Doris Kearns Goodwin on life, death and the presidency
Doris Kearns Goodwin has not only seen her biography Team of Rivals become one of the definitive accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s life (and touted by President Obama as the one book he’d want on a desert island), she has now seen her work provide the basis for the recently released film “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg. In this interview, Goodwin — who has also written biographies of presidents Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson — looks at Obama’s presidential leadership in the context of Lincoln. She also reflects on what it’s like as a historian to live with the dead, and to help pass on their lessons in leadership. Goodwin spoke with Lillian Cunningham, editor of the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You’ve done several interviews lately about Abraham Lincoln in light of the film’s premiere. What’s been on your mind about Lincoln and leadership that no one has yet asked you?
One thing that’s so important about his leadership is that he had an extraordinary sense of timing. I think for all leaders that’s a key thing — when to make what decisions — and it depends on, in part, having a feeling for the popular sentiment of the country at the moment. In Lincoln’s case, he later said that had the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation come up six months earlier, he would have lost the border states. And if he had waited any longer than he did, he would have lost the morale boost that it provided and the extraordinary contribution that the African American soldiers made in the Army. So it almost was the perfect timing, and I think that came from his own sense of where the country was.
Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt just had an extraordinary sense of timing too. In February 1942, when things were so low after Pearl Harbor, he made his famous radio address called the map speech, where he told everyone to get a map and place it in front of them and he would go over the battles. He was so effective that thousands of telegrams came into the White House, saying, “You have to go on the radio every day in order to sustain morale.” But he said, if speeches ever become routine, they will lose their effectiveness. He knew exactly when to time those. He only gave 35 fireside chats in his 12 years as president.
I hadn’t thought about all that before, but I think that’s one of the really important qualities of leadership — that sense of timing.
Do you think this is a skill Obama has? How unique of a skill is it?
What it depends on is having that feel for the country, and I think he has it — certainly he did at the moment that he finally made the decision to go for health care, in full, even after losing the Massachusetts Senate seat. He took a risk in making that decision then. Yet had he not done it then, and done it in the way he did, he probably would not have gotten it [passed].
He himself would probably acknowledge, though, that maybe he waited too long to give his health-care speech before the joint session of Congress. It was a really good speech, but that summer is when all of the tea party’s strength had begun to gather. So the question would be: Had he delivered that speech earlier and explained more clearly what the health-care program was, would it have made a difference? I don’t know. But those are the things you think about when you’re looking back, and the great thing about President Obama is that he’s likely to do that. He has that kind of temperament, just as Lincoln did, to look back and try to figure out what he did that he could have done better.
Speaking of the health-care act, the president certainly weathered some critiques that he was everything from obstinate to foolish for pushing it through. Yet what we call “obstinacy” today could go down as “perseverance” in the history books, and “foolishness” as “vision.” Any advice on how to tell whether criticism will be lasting and valid, or whether the leadership traits you’re being criticized for in the moment are the very ones that will win you praise in the long run?
What’s important, I think, is somehow knowing what the goal is that you want to achieve and being patient enough to know that it may take a lot of messiness to get to it.
When you see the movie “Lincoln,” you realize what was done in order to get those congressmen to vote for the 13th Amendment. Even during the health-care battle, I remember there was so much criticism of side deals made with Senator Baucus and some of the other senators, which is part of the legislative process. I mean LBJ did that all the time. It was said that when he got minority leader Everett Dirksen to go with him on the filibuster on the civil rights bill, he promised him everything. But the goal to get the civil rights bill that desegregated the South was a worthy goal.
We’ve made the process of compromise so public that it sometimes looks troubling and foolish at the moment. But if it’s moving toward an end that history’s going to recognize as something that stands the test of time — as the 13th Amendment did, as I think the health-care bill will, certainly as the civil rights bill of 1964 did — then you should be willing to do some things that may get immediate criticism. Keep going if you believe that, in the end, it’s worth even the criticism you may get at the moment.
Obama does seem to have what both FDR and Lincoln had, which is the recognition that you have to hold back at times and then wait to come forward. FDR once said he was like a cat, that he would pounce and then relax. That’s much harder to do in the 24-hour cable world, because it’s almost like the press demands of you to be saying something or doing something every day. I think both Lincoln and FDR had an easier time in that sense. They could hold back when they wanted to and not come forward until they were sure.
Lincoln, for example, hated to speak spontaneously. He was always conscious that he wanted it to be right when he spoke. Could you imagine things for him today, with cameras and microphones being thrust in his face?
How has your study of Lincoln shaped the way you think of your own leadership style and character?
Each one of these dead presidents I’ve lived with, they each have an impact in a different way. I think what was most striking about Lincoln was not even so much his public leadership as his emotional intelligence and his temperament. When you’re in his presence, somehow you just keep wishing you could be more like him. Instead of obsessing about something that happened in the past, you could just allow it to go away. Or instead of trying to retaliate against someone who hurt you, just not think about them anymore and know that, as he said, your opponents today may be your allies tomorrow.
I think, on a personal level, anybody who’s lived with Lincoln has been affected by that emotional strength of his. There was a great muckraker, Ida Tarbell, at the end of the 20th century — who I’m partly writing about now — and she wrote about Lincoln too. Somebody asked her, why do so many people write about Lincoln? And she said, because he’s so companionable. And I think somehow that’s been true for me.
