Presidential Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin Talks Leadership In Turbulent Times

Apr 18, 2019

On this edition of River to River, host Ben Kieffer looks back on past conversations with presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin. Then, we hear highlights from a Q&A session with Kearns Goodwin at Hancher Auditorium after her Spring 2019 Levitt lecture about leadership in turbulent times.

KIEFFER: What can you tell us about the leadership qualities that Iowans should be looking for during this caucus season?

KEARNS GOODWIN: I think that really is the most important question to look at. I was talking before to some people about Tim Russert and before he died, he and I talked about the fact that the way journalists cover campaigns, especially then and it's simply true now, is who zings who in a debate, who raises the most money, who's made a mark at that moment when they've all come from somewhere. If you look at all those 18 and maybe it'll be 21 candidates on the Democratic side, or if we had known perhaps more about candidate Trump, we should have looked at what kind of leadership he had exhibited before. We should look at these characters and figure out what kind of teams have they built, do they have emotional intelligence, when things go wrong do they accept responsibility, do they have integrity, have they been able to show empathy and humility. And it shouldn't just be a magazine article, it's what we should really be talking about with each one of these.

I had a mentor at Harvard named Richard Neustadt and he said the best thing to know about a president is what they did right before they got there and what kind of a life they had. They're not going to change fundamentally. So I think when you look into these candidates and you get a chance to talk to them, you should be talking about their teams, talking about what difficult times they've gotten through and how they had resilience to do that... That's what I would encourage, just to look at those leadership traits and try and figure out what these candidates have done wherever they were before they got to this point and how well they were able to succeed.

KIEFFER: Donald Trump is open about the fact that he doesn't read much history. Trump said in 2016 that he has never read a presidential biography and has no plans to do so. 

Each of the men you profile in your latest book were the heroes for the ones that came after them. How important was that for these past presidents to look to their predescessors for lessons?

KEARNS GOODWIN: It's true, just exactly as you said, it's almost like a family tree of the people I studied. For LBJ, FDR was his huge hero. He had known him when he was young and he looked at what he had done and he had read about the New Deal, he understood what had happened during WWII. And then FDR's hero was Teddy Roosevelt and he wanted to have the same trajectory as Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt's hero was Lincoln and during the summer where he had this terrible coal strike, one of the hardest crises that he faced in his presidency, he read all the volumes of Nicolay and Hay that summer and he would say out loud "Lincoln had this problem between extremes on either side. He did it, I can do it."

And then Lincoln's hero of course was George Washington...

If I had a dream it would be that Lincoln and the Roosevelts and LBJ would come back to life for at least a day and go to the White House and talk to President Trump.

KIEFFER: How significant do you think the Mueller Report will be to historians a generation or two from now?

KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, it takes a long time to really understand what goes on within an administration. You wait for memoirs, you wait for diaries in the old days, for letters. And this report and all the ramifications of it--and eventually historians will see the whole report, my guess is, even if we may not see it tomorrow or next week or a few months from now-- consumes so much of the presidency, because it's going to tell not only about Russia and the collusion thing-- that's the brilliance of what Trump has done, is to make it seem like that's all it's about-- but I think it's going to lay out a little bit about his presidency and how the White House staff was organized and what he was doing if he were to obstruct things.

It's going to be critical for historians in future years. It may be the most important thing that's defined the first two-and-a-half years and it probably may have some bearing on the presidency. 

KIEFFER: The leaders you have studied had great ambition. Can you speak to the relationship of ambition and sacrifice? Are ambitious leaders conscious of personal sacrifice or do we assign it to them in hindsight?

KEARNS GOODWIN: The word "ambition" sometimes is a negative word and it's not at all. Without that drive for success, without the energy to do something, there's no way of achieving anything. So I think ambition is a good thing. And the interesting thing is when the founding fathers talked about ambition, their ambition was open. But they were conscious I think, if you read their letters, that they were doing something extraordinary by creating a new country.

Whether you're conscious that you're sacrificing-- I think LBJ was conscious that when he signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act that he was probably losing the south for the Democratic party for a generation, which he did, and he knew that would rebound back on him. But then at a certain point if you're also thinking it's also a selfish but a good thing to want to be remembered by history, then maybe you're willing to say I can sacrifice it now.

For example, Lincoln in August of 1864. The war was still going on and hundreds of thousands had died, despite the victory at Gettysburg the year before Grant was stuck, and the people in the North after the Emancipation Proclaimation in a lot of the legislatures were passing resolutions against it, feeling that he had extended the war by insisting on emancipation instead of just reunion. So the top Republicans came to talk to him and say you're never going to win this election in November of '64 unless you're willing to convene peace talks just on the basis of union, putting emancipation aside. And he said, "I would be damned in time and eternity if I returned the black warriors to slavery." So they left discons0late and he thought he might lose the election... but he was willing, and he knew it, to sacrifice that. I think he was aware when he did that at that moment, but maybe sometimes you're not and it is just what we ascribe to them later.