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.