture. I think you are born with certain qualities, of intelligence probably, memory and maybe even empathy. Some people, like Lincoln, were born with empathy. It was just a natural part of his temperament, and temperament may be inborn too: the way you look at the world and whether you’re optimistic or you’re pessimistic.
“Theodore Roosevelt wrote this essay about the two kinds of success. The first belongs to the person who has a genius and can do something that no one else can do, like Keats writing a poem. But he said most success is people who develop ordinary qualities to extraordinary degree through the application of hard, sustained work. I really believe that too.”
It is also important to take a break. Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man and head of a $1tn company, Amazon, gets eight hours of sleep a night. On a recent visit to Washington, he explained that he gets paid to make a small number of high-quality decisions, not thousands of small decisions every day.
“Is that really worth it,” he asked, “if the quality of those decisions might be lower because you’re tired or grouchy?”
Goodwin reflects: “One of the lessons in leadership is the importance of relaxing and replenishing energy because we only have a finite amount of energy and you can either deplete or expand it. Lincoln went to the theatre 100 times during the war. He said people think it’s strange that I spend so much time at the theatre but if I didn’t, it would kill me, the anxiety. Then he could imagine himself back at Prince Hal’s time and in the Wars of the Roses instead of the war that was raging.
“Teddy Roosevelt exercised two hours every day in the afternoon. He had this great situation where he liked a boxing match or wrestling match or raucous game of tennis but he also liked to hike in the wooded cliffs of Rock Creek Park. FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] has a cocktail party every night during world war two, where the rule is you can’t talk about the war. You can talk about movies, gossip, as long as for a few precious hours he could relax.
“LBJ [Lyndon Baines Johnson] could never unwind, that was the problem. Even when I swam with him at his pool in the ranch, the pool had objects on floating rafts, floating telephone pads and floating pencils so you couldn’t really move.”
By their late 20s, each of Goodwin’s four subjects knew they were a leader. But other common threads are elusive. She writes: “There was no single path that four young men of different background, ability and temperament followed to the leadership of the country.” Both Roosevelts were born to wealth and privilege; Lincoln endured grinding poverty and Johnson had his share of hard times.
But each did endure character-building adversity of one form or another. Lincoln suffered near-suicidal depression; Theodore Roosevelt’s mother and wife died within a day; FDR was stricken with polio and confined to a wheelchair; Johnson almost died from heart failure.
“When he has that massive heart attack in 1955,” Goodwin says of Johnson, “when he’s at the top of power as majority leader, ‘What if I die now?’ he says, ‘What would I be remembered for?’ Right after that he goes for civil rights even in the Senate. I think the fulfilment of working on something that makes a difference in people’s lives makes you want to go even further and take more risks.”
‘Powerful, colourful, sometimes manic’
Goodwin witnessed Johnson’s motivations first hand. As a 24-year-old graduate student at Harvard, she was selected to join the White House fellowship programme and found herself on the dance floor with the president.
“I don’t think I’ve met anybody as powerful, as colourful, as sometimes manic,” she says.
A couple of days later, the New Republic published an article she had co-written urging Johnson’s removal from office because of the Vietnam war. He said: “Bring her down here for a year and if I can’t win her over, no one can.”
Goodwin has stories to tell of working with Johnson in the White House – even when he was sitting on the toilet.
“The weird thing that I realise now is that I went in the bathroom and he’s on the toilet and now, in today’s #MeToo movement, that might be considered, ‘Oh, my God!’ You could say that’s an abuse of power for him. But it wasn’t just me, it was me and the guys. I didn’t ever think of it that it was me as a woman that was being exposed to it.
“You’re 24 years old, you’re not thinking in those terms, but I still think I didn’t feel in any way being sexually abused by that. I just thought this is a rather odd way to continue the conversation.”
Goodwin helped Johnson in the writing of his memoirs, which was the making of her as a presidential historian.
“He really opened up to me in ways he wouldn’t have if I’d known him at the height of the power. He was so vulnerable and he needed to wonder how his legacy would be shaped and would he be remembered for civil rights. He needed to go over it in the memoir. Luckily I was able to work on the chapters on civil rights and the Great Society.
“When he was talking about it, it would make him happy, compared to when he had to talk about Vietnam and then his mood would plunge. He talked about his regret that the war had turned out badly and that it had taken away the energy of the things he really cared about, but he still wasn’t able then to acknowledge why his decisions made it happen badly. The main thing was that he never leveled with the American people about how badly the war was going so when the Tet offensive happened, the bottom fell out.”
Like many of Shakespeare’s protagonists, it seems each of these presidents was concerned with how history would remember them. Goodwin draws a comparison with the present: “When you hear about who might run the next time it’s celebrities or a boxing champion. If we end up that way I think we’ll be in real trouble.
“People confuse being on television and being an instant celebrity with being a leader and in fact what I would say about all four of these guys is that what made them great leaders, even with Johnson’s flaws, and they all had flaws, is at a certain point what they were seeking was not celebrity but fame, and fame means creating something lasting that stands the test of time because you’ve made people’s lives better. I don’t know whether you know that when you’re 20 or 30 but at some point self-ambition becomes ambition for the larger good and that happened to each one of these four guys.”
