January Series (1/17): Doris Kearns Goodwin

“How Did We Get Here? A Historical Perspective on Our Wild 2016 Election”

Doris Kearns Goodwin, who President Le Roy introduced as America’s “historian-in-chief,”  began her talk by admitting that, as a historian, she was a bit out of her comfort zone analyzing current events.

But “in the end,” Goodwin believes, “history is about telling stories, examining the contours of the past […] so that we, the living, can learn.” This philosophy gives Goodwin her impetus to apply her fifty years studying the history of the presidency to our current election.

As a presidential historian, Goodwin has traced the characteristics that have defined good leadership in past presidents. She lamented that an election cycle does not focus on questions such as “What kind of leadership attributes have the candidates shown?”

While Trump characterizes himself as a “winner,” Goodwin noted that it was loss, adversity, and failure that made great leaders of the past who they were. She described how Lincoln and FDR learned patience, humility, resilience and empathy from the adverse situations they faced in life.

Good presidents, Goodwin argued, surround themselves with their critics–people who are willing to challenge the president’s assumptions and authority. Thus, Goodwin considers it encouraging that several members of Trump’s nominated cabinet have expressed disagreement with the President-elect’s views.

A successful leader must also have “the ability to inspire the best performance from your team by setting an example,” Goodwin said. She emphasized “the ability to relax and replenish one’s own energy,” and the ability to control negative emotions and manage stress.

Finally, a good leader needs good communication skills. Goodwin pointed out Lincoln’s “unmatched ability to communicate with his countrymen” and FDR’s skill in captivating the entire nation each time he spoke on the radio. Today, Goodwin said, we live in the era of the Trump tweet, in contrast to George Washington’s “gift of silence.”

Goodwin believes that a historical perspective offers us some hope for the future. As divided as our country seems now, during Lincoln’s presidency the country literally split in two. Lincoln’s successes show that “however broken our political culture, when the right person is in the right place at the right time, great things can happen.”