Doris Kearns Goodwin on “Leadership in Turbulent Times”

Walter Isaacson sits down with presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin, to discuss her most recent book “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” and what it means to be a leader during a crisis.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: We started this program talking to the rising Italian leader, Matteo Salvini. Now, we have an opportunity to look deeper into what makes effective and good leadership with world-renowned historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The Pulitzer-Prize winning author has spent her career grappling with the characters of four American presidents from the Lyndon Johnson White House where she worked at the age of 24 to Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. They’re all featured in her most recent book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times.” She sat down with our Walter Isaacson to discuss what we can learn from those presidents of the past.

WALTER ISAACSON: Doris Kearns Goodwin, thank you so much for being with us and I’m sure you remember but I’ve known you my whole life. You were my teacher in college on the American presidency. I think you were an extraordinarily young junior professor.


ISAACSON: You were younger than I was, I think, but you taught me the American presidency and one of the things you taught was a Richard Neustadt thesis about character and how we have to look at the character of the people we elect. How should we be covering the president and the presidential election today?

KEARNS GOODWIN: I think the most important thing is temperament and character and how is it evidenced. You look at the kind of team they’ve created, how they deal with their team, you look at how words matter for them. You look at whether they can control uncontrollable emotions. You look at the way they communicate and whether their word is their bond. They’ve all been leaders somewhere. I mean, that’s what strikes me so much. We just are trying to figure out who’s going to be great in the debate and who’s going to zing who. They’ve all come from somewhere and we should be looking back and seeing how was their character revealed as governor, as mayor, as senator, as legislator instead of waiting to do this in a long magazine article later, it’s what we should be talking about all the time.

ISAACSON: One of the things you taught as a professor was to make history a narrative, which was a little bit out of favor among some academics back then. That history was more analytic, it wasn’t the great people doing wonderful or bad things, and you made it storytelling. Do you think that’s what we have to do when we cover candidates and figure out the narrative of a candidate running for office?

KEARNS GOODWIN: Absolutely. I mean, I think that’s — people understand stories better than just facts. I mean, Lincoln was asked sometimes, why do you tell so many stories? And he said, “Because people remember stories better than facts and figures. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Indeed, I think even for what’s happening to President Trump, the key thing now will be not simply whether the Democrats decide to impeach him but can they tell a story so that the country understands what this is about. You know, you can’t just use words like collusion or impeachment and all the candidates are talking about this right now. It’s the central issue of our time. But in the end, we need a narrative of what did he do, and did it violate these parts of the constitution? We have to — that’s what Lincoln did all the time. Every speech he gave, it would be where have we come on this issue, most likely slavery. He was talking about, where are we now, where do we need to go. And it was always in the form of a story. That’s just — it’s hard-wired in our brain.

ISAACSON: Every one of the people you write about, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, whatever, they all have adversity that shapes their character.

KEARNS GOODWIN: I think leadership studies suggest and it certainly was true with the four guys that I studied that if you can get through an adversity, there’s a strength on the other end. Earnest Hemingway said everyone is broken by life but afterwards some people are stronger in the broken places. I mean think of it. Abraham Lincoln had a near-suicidal depression, they took all knives and razors and scissors from his room. His career in the state legislature was on the downward slide and he felt like he could die but then he said, “But I have not yet done anything to be remembered by.” That desire to somehow be remembered in history got him through that. Teddy Roosevelt loses his wife and mother on the same day in the same house, leaves the east, goes to the badlands, is in a real state of depression and somehow works that through and comes out loving nature and comes out back to politics but with that experience behind him of overcoming such a sadness and obviously FDR and polio is the clearest example. You know, through the rehabilitation center that he set up in warm springs, he made himself vulnerable, he was able to make all the other fellow patients feel they had joy back in their life again. They played water polo and tag and cocktail hours. And then when it comes to the depression, he knows that this is a psychological thing that he has to deal with, people with depression as well is an economic thing because he had been through it. So being through it —

ISAACSON: And your fourth one is Lyndon Johnson. So how does he overcome adversity?

KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, what’s interesting with Johnson is that he accumulated power so much as he went along the way and when he was young, he was a great progressive, he did a lot of things with rural electrification. At a certain point, however, when he wanted to win the Senate seat, he became more conservative, losing some of the new deal heritage that had been really a part of his heart. And then he has a massive heart attack in his 40s when he’s at the top of the majority leadership in the Senate and he goes into a depression and he wakes up and he says to himself, “You know, what if I died now, what would I be remembered for?” And then right after that, he gave an incredible speech that was an all-new deal speech. He went for civil rights in the Senate and then civil rights was his priority as president and that’s what he would be remembered for as well as the war in Vietnam.

ISAACSON: And so we have to see growth in an individual. And so that’s part of what history is. When you look at candidates, you say, how have they grown, how have they learned from something? So how would you look at the current field and say, of the various candidates with the Democratic nomination, how they’ve grown?

KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think the most important thing is what we do mistakenly, I think, is we take something they said or did 30 years ago, 40 years ago, which is not consistent with how we might feel about something today. And it’s like, getting them for it. Instead, you should have them explain why did I think that way then, you know, I was part of a time that thought that way, whether it was on gay rights or whether it was on the Iraq War or whatever it was on. And then if they explain why they thought that way and now looking back on it, they would have done something differently, if they can say that. But then they get defensive and they evolve. Of course, you want them to evolve, it’s fine to evolve. But it’s not just simply their stand on positions. I think you would want to know from them if you were interviewing them, you know, when did you do something that you really felt badly about at the time? How did you deal with that? Did you acknowledge it or did you try to just let it go by? You know, what mistakes do you think you made because of temperament or just out of youth? I’d love to have them talk like that.

ISAACSON: Benjamin Franklin kept a —


ISAACSON: Yes. He kept a ledger throughout his life from when he was an apprentice to his older brother when he was just a teenager of all the errata he made, such as breaking his apprenticeship bounds all the way through his life. And in the second column, it’s how he rectified those errata and it ends with him approving the compromise on slavery at the constitutional convention and then how he rectifies it is he becomes president of the society for the abolition of slavery where he has —

KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, wow. I knew that once upon a time but that’s fabulous.

ISAACSON: Yes, he calls it the world calculus. And I think it would be interesting because politicians never do this anymore. When you say, what did you get wrong and what did you learn from it? You’re never going to get an answer.

KEARNS GOODWIN: I think they’re afraid that it shows weakness or vulnerability. And the minute they admit something wrong — obviously with JFK, when he admitted the bay of pigs had been a disaster, his polls went up because people want you to take responsibility and he learned from that and was able to deal with the Cuban missile crisis much better than he would have without having learned the lessons from the bay of pigs. But there’s something about the culture, that they’re afraid, that it makes them seem vulnerable and it’s a real mistake because it’s the other way around, I think.

ISAACSON: And we’ve gotten to the top of that, the apex of that with Donald Trump never looking back and being reflective and saying, well, I could have done it better.

KEARNS GOODWIN: Yes. I remember there was a moment when he was at the hundred days and he said something that made me think maybe he was going to be reflective. He said, you know, this job is harder than I thought it was going to be. It’s more complicated, healthcare. But then these moments when you just want him, like after Pittsburgh, you wanted him to be able to talk about the rhetoric, maybe the rhetoric that all of us are part of, including me, he could have said, has ratcheted things up and we’ve got to do better. Those moments are golden moments for a politician when they can acknowledge that something’s happening and they’re a part of it and it’s not right. And you don’t do that and then you just lock yourself in and you’re not growing and that’s a real problem.

ISAACSON: You know, all the people you’ve written about, my favorite happens to be Teddy Roosevelt. I think he saves the possibility of capitalism in the early 20th Century. He knows how to deal with all — but he also uses a bully pulpit and the press. I mean, he’s basically understanding journalism better than any of us ever have to do this whole notion of a square deal and bring America along.

