Re­view by Lisa Van Dusen

Lead­er­ship in Tur­bu­lent Times Doris Kearns Good­win

Policy - - In This Issue - Re­view by Lisa Van Dusen

Lead­er­ship in Tur­bu­lent Times. New York, Si­mon & Schus­ter, 2018.

First, a dis­claimer: If you’re look­ing for a tale of Sur­vivor-style, hair-on-fire of­fice pol­i­tics, re­al­i­tyshow melo­drama and ca­sual tyranny—a cross be­tween Dante Alighieri and Ernst Lu­bitsch played out in the high-stakes hall­ways of the White House—this isn’t the book for you. For that, you want Michael Wolff’s shock-a-minute Fire and Fury or the more foren­sic but equally blood­cur­dling Fear by Bob Woodward. Hav­ing a lim­ited ap­petite for the con­ver­gence of the war on democ­racy and theatre of the ab­surd cur­rently play­ing out in Wash­ing­ton, I haven’t read ei­ther book. I was go­ing to make this re­view a crafty com­pare-and­con­trast be­tween Doris Kearns Good­win’s study of how four of Amer­ica’s great­est pres­i­dents gov­erned in tur­bu­lent times and Woodward’s Fear—pub­lished one week apart in Septem­ber—but hit my pre­pos­ter­ouschaos thresh­old be­fore page 100 of the Woodward book, so, here we are. Luck­ily, you don’t need to read an en­tire book about Don­ald Trump’s im­plau­si­ble pres­i­dency for the ton-of­bricks con­trast be­tween the cur­rent oc­cu­pant of the White House and the pres­i­dents whose lead­er­ship qual­i­ties are de­con­structed in this book to hit you on ev­ery page. Abra­ham Lin­coln, Theodore Roo­sevelt, Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt and Lyn­don John­son were nei­ther per­fect men nor per­fect pres­i­dents. The con­trast be­gins from the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tors that

none of them ever sug­gested the U.S. gov­ern­ment print money to lower the debt, claimed that trade wars are good and easy to win or toyed with ap­point­ing his own daugh­ter to the sec­ond most im­por­tant post in U.S. diplo­macy. It may as well end with the fact if any of them was a com­pul­sive, un­so­licited grab­ber of women’s pelvic parts, he never bragged about it into a hot mic.

Among the ad­van­tages to cor­rupt­ing and hack­ing democ­racy, if you’re into that sort of thing, is that it al­lows the oth­er­wise un­electable to ob­tain power for the in­ter­ests who’ve se­cured it for them, fi­nan­cially or oth­er­wise. When power can be ob­tained through mass ma­nip­u­la­tion, dis­in­for­ma­tion, cor­rup­tion and other covert tac­tics, the pre­req­ui­sites of char­ac­ter are re­v­ersed, and suc­cess be­comes the prov­ince of bad peo­ple will­ing to do any­thing it takes to fool vot­ers in­stead of good peo­ple with a pos­i­tive ar­gu­ment to make, take it or leave it. The pre­de­ter­mined out­comes of cor­rupted democ­racy pre­clude the need for in­stinct, ta­lent, re­lata­bil­ity, em­pa­thy, in­tegrity, in­tel­lect and skill, which makes this book a sort of valen­tine to the un­cor­rupted kind.

The pres­i­dents in Good­win’s book are all ba­si­cally good peo­ple; men of am­bi­tion, some more noble than oth­ers (in the am­bi­tion break­down of de­sire to do good vs. lust for power, John­son may tilt most to­ward the lat­ter) but all of them in­di­vid­u­als who loved their coun­try, and whose unique com­bi­na­tion of ex­pe­ri­ence and per­son­al­ity seemed tai­lored for the par­tic­u­lar mo­ments of cri­sis in which they gov­erned. In Lin­coln’s case, it’s hard to imag­ine a leader who could have ac­com­plished what was ar­guably the great­est feat of trans­for­ma­tional lead­er­ship in U.S. his­tory with­out his pe­cu­liar com­bi­na­tion of tem­per­a­ment, gen­eros­ity of spirit and abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate.

All four shared the qual­ity of hav­ing lived through dra­matic re­ver­sals of fate from which they emerged bet­ter, more em­pa­thetic men, even if some coped with the psy­cho­log­i­cal strain of set­backs and loss more ef­fec­tively than oth­ers: Lin­coln and John­son’s bouts of ma­jor de­pres­sion hu­man­ize them; FDR’s tri­umph of mind over mat­ter and em­pa­thy over priv­i­lege in lit­er­ally get­ting the bet­ter of po­lio by tran­scend­ing it to em­brace hu­mil­ity, help oth­ers and strengthen his re­silience made him pre­cisely the man and the pres­i­dent he was. The fact that Lin­coln would al­le­vi­ate the colos­sal stress of the Civil War with reg­u­lar trips to the theatre is no less en­dear­ing for its fate­ful irony.

In the end, the true con­trast isn’t be­tween these men and the one cur­rently oc­cu­py­ing the White House, it’s be­tween func­tion­ing democ­racy and com­pro­mised democ­racy. Func­tion­ing democ­racy pro­duces lead­ers who end slav­ery, not start it; who el­e­vate their coun­try, not de­grade it; who ex­hibit love, not con­tempt for their fel­low hu­man be­ings; and who strengthen civil rights and hu­man rights, not weaken them. Amer­i­can democ­racy, in its un­com­pro­mised state, has pro­duced some of the world’s great lead­ers. This book re­minds of us that.

Above all, at a time when so much of the con­tent that crosses our screens re­flects an agenda to nor­mal­ize the patently ab­nor­mal and ra­tio­nal­ize the ut­terly ir­ra­tional, Good­win’s only agenda is to de­ploy her moral compass to mea­sure these men and im­part the lessons of their lives. In that way, she comes through on ev­ery page, like a fifth leader.

Lisa Van Dusen is as­so­ciate editor of Pol­icy Mag­a­zine and a colum­nist for The Hill Times. She was Wash­ing­ton bureau chief for Sun Me­dia, a writer for Peter Jen­nings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Wash­ing­ton.

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