Nation's most notable presidents exhibited resilience, flexibility, self-control

July 1, 2017

NEW ORLEANS — It is too early in President Donald Trump's presidency to fully ascertain which character traits will define his leadership style, but he and all leaders can learn from the most revered men who have sat in the Oval Office.

That was a theme of a keynote presentation that presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin delivered here on June 13, the closing day of the Catholic Health Assembly.

Doris Goodwin
Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr./© CHA

At the outset of her assembly address, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and political commentator asked, "Has history ever seen a president like Trump?" She answered that by saying while "there is no one quite like Trump," the current era has parallels in the Gilded Age after the Civil War, when cities and industries were growing rapidly, sparking waves of immigration from poorer European and Asian nations. There was significant social upheaval and income inequality. People who felt their way of life was threatened supported populist politicians, whom they hoped could stem the tide of change.

Goodwin said the voters who ushered in the Trump presidency may have been reacting to similar feelings of fear of change and fear of people who are not like them.

The politics of the Gilded Age sparked the Progressive Era, when social justice reformers including churches fought for government programs that would, in part, attempt to correct the excesses of industrialized America.

Goodwin said citizens have power to shape policy. "All the important changes in our country have come from the bottom up," she said, citing as examples the anti-slavery movement, the civil rights movement, the women's movement and the environmental movement. She drew applause when she said, "We need to remember today at this anxious time, that we the citizens have the power; and, if we use this power, we can move the country in the right direction again."

An author of critically acclaimed presidential biographies, she laced her speech with stories and anecdotes. Joking that she's spent much of her "days and nights with dead presidents," she said their reactions to struggles and triumphs reveal universal lessons in leadership. At the assembly she spoke of how Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt were forged by adversity and became better leaders because they were able to "conquer themselves" before going on to advance liberty, economic opportunity and social justice.

"Even though problems change over time, there are certain traits that are held in common by our most successful leaders and first on that list is the ability to sustain one's ambition in the face of frustration — to motivate oneself through adversity, through loss, through trials of fire. Resilience is a key leadership trait," she said.

She spoke of Lincoln's spare and lonely boyhood on the frontier. He lost his mother at 9, his sister a few years later and his first love when she was 22. Farm work came first for the young Lincoln, and he later lamented his entire formal schooling was less than 12 months. Books allowed him to transcend his circumstances, and his desire to leave the world a better place fueled his life, giving him the fortitude to overcome crippling bouts of depression in adulthood.

Theodore Roosevelt grew up in affluence, but like Lincoln, he grieved the deaths of many loved ones early in his life. He lost his young bride and his mother on the same day and sought solace in hard work and the beauty and open space of the Dakota Badlands. He went on to pursue policies that led to the National Park Service.

Assembly participants enjoy a keynote address on leadership lessons from past presidents, by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr./© CHA

Polio left Franklin Roosevelt a paraplegic in his 30s. Paralysis expanded his mind and sensibilities, Goodwin said. "Far more intensely than before, he reached out to know other people, to understand them, to put himself in their shoes. No longer belonging to his privileged world in the same way, he came to empathize with the poor and underprivileged."

Trump, she said, has yet to be tested by adversity.

To illustrate how the nation's most successful presidents welcomed opposing viewpoints, Goodwin described how Lincoln put his top rivals into positions of power when he became president.

She said impulse and temper control also is essential when a person is in the most powerful position in the world. Lincoln, one of the great orators, rarely spoke extemporaneously, because he knew words carried weight, Goodwin said.

Goodwin said Lincoln and President Barack Obama both made a practice in the White House of writing down uncensored feelings of anger. Lincoln never signed and never sent his "hot letters." Obama threw his in the trash.

She suggested that Trump might benefit from having two Twitter accounts, including one he uses when he is happy and a dummy account that is not connected to the Internet to use when he is in the throes of anger.

Goodwin said like many of the presidents she admires, she has a passion for storytelling. She spoke of her love of baseball and how it was connected to her love for her father — a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. At age six, she would listen to a game on the radio and give him the play-by-play of the day's game when he got home from work. It taught her the power of history and narrative, she said. Now a Boston Red Sox fan, when she's at a game with her sons, she feels loyalty and love linking her sons to her father, whom they know only through her stories.

She said historical figures and beloved family members "really can live on," so long as people tell their stories.


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