Abraham Lincoln

Four US presidents who appealed to the better angels of our nature

Unlike you-know-who
September 18, 2018

Turbulent times have often bred powerful leaders, but Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest riveting book shows us why social upheaval need not produce strongmen or demagogues. Her portrayals of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D Roosevelt and Lyndon B Johnson depict a different sort of leader from the current president of the United States: one who tries to fix the root causes of social problems rather than trying to distract from them, while appealing to a culture of cooperation, not a climate of fear.

Soon after the Depression started, FDR’s opponents argued that bailing out corporations would ensure prosperity trickled downwards. He retorted that wellbeing depended on both recovery and reform. “Take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something,” he said of his New Deal. From Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to Teddy Roosevelt’s critique of the Robber Barons and Johnson’s Civil Rights Act, Goodwin’s four leaders pursued agendas that were anything but business-as-usual.

Yet these policies were also tempered with humility, which Goodwin appraises in illuminating detail. When Lincoln’s papers were opened at the turn of the 20th century, historians found a backlog of angry letters to colleagues. Never sent or signed, his “hot” letters were a way of privately letting off steam—in marked contrast to Donald Trump’s public Twitter tantrums.

Populism has become a dirty word, describing a nebulous group of people pitted against an ever-shifting elite. Yet all these leaders shared populist characteristics, promising to defend the interests of the common man and hold corrupt elites to account. Rather than mobilising fear of outsiders, however, Goodwin’s presidents appealed to a shared endeavour. Both Johnson and FDR addressed a “volatile, depressed and fearful nation,” giving it “hope, confidence and renewed direction.”

Leadership: Lessons from the Presidents for Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Penguin, £20)