The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Three books remind us what presidential leadership looks like

After Franklin Roosevelt died and Harry Truman took over as president, Truman worried he wasn’t “big enough” for the job. But he pressed ahead, meeting with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945. (AP Photo/File)

The nation was in crisis. A Southern state was threatening to go its own way, and the president needed to decide how to respond. This was not the secession winter of 1860-61. Rather, it was the nullification crisis of 1832-33. Andrew Jackson, himself a Southerner, contemplated what to do.

It’s no surprise that one of the responses to the coronavirus pandemic has been a renewed interest in the leadership provided by presidents at other times of crisis. Any volume on nearly any president offers insight, because managing crises largely defines the president’s job. There are countless good biographical studies, including general works by Michael Beschloss (“Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times”) and Doris Kearns Goodwin (“Leadership: In Turbulent Times”).

I have been pulling books off my shelf, and three works in particular have resonated.

Jon Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” opens with the crisis of 1832-33. South Carolina (egged on by Jackson’s vice president, John C. Calhoun) had nullified a federal tariff law. The state’s action, if unchallenged by the federal government, threatened the nation’s existence. Jackson would have none of it. “Disunion by armed force is treason,” he thundered, and he threatened military intervention to stop the South Carolinians.

Meacham writes that Jackson “would be patient, but he would do what it took. His blend of solicitude and sanction reflected his view that politics was at once clinical and human, driven by both principles and passions that he had to muster and harness for the good of the whole.”

Persuaded by Jackson’s bellicosity, as well as a renegotiation of tariff rates, South Carolina retreated, and the crisis of union was delayed for a generation.

For more than a century afterward, Jackson, viewed as an avatar of American democracy, was highly ranked as a president (he appeared on the $20 bill in 1928). But in recent decades, repulsion over his actions against the Cherokee has led to a reevaluation. In a 2017 C-Span survey, historians ranked him 18th among presidents, a few notches behind James Polk, who started a war with Mexico.

However much Jackson got woefully wrong, he got preservation of the United States right. That was why Abraham Lincoln kept a portrait of Jackson (a slaveholder) in his office. Other than membership in the Republican Party, this is doubtless the only other similarity between Lincoln and President Trump.

So much has been written about Lincoln as a leader, it seems commonplace to invoke him now. One aspect that has received less attention than others, however, was his role not as president but as commander in chief.

James McPherson’s “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief” (full disclosure, I studied with McPherson) offers notable examples of Lincoln’s military leadership. McPherson reminds us that “not only Lincoln’s success or failure as president but also the very survival of the United States depended on how he performed his duties as commander in chief.”

By sheer determination, Lincoln made himself into an informed commander in chief, a master of military strategy and tactics, as well as political calculation. According to his secretary John Hay, the self-educated Lincoln “read a large number of strategical works. He pored over the reports from the various departments and districts of the field of war.”

In Lincoln’s correspondence with his generals, the letter that perhaps best illuminates his character as a leader is one he addressed to Ulysses S. Grant following the victory at Vicksburg in July 1863. After offering his gratitude, Lincoln felt compelled to “say a word further.” He admitted having qualms about Grant’s plans for the assault and concluded by declaring, “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.”

Every time I read that sentence I am amazed anew to think that the president and commander in chief possessed the confidence and humility to admit he was wrong. There is no finer example of what it means to be in charge, of how to lead and win the respect of others.

Lincoln’s presidency began with the start of a war; Harry Truman’s began with the end of one. Truman admired Lincoln, though he ranked him below Jackson on his list of greatest presidents.

A.J. Baime’s “The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World” illustrates the impossibility of predicting who will succeed in the Oval Office. “Who the hell is Harry Truman?” asked Franklin Roosevelt’s chief of staff, William Leahy, when the senator from Missouri was placed on the ticket in 1944. Truman served 82 days as vice president, during which time he visited Roosevelt only twice on official business. “I’m not big enough for this job,” Truman said on becoming president.

In those first four months, April through July 1945, Truman oversaw the end of World War II. He participated in the Potsdam Conference alongside Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, ordered the use of the atomic bomb, and began planning for a postwar recovery.

In his speech to Congress on April 16, 1945, four days after Roosevelt’s death, Truman spoke in a steady tone and reminded Americans that “the entire world is looking to America for enlightened leadership to peace and progress.”

“Tragic fate has thrust upon us grave responsibilities. We must carry on,” he declared.

And carry on he did, with a voice that “was the voice of a common man,” Baime observes. “He had become a symbol for ordinary Americans, who saw in him the hopes and dreams of their own lives and those of their children.”

Truman was happy to remain something of an outsider. He did not curry favor and had no problem replacing most members of his inherited Cabinet by the end of the year. Memorably, he is credited with saying, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

It is tempting to believe that there are lessons from Jackson, Lincoln or Truman that can be applied today, but I do not think that is how the past informs the present. “Human-nature will not change,” Lincoln once observed. There will always be leaders who shrivel under the pressure and those who rise to the moment. It is impossible to predict who will fail and who will succeed, who will wither and who will prove big enough for the job. Studying past crises cannot provide a solution to this one, but it can remind us that one day this moment will become history, and there will be future readers judging just how well our leaders acquitted themselves.