Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin discusses the qualities of presidential leadership
By Vicki-Ann Downing
In the midst of a contentious presidential election season, historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin came to Providence College to discuss the attributes that make great leaders and the qualities of America’s best presidents.
About 450 alumni, faculty, students, staff, and guests gathered in the Peterson Recreation Center on Oct. 21 to hear Goodwin present “The Presence of the Greatness of the Past.”
Her lecture opened a weekend symposium, Truth and the Liberal Arts, hosted by the Liberal Arts Honors Program as part of the College’s centennial celebration. It included two panel discussions on Oct. 22 — Truth in Contemporary Media and Truth in Philosophy, Science, and Religion — and an address by Dr. Andrew Delbanco, the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University.
College President Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80 introduced Goodwin, saying that she shares his love of history and the Boston Red Sox, and that his favorite book of hers is Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 2012). Goodwin won the Pulitzer Prize for history for No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (Simon & Schuster, 1995). Her most recent book is The Bully Pulpit: Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and The Golden Age of Journalism (Simon & Schuster, 2013).
“One of the prerogatives of being (college) president is that when you want to introduce someone, you get to do it,” Father Shanley joked, adding that he hoped Goodwin would help us “try to find some historical hope in the present landscape.”
“We yearn for a leader to take us through these polarized days,” Goodwin agreed.
Goodwin said she has spent five decades “living with presidents who are no longer alive,” thinking about them, talking to them, and writing about them. She quipped that she sometimes fears that in the afterlife, she will have to face them as a panel that will judge how accurately she portrayed them.
Her introduction to the presidency began when she was 24 and had just earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University. As a White House fellow, she was assigned to work directly with President Lyndon Johnson. At his request, she was his assistant during his last year in the White House, then went with him to Texas to assist in the preparation of his memoirs.
Johnson was “a great storyteller … except more than half of the stories weren’t true,” Goodwin said. For example, Johnson gave two accounts of the death of his great grandfather, at the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto, but Goodwin learned the man died peacefully in his sleep.
“Sometimes a false statement can reveal more about the character and longing of a person than the flat-out truth,” Goodwin said.
Her book, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1991), was based on her conversations with Johnson — “I was a good listener,” she said — and the telephone conversations he recorded as president, which provided a “gold mine” of information.
For Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Goodwin had access to the Roosevelt library for research and 100 people to interview whose memories remained sharp. She also discovered daily diaries kept by White House ushers that recorded every visitor from 1940-1945. She realized that many of them never left, but made the second floor their home. During a visit when Bill Clinton was president, Goodwin occupied the bedroom where Winston Churchill had been a guest. She could hardly sleep, sure that he was sitting in a corner “with his cigar and brandy.”
When she began researching, she had never studied the 19th century or the Civil War, and was intimidated by the 100,000 books already written about Lincoln. A community of Lincoln scholars shared ideas and help her evaluate sources. When Goodwin realized Lincoln spent more time with his cabinet than his wife, she began to research the cabinet members, and realized almost all had been his political rivals.
In Lincoln’s time, people wrote well and with emotion, she said. Today, many don’t write in complete sentences, and no one keeps diaries. Letters and a dairy became Goodwin’s primary sources for the book.
“There is nothing like looking over the shoulder of someone writing a letter,” Goodwin said.
Asked to name the three qualities that make a great president, Goodwin said she has been thinking about how the subjects of her biographies, Johnson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Teddy Roosevelt, “became leaders, and how they led” for a future book.
Each was able to go through trials of fire and adversity and come out stronger, was aware of his own weaknesses, and, especially important in a democracy, could communicate well with people in the technology of the times, she said. For example, Teddy Roosevelt spoke in punchy language that fit newspapers of his day, Franklin Roosevelt had the perfect voice for radio, and Lincoln wrote in “language of enduring beauty.”
As a leader, Lincoln was unique, Goodwin said. He was able to listen to different points of view, so people felt free to disagree with him. He learned on the job and acknowledged errors. His “remarkable emotional intelligence” allowed him to share credit “for good stuff” and assume responsibility for the bad. He controlled his emotions, writing “hot letters” when he was angry, but never sending them, a practice also followed by President Barack Obama, she said.
When Lincoln lost his temper, he followed up with a kind gesture, Goodwin said. He understood how to replenish his energies. He went to the theater 100 times during the Civil War. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt relaxed by hosting cocktail parties with mention of the war off-limits, she said.
Goodwin said her father made her a storyteller by teaching her how to score baseball games. She listened to the Brooklyn Dodgers while he was at work, then recreated the game for him when he came home. She learned that she needed to tell a story from beginning to end to build suspense. In the process, she realized there was “something magic about history.”
“I shall always be grateful for this curious love of history,” Goodwin said.