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Doris Kearns Goodwin on what today’s leaders can learn from past ‘turbulent times’

In her new book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin explores the trajectories of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, arguing that for all four of them, “at some point, ambition for the self became ambition for something larger.” Judy Woodruff interviews the author about her inspiration and hope for her work.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On our Bookshelf tonight, presidential historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin on "Leadership in Turbulent Times."

    I sat down with her recently and begin our conversation by asking how she came up with the idea for this, her eight book.

  • Doris Kearns Goodwin:

    When I began it five years ago, there was a feeling that Washington was broken, that bipartisanship had been lost.

    And I decided I wanted to look back at other presidents, my guys especially — I call them that because I have lived with them for so long — when they had gotten through more challenging times even than ours, and yet somehow were able to pull the citizens, and the leaders bond together to make the country better.

    And then it got even more turbulent as time went on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the first things I notice when I look at the book, on the back cover, you have positive comments — they call them blurbs — from Warren Buffett and Jim Collins, who's known for the book "Good to Great."

    These are business people. Does that tell us this is a different kind of history book?

  • Doris Kearns Goodwin:

    At one point, I was speaking to a lot of business groups over these last couple decades, but also to colleges and universities.

    And a kid raised his hand and he said, how can I ever become one of these guys? They're on Mount Rushmore. It's too hard to become them.

    So I thought, what if I write about them when they first start to run for office, when they're 23 and 25 and 28, and when they're still unformed, and when they're going to make mistakes, and when they're going to screw up things? Then maybe young people can aspire to be leaders.

    I would just love it if more people in this country went into public life, went into leadership positions, because that's what we need right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, of course, the four you choose to focus on, it's Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson.

    You used the term screwing up. And you do focus in a book on the problems they faced early in their lives. Why was that important?

  • Doris Kearns Goodwin:

    People who've been through difficult times in their lives, through adversities, and come through with resilience, there is a strength and a wisdom. They have learned from their mistakes. They have learned from what fate might deal them.

    I mean, Lincoln had a near suicidal depression when he felt like he had broken his word to his constituencies, broken his promise to Mary that he would get married to her. And they had to take all knives and razors and scissors from his room.

    But he comes out of that by saying, "I would just as soon die now, but I have not yet accomplished anything to make any human being remember that I have lived," incredibly, right?

    Teddy Roosevelt loses his wife and his mother on the same day in the same house. He goes to the Badlands. He rides his horse 15 hours a day. But by being in the West, he absorbs this love of nature, and he becomes a Westerner, as well as an Easterner.

    FDR, of course, has his polio. And when he took up that rehab center in Warm Springs, and he was Doc Roosevelt to his fellow polio patients, he taught them how to live again, a life of joy, even if they were paralyzed. It's exactly what he was able to do with the country when the country is paralyzed.

    LBJ has a massive heart attack when he's on the top of the heap as majority leader, but he says, what if I died now? What would I be remembered for? And then he goes right for civil rights in the Senate, goes right for civil rights in the presidency.

    So something happens, I think, when you go through a hard time. You come through it with resilience, a really important quality. It doesn't have to be as harrowing as these guys had. But it has to be something.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You describe the adversity, but is there some secret sauce, some magic formula that we should learn from what they went through? Because that's what some people look at this, and they say, I want to know, what is — what's the magic formula?

  • Doris Kearns Goodwin:

    There's no magic trick.

    In fact, there's no clear trajectory for any of them to reach the top of the presidency. There's a family resemblance of traits, I would argue. I think humility is one of them. Empathy. If you can develop empathy, even if you're not born with it, is another one. Resilience, as we have just been talking about. Self-reflection, being able to acknowledge errors. Build a team that you can share credit and you can shoulder blame if something goes wrong. Learning how to communicate with people.

    But, most important, at some point, ambition for the self became ambition for something larger. And that's what united all of these disparate characters.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's striking that the first word you used, Doris Kearns Goodwin, was humility, because we don't think of that necessarily when we think about our great leaders, our presidents, do we?

  • Doris Kearns Goodwin:

    And I think it's because we think of humility sometimes as humbleness, and that's really not what it means.

    It means an awareness of your limitations, so that you can learn from them. Teddy Roosevelt had a swelled head when he was in the state legislature, and he was just blistering and running around and saying terrible things about his opponents. And he was getting nowhere. He couldn't get anything through the — through the legislature.

    So he finally said, I learned that I had to collaborate and compromise.

    That's the humility of learning from your errors.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In a way, this is a psychological study, isn't it?

  • Doris Kearns Goodwin:

    In some ways, it's the most personal of the books I have written, because I wanted to get inside the heads of these people that I had written their biographies, their families, and those histories.

    I wanted to know, when did they first think of themselves as leaders? When did other people recognize them? Where does ambition come from? All these questions are so interesting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And did you get answers to all of those?

  • Doris Kearns Goodwin:

    Not answers. I just would explore things, I think. I don't think there's an easy answer.

    But, for example, ambition came later to FDR. He seemed like an ordinary student at Harvard. He seemed like an OK student at Columbia. He was a partner — not even a partner, a clerk in a law firm. And somebody comes to him and says, would you like to run for the seat in Dutchess County?

    And he says yes. And he gets out on the campaign trail. He's barnstorming. He's an absolute natural. And he found what the philosopher William James says. And I think it's true for all of us. Sometimes, you find that voice within you that says, this is the real me, this is what I want to be.

    They all found that at a certain point in their life. Politics was their love. It was their vocation, as well as their avocation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So if you run into that college student who confronted you a few years ago and he or she says, all right, can I do this, the answer is?

  • Doris Kearns Goodwin:

    The answer is, you may fail and you may fail again, but you have to keep trying.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Doris Kearns Goodwin, the book is "Leadership in Turbulent Times." Thank you.

  • Doris Kearns Goodwin:

    You are most welcome.

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