The other thing, which already mattered enormously to me before I started Lincoln but got reinforced, was the importance of telling stories as a way of communicating to an audience. That’s such a huge part of leadership. He’d be in the middle of a terrible Cabinet meeting, and he’d tell this funny story and make everyone laugh. That’s the other part of what you learn from Lincoln. He said that you use laughter to whistle off sadness. There’s something about humor and laughter that’s so refreshing, that in difficult times if you can remember to look at yourself and laugh from the outside in, then I think it’s really helpful.
Do you think that the study of leadership is by definition the study of history? Are they inextricably bound?
I think to some extent they are. Even if you’re studying the leadership of a CEO, you’re studying his experience of leading that company over a certain period of time, even though it may not be 100 years ago, it may be five or 10 years ago. But certainly for presidential leadership, what’s rewarding for me as I move from one president to another is that you do see traits in one president that another president might share. Some universal traits I’ve seen in these leaders when I’ve looked at them over time are the ability to trust people within their inner circle, the ability to communicate with stories or metaphors or language that’s understandable, the ability to acknowledge errors and the ability to learn from mistakes.
Team of Rivals and now the film are both huge, national portraits of Lincoln that you’ve helped craft. I’d love for you to tell me what you see as the role of the historian in shaping our collective vision of time.
I guess what matters to me the most is, especially with someone like Lincoln, I mean here is a man who all of his life dreamed that his story would be told after he died in order to make him feel more comforted that death is not the end of you. Because he lost so many people when he was young — his mother and his sister and his first love — he really became for a while obsessed with the thought of what happens to us after we die. He came away with the thought that if he could accomplish something worthy then he would live on in the memory of others.
So to the extent that historians tell stories of these people who lived before, I think it does allow them to live on in our memories. That’s what’s so important about the oral tradition in families — if you can tell the stories of your parents and grandparents once they’re no longer alive, then you’re passing them onto your children. There always are lessons to be learned from their struggles and their triumphs. Otherwise we’d just come into the world with a blank slate, and that’s not true. Just as we as human beings learn from our parents and grandparents, also we as a country learn from the people who went before us. And to the extent that historians are the ones telling those stories, that shapes the sense of who we are as a country.
How do you think our country’s sense of leadership has been uniquely shaped by Lincoln, and by having this figure in our past?
There’s no question that the man who won the war and saved the Union and ended slavery forever shaped the destiny of this country in a huge way. But beyond his accomplishments as president at that moment in time, there is something about his person that affects people. You find little kids interested in Lincoln, little kids wearing stovepipe hats. There’s something about that story of him educating himself, of having lost so much when he was young, of having been in a depression and come out of it. There’s something emotionally available about Lincoln that makes him a figure to identify with, beyond the fact of what he was a part of. All presidents worry that unless they have some huge challenge like war or depression, they may not be remembered as great presidents. Obviously had one of the biggest challenges of any president and he met it brilliantly.
Turning back to Obama, some say that his desire to build his own “team of rivals” when he entered office was more appearance than substance. How do you think he did on that front? And as we look forward to a second term, what specific advice do you have for how he can build the right team of rivals in the next couple months?
Obviously the most important addition to his Cabinet, it turned out, was the chief rival — Hillary Clinton. And I think that relationship has proved to be extraordinarily professional, valuable and strengthening for both President Obama and Hillary Clinton. He did also bring in Joe Biden, who had run against him, as vice president. But most importantly, too, he tried to get [Republican] Judd Gregg, who first accepted the idea of being in the Cabinet and then retreated from it.
What that suggests is that it’s harder today to walk across those party lines to bring top people into top positions than it would have been in FDR’s time when he brought in two Republican leaders. Still, Obama also kept Bob Gates on, and that had been a Republican nomination. So I think he did more than we think he did — and in the current climate, which makes it much harder to do.
But I think, going forward, maybe the person he can learn from now is Franklin Roosevelt. If we assume the recession is not simply a problem that’s slowly recovering but that there’s a deeper problem with the economy, then Obama should possibly bring some CEO into the government in a senior-level position the way Roosevelt did. He needed to mobilize for the war, so he brought in the head of Sears Roebuck and the head of Chrysler, in addition to those two Republicans in his Cabinet. He was able to create the greatest business-government partnership probably in the history of our country, as business guys came through building ships, tanks, weapons and planes that were used by our allies in all corners of the world.
It’s hard for some of today’s business leaders to go through the whole process of what they have to reveal in order to come into the government. Yet just as it was true for the CEOs in Roosevelt’s time — who felt like they wanted to give back to their country, which had given so much to them — I think for some top business leaders, the chance to really help get our country mobilized for the future in a better way would be a great honor and a great challenge.
Do you think he should extend the invitation to Mitt Romney in some form?
You know, I had thought he would. But I think it just depends now on what Romney takes away from the election, and if he takes away what he said the other day — that he simply lost because Obama had given gifts to various segments of the population — that kind of thinking would make it hard. I had originally thought that it would be a good idea. He could come in and deal with a lot of the export-import issues. But I think it’s now a challenge for Romney himself to figure out what went wrong and if he really has the power within him to see that perhaps part of it had to do with the Republican primary system. It will take him acknowledging what happened, before he can take the next step of contributing going forward.
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