KEARNS GOODWIN: I mean, think about the conditions at the turn of the 20th Century. It’s so much like ours. I mean, the industrial revolution has shaken up the economy much like the global revolution in tech have today. For the first time, you have a gap between the rich and the poor. You have working class people that are feeling cut off from the prosperity of the country. You have people in the country feeling cut off from cities. You have lots of inventions and people are feeling life’s moving too fast, telephones, telegraphs, and they want an earlier and nostalgic way of life. Populism arises with very similar anti-Wall Street, anti-immigrant, blaming the immigrants. And Teddy’s able to take all that emotion, bombs in the streets. It was a really rough time for capitalism and make it the progressive movement which was already there in the cities and states and the social gospel and makes it fair for the rich and the poor, as I say, the capitalist and the wage worker. And you’re so right, I mean he used the press because he respected them. He would allow them to come. He had these midday shaves and I can’t imagine how the barber was doing it because he’s sitting and they’re all around him, the journalists, and he’s moving around and the barber’s trying to keep up with the shave. And then at the end of the day, the journalists would come back in when he was signing, he loved talking to them. When somebody wrote an interesting magazine article, and it was a great age of press, I mean, 10,000-word investigative pieces, that’s why I called it the golden age of journalism on standard oil needing to be broken up, the railroad corruption, food, and drug. And he would have the journalist to lunch and he would learn from them and he would talk to them. So it was a great time to be a bully pulpit person.

ISAACSON: And another example of that is him barnstorming across America with the square deal thing, which I think is one of the great narrative triumphs in writing which is your book on that barnstorming tour. Why does he do that?

KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, he understood that the most important thing was to shape public sentiment and he knew that the conservatives had control of the Congress so he wasn’t going to get the railroad legislation through. He wasn’t going to get the food and drug —

ISAACSON: But he is a Republican.

KEARNS GOODWIN: He’s a Republican, yes. So, what he has to do is to go across the country and build sentiment that the conservatives are going to have to respond to and he goes to the states that he lost as well as the states he won. He’s in this train and he meets with local newspaper editors, they come and they listen — he listens to their complaints, he talks to the people. And then my favorite part is he then continues on the train and there are people standing — he was such a popular president. There are people standing in little road crossings along the way and he’s standing there waving to them hour after hour because he knows they want to see their president. But at one point, he later said, they were a group and they weren’t very friendly, they were rather cold in the reception and somebody told him he was waving frantically at a herd of cows. So he was really doing this but I think he understood that a president had to get out of Washington and it was the president’s responsibility through the press, through his train trips, to create a public sentiment. And I still think that’s — and public sentiment is not just public opinion. I mean Lincoln would say public sentiment is a collective understanding of what needs to be done and why it needs to be done, like the fight against slavery. And that with public sentiment, Lincoln said, anything is possible. Without it, nothing is possible. So Teddy understood that absolutely.

ISAACSON: Tell us what Teddy Roosevelt would say if he barnstormed right now and were campaigning for president.

KEARNS GOODWIN: I mean, I think most importantly, I think why he’d be the best person today in some ways, he could command the attention. I mean, he was every bit as much of a figure. They said when he was in town, it was like the circus. So he has that quality that President Trump has where you can’t keep your eyes off him. He could also use Twitter if he needed to. He had all those short statements, speak softly and carry a big stick, don’t hit until you have to, then hit hard. He even gave Maxwell House the slogan, good to the very last drop but he also knew how to explain as he did in words that people understood at the turn of the 20th Century why the government had to take responsibilities that it had not taken before because otherwise there was unfairness in the system.

ISAACSON: Give me an example, like breaking up the trusts like Facebook and Google.

KEARNS GOODWIN: Yes. And what was good about the way he talked about the trusts was it wasn’t just bigness that he was upset with. It was if the trusts were doing something unfair and if they were — and many of them were corrupt at the time and if they were not reducing prices for consumers and just taking it for themselves. So unlike some other antitrust people who just cared about it being big, they were looking at the conduct of the trusts but that was a big moment because people were feeling that big companies were swallowing up small companies. So he understood that and he explained it to the people. That’s what — that’s what FDR did with his fireside chats. It’s why the bully pulpit he coined as the president’s platform to shape public opinion and then make things possible.

