Review by Rev. Karyn Packard, Authored by Doris Kearns Goodwin


As meaty as Kearns Goodwin’s books are, I’m always anxious for the next one.  Somehow, for me, she makes history come alive with a blend of research and storytelling.  You can count on her to inform you and also to draw you into history in a way that keeps you coming back for more. In Leadership in Turbulent Times, Kearns Goodwin writes through the exclusive lens of leadership. She recounts the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

She has already produced full-length studies of each of these men, starting with “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” (1976) and continuing through “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt:  The Home Front in World Warr II” (1994), “Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” (2005) and “The Bully Pulpit:  Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” (2013). 

 Leadershipis carefully distilled into three discrete segments as she draws forth both their differences and their similarities. Part One of Leadershipcovers each man’s formative years.  Each showed early signs of a charismatic personality and a great love of connecting with crowds.  People were moved by their high sense of purpose, exceptional powers of concentration, and willingness to work hard.  A new piece of information for me, an incessant reader, was that Lincoln’s father tore up his books because he felt they made him lazy rather than working hard for the benefit of his family.

Part Two presents our politicians in the times when they were tested, when their dynamic political projections crash with personal or professional challenges.  For Lincoln, this was his unsatisfactory terms in the Illinois legislature and Congress and his failure to secure a desired governmental post after he helped Zachary Taylor win the presidency in 1848.  In 1884, Theodore Roosevelt experienced the deaths of both his wife and mother on the same day. He escapes politics to the North Dakota Badlands for two years.  In 1921, Franklin Roosevelt’s lower body suddenly became crippled by the polio virus, which took him off the political front lines for seven years. In 1941, Lyndon Johnson lost a special election for U.S. Senate, sending him into a depression that didn’t lift until he won a Senate seat in 1948.

These reversals led each one to a “Phoenix out of the ashes” process.  They found ways to rebuild and even expand themselves, and then go forward with new voices.  New voices that were to make their marks on history: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Teddy Roosevelt’s management of the 1902 Coal Strike, FDR’s first 100 days (at the height of the Great Depression), and Johnson’s Civil Rights Act, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Part Three is the author’s opportunity to tie these peoples’ lives into leadership lessons. The way the book is organized, each man could be used as an example to teach a class.  She pulls out phrases that capture the gist of each politician’s unique style.  Her analogy: “Their leadership fit the historical moment as a key fits a lock.”

Donald Trump is never mentioned.  In fact, Kearns Goodwin started the book before Trump won the election; however, I could not stop myself from comparing each of these men and his presidency to our current administration.  It is true that all of these men had terrible “crucible” times in their lives.  And they all had flaws. But they were committed to pulling the country together and willing to do the hard work to make that happen.  With today’s shocking turns in politics, we wonder, “What about our turbulent times?” The author is quoted in an interview with The Guardian: “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”.  That is our call to action.

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