‘He doesn’t have the temperament’
Now a celebrity occupies the White House. Trump went from billionaire businessman and tabloid favourite to reality TV star. He continues to hog the limelight via TV, Twitter and angry, raucous rallies built on the cult of personality. The rallies, especially, have drawn comparisons with Adolf Hitler – whose speeches Trump was once said to keep by his bed. In his new documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9, Michael Moore plays archive footage of a ranting Hitler but substitutes the soundtrack for a Trump speech. The juxtaposition is powerful and disquieting.
Goodwin, however, says: “I think the problem with making those comparisons is that what we have to do now is persuade a majority of the people in the country, including [Trump’s] base, that he doesn’t have the temperament to be a leader. It’s easy to do that. Compared to Teddy Roosevelt, who has a square deal for the rich and the poor, the capitalist and the wage worker, Trump says that a deal that says both sides win is just a bunch of crap and all that matters is that you win and you crush your opponents.”
She scorns, for example, Trump’s lack of empathy when talking about the death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year. “It would have been better if he had been able to say, ‘We didn’t do as well on Maria as I wish we had. I’ll take responsibility and we’ll make this better, I’ll learn from this.’ So I’d rather criticise him on grounds that are everyday experiences that people, even his base, can say yes to.
“I think you can just show people what leadership should look like and see that on most of those scales – humility, empathy, resilience self-reflection, growing in office, acknowledging errors, shouldering blame for other people – he doesn’t measure up. That’s a better way of doing it than making the larger comparisons of fascism or Hitler because the people who already hate you, that’s fine, but it’s not going to alter anybody else’s opinion.”
When Obama was president, he asked Goodwin to organise a series of historians’ dinners where each would come to represent a past president and give his views on a problem of the day. Trump is said to eschew reading; his main interest in his predecessor seems to be unravelling his legacy. Asked which of her book’s four presidents would be best suited to the present, Goodwin does not hesitate: Theodore Roosevelt, who dominated the White House from 1901 to 1909.
“Unfortunately our time is such that having a president who captures the imagination of the people because of his somewhat outgoing ways is probably important. Teddy became as much of a folk hero as Trump has become. He also had that desire to be centre stage like Trump does. They said about him that he wanted to be the baby at the baptism and the bride at the wedding and the corpse at the funeral because he wanted so much to be in the centre.
“He was known for his blistering language at times: he could fight fire with fire. He would be absolutely able to be in the Twitterverse world. He had short punchy statements: speak softly and carry a big stick, don’t hit until you have to and then hit hard. Most importantly he established an emotional relationship with the people in a time that much reflects our time so that he was able to make sure that the capitalists knew that they were going to be dealt with, he was going to break up the big companies, and the workers felt like he was on their side.
“Instead of exploiting the divisions, he went around the country on a whistle stop tour, six weeks in the spring and fall, and he would stop in states he lost as well as states he won, unlike Trump going to his base. His language was always unifying rather than divisive.”
‘You need a fighting personality now’
This example, she contends, offers a clue as to who might fill the current leadership vacuum. The Democrats are still dominated by the Clintons and Obamas and are struggling to find an obvious heir to run in the 2020 presidential election. The anti-Trump resistance has multiple figure heads, such as Democratic House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, but no single lodestar.
“You need a fighting personality now,” Goodwin advises. “People are not going to vote for boring. Maybe that’s not a good thing but that’s where we are right now because the celebrity culture has gotten all intertwined with the political culture. Unless something changes right now, it’s going to have to be somebody with passion, somebody who makes the people feel he or she’s on their side, and somebody who can fight, especially if they are going to have to fight against Trump.”
Again she reaches for the lessons of history. “I think it’s not a question of waiting for the leader. It’s a question of the citizens becoming active in politics and providing the foundation for whatever leadership is going to emerge. It’s the antislavery movement, it’s the progressive movement, the civil rights movement, later the women’s movement, the gay rights movement.”
Indeed, Goodwin remains fundamentally optimistic. “What is encouraging now is the signs of activism. More women are running for office than ever before. People of different professions are running: doctors and teachers and lawyers and probably more businessmen. Then we have to see, once you get that fervour in the country again about politics, a whole new layer possibly of leaders will come forth and we may not even know the person now who it will be.”
All 45 presidencies of the US have been held by men; 44 of them white. On the night of the 2016 election, Goodwin assumed that Hillary Clinton would prevail and made what she now calls an “idiotic” prediction.
“I said OK, so she’ll win, and then maybe the next 45 presidents will be women and then there’ll be a little boy 200 years from now saying, ‘Mommy, can I ever be president?’
“It sounds absurd but why wouldn’t that be able to happen? You have all this line of men, then you could have a whole bunch of women, but we can’t imagine it in our minds. But I think the key thing is more women getting into politics at all levels and more women getting recognised as leaders and recognising themselves as leaders.
“Somehow men are more willing to just somehow say early on, ‘I’m a leader.’ Women will take responsibility for things and that is a mark of leadership and it has to be recognised that they should say that’s what making me a leader. I think it’s going to happen but I hope it’s not 200 years from now before some historian is writing about four women.”
She smiles for a moment. “That,” she says, “is a target for my imagination.”