Plenty of people are saying they’ve never seen a political climate as polarized and as angry as this one. You’ve seen the talking heads on CNN and, well, even on NPR decrying the state of civil discourse and offering advice for how we should treat other people we disagree with.

But is this really a tipping point in American history?

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has thoughts.

Her new book focuses on leadership, specifically the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. She says we’ve got a lot to learn from them — especially from their early years as leaders. She tells us that these legends of American history…well, they screwed up too.

I mean, Lincoln had a near suicidal depression when he felt like he had broken his word to his constituencies, broken his promise to Mary that he would get married to her. And they had to take all knives and razors and scissors from his room.
But he comes out of that by saying, “I would just as soon die now, but I have not yet accomplished anything to make any human being remember that I have lived,” incredibly, right?
Teddy Roosevelt loses his wife and his mother on the same day in the same house. He goes to the Badlands. He rides his horse 15 hours a day. But by being in the West, he absorbs this love of nature, and he becomes a Westerner, as well as an Easterner.
FDR, of course, has his polio. And when he took up that rehab center in Warm Springs, and he was Doc Roosevelt to his fellow polio patients, he taught them how to live again, a life of joy, even if they were paralyzed. It’s exactly what he was able to do with the country when the country is paralyzed.
LBJ has a massive heart attack when he’s on the top of the heap as majority leader, but he says, what if I died now? What would I be remembered for? And then he goes right for civil rights in the Senate, goes right for civil rights in the presidency.
So something happens, I think, when you go through a hard time. You come through it with resilience, a really important quality. It doesn’t have to be as harrowing as these guys had. But it has to be something.

What can we learn from these leaders? And could this knowledge spur more participation in public life?

Produced by Morgan Givens. Text by Gabrielle Healy.


  • Doris Kearns Goodwin Historian; Pulitzer Prize-winning author, "Leadership: In Turbulent Times" and "Team of Rivals"; @DorisKGoodwin

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows