Tim Kaine represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate.

Doris Kearns Goodwin has spent much of her professional life grappling with the character of four American presidents: Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Beginning with a White House fellowship at the end of the Johnson administration, which accorded her direct personal access to the president until the end of his life, she has written about these leaders in insightful books over 40 years. She has examined each president in detailed works that situate them in their historically momentous times, all while digging into their personal motivations and webs of relationships with family, advisers, adversaries and friends. The books (“Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream,” “No Ordinary Time,” “Team of Rivals” and “The Bully Pulpit”) are all as worthy of reading today as when they were published.

Her title echoing the truth of the maxim attributed to the Latin writer Publilius Syrus — “anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm” — Goodwin circles back through her understanding of the four presidents in “Leadership: In Turbulent Times,” trying to extract the basic lessons that enabled each to deal with major crises in their personal lives and in the life of their country. No one is better suited than Goodwin to make the effort, and yet her book makes plain how hard it is to capture the essence of leadership, at least when the question is approached head-on.

The four leaders make an interesting quartet. Each assumed office in crisis — LBJ and Teddy upon the assassination of a president, Lincoln at the collapse of the Union, FDR at the collapse of the economy. None had a honeymoon period to get up to speed on the massive demands placed upon them. Lincoln and FDR died in office, and their deaths froze their reputations in a state of reverence that might have altered slightly had they lived. Compare that with the brief and wistful retirement years of LBJ, recognizing that his far-reaching domestic policy advances were publicly eclipsed by his prosecution of the Vietnam War, or the frantic post-presidency of Teddy, unable to bear living out of the limelight and possibly realizing late in life, with the death of his son Quentin in World War I, that his jingoistic glorification of war was hollow and vain. The contrast between the presidents who died in office and those who lived calls to mind A.E. Housman’s poetic observation: “Smart lad, to slip betimes away / from fields where glory does not stay.”

Goodwin’s effort to turn lessons of the four presidents from her years of scholarship into a book-length essay on leadership traits follows a basic arc. Part I explores the upbringing and emergence of ambition in each leader: the adversity of Lincoln’s boyhood and his self-fashioning into a frontier lawyer and Whig political leader, the privilege and warm family love experienced by the two Roosevelts and their surprising entrance into the hurly-burly world of New York state politics, LBJ’s early fascination with retail politics accompanying his father and grandfather in the Texas Hill Country and his quick rise as an ambitious young New Dealer.

Part II analyzes pivotal experiences of loss or failure each man experienced and how they grew from it: Lincoln’s desultory 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; the death of Teddy Roosevelt’s young wife and beloved mother on the same day in 1884; FDR being diagnosed with polio in 1921; the young congressman LBJ losing a razor-thin Senate race in 1941.

Finally, Goodwin explores a pivotal period or accomplishment in each president’s term and draws out the keys to his success in negotiating it: Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, Teddy’s handling of a massive nationwide coal strike, FDR’s bold actions in the first 100 days of his presidency to save the American financial system and restore hope to families shellshocked by the economic collapse, LBJ’s dramatic progress to advance civil rights and the social safety net. An epilogue explores how we have come to view these leaders after their deaths.

The individual stories of each president and his struggles and accomplishments command the reader’s interest. And Goodwin’s selection of leadership lessons from each president makes the book a series of case studies that you can easily see being assigned by leadership teachers. But the distilled nature of “Leadership” also obscures one of Goodwin’s tremendous strengths — her ability to situate a leader within a set of relationships. Her individual biographies all focus on the unusual relationships built by these leaders, with inner circles of family, advisers and friends but also with outside stakeholders and the larger currents and movements of their times. This dimension isn’t absent here, but the nature of the book is to push the leader front and center and let the relationships appear as background. This is probably unavoidable in a work of this nature but tends to flatten the characters a bit — they seem more momentous when situated in their social dynamic than when isolated by a spotlight.

A positive feature for any aspiring leader, as Goodwin shows in at least three of her subjects, is that leaders truly are made, not born. LBJ and the two Roosevelts had natural talents and advantages, to be sure, but they were not supernatural. Each found ways to improve himself over time, and each learned from tragedy and mistakes. They all had obvious flaws that got in their way and even inflicted pain on people in their lives. In other words, they were a lot like all of us. But, human weakness notwithstanding, they all accomplished great things, and their accomplishments suggest that we can, too.

Lincoln, on the other hand, was sui generis. We can learn endlessly from him, but he is hard to emulate. In the same way that we will never understand how an actor from Stratford-upon-Avon knew so many words at a time before dictionaries, knew so much geography without ever traveling, and knew so much about human emotion in the hearts of people who were like him and others completely opposite him in nature, we will probably never grasp how the self-taught Lincoln obtained the intellectual insight to place the daily struggles of his countrymen into a broader spiritual understanding of their mission as a nation. Nor is it easy to fathom how he persisted through the mass bloodshed needed to both preserve the nation and expiate the American sin of slavery without succumbing to paralyzing depression. Thinkers as diverse as Leo Tolstoy and Frederick Douglass recognized that Lincoln stood alone, with a reputation sure to last for all time.

“Leadership: In Turbulent Times” also reminds us of what American greatness means. None of these presidents were without massive ambition, and, except for Lincoln, they showed little appreciation for the virtue of humility. But they were great because they possessed an outsize passion to do good for others and believed that American greatness was measured by our capacity to exceed simple self-interest. That reminder makes the arrival of the book both timely and slightly depressing. Greatness now is often asserted for what is only selfishness. A book like “Leadership: In Turbulent Times” should help us raise our expectations of our national leaders, our country and ourselves.


In Turbulent Times

By Doris Kearns Goodwin

Simon & Schuster. 473 pp. $30