ISAACSON: But the square deal that Teddy Roosevelt talked about wasn’t just for the poor. It wasn’t just for the disenfranchised. In some ways, he wanted to make sure everybody felt part of it.

KEARNS GOODWIN: And that’s what’s so necessary today. If you could have a leader that felt that the divisions were not being escalated but somehow was feeling that actions have to be taken. It’s not just America. There’s countries everywhere in the world right now where people are feeling the prosperity is not being shared enough and they’ve not got mobility, they don’t have a chance. But that doesn’t mean you have to be anti-rich, necessarily. You just want to make capitalism work for the majority of the people, not just for a few people. And my husband wrote a wonderful essay one time about the twin pillars of American democracy. And he said, “Democracy’s one of them and capitalism is the other. And — but democracy has to have a share in understanding what capitalism is doing but you need them both.” And I think that’s what Teddy understood. And he really saved capitalism in a lot of ways because of bringing government in, not to overtake things but to make things more fair, to get more mobility in the society.

ISAACSON: Your husband, Richard Goodwin, was, of course, a hero to a lot of us for many years, worked for the Kennedys, wrote for Lyndon Johnson when Johnson proposes the civil rights. And he died about a year ago, right? What’s it been like? What are you doing to deal with that?

ISAACSON: Well, the thing that’d make it both harder and easier is that he was working on a book, which had to do with his experiences and choosing public service as his life. And my best friend and his best friend and I are hopefully finishing the book so we’re deep into all of the boxes. He saved everything. It’s unbelievable. We have 100 cartons of stuff from JFK and LBJ.

ISAACSON: You have to give me an example of when you open a box and you find something great.

KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, there’s letters from Jackie Kennedy, a handwritten. There’s notes from JFK about the debate. There’s Lyndon Johnson’s edits on these speeches. You’ll see draft one, two, three of the great society speech. You see the draft of the We Shall Overcome speech. You see the draft of Bobby’s ripples of hope speech. I mean it’s like he’s still alive as we’re going through all this. But the most important thing was here he was, first in his class at Harvard Law Review, editor of the Law Review, clerks for Justice Frankfurter and he decides to go into public life. The law firms are all romancing him and he had an extraordinarily public life. I mean on the plane with Sorenson and JFK’s campaign, did the Alliance for Progress. He created the Alliance for Progress. In fact, I think about it now when we talk about what should we do about Central America and South America to not make these people feel compelled to leave their countries and that was for social justice for Latin American countries. It was a big program under Kennedy. Then he goes to Johnson and does all the civil rights stuff. I mean, We Shall Overcome speech for voting rights, Howard University, the great society, and then eventually leaves because he sees the war eating it up. And he wants Bobby Kennedy to go into the race. He and Bobby were very close. Bobby hesitates. He just takes his typewriter and goes to McCarthy in New Hampshire and that’s his main guy. And then when Bobby finally gets in the race, he writes to McCarthy to tell him, this is my closest friend, and McCarthy understands it. An interviewer, he said he’s like a pitcher, you can trade him to another team and he’ll start pitching right away but he won’t give up the signals of the team before. And then he goes with Bobby and he’s with Bobby when he died. And having gone through all of that still, JFK dying, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, he still comes out of it and the tone of what he was writing was that America’s not as fragile as we think. That he had lived through the depression, World War II, all those events in the ’60s and he still believed in the ideals of this country. So that’s what he was writing and that kept him not just alive but with a sense of purpose the last years of his life. So I’m hoping we can finish it.

ISAACSON: Doris Kearns Goodwin, thank you very much.

KEARNS GOODWIN: Thank you, Walter.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini before his official trip to the White House. Sienna Miller joins the program to discuss her new film “American Woman.” Walter Isaacson speaks with presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to discuss her most recent book “Leadership in Turbulent Times.”