The Sunday Magazine

Donald Trump lacks the character traits of great presidents, says presidential historian

Doris Kearns Goodwin's latest book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, examines the character traits that made four American presidents great leaders, and whether the current president shares any of them.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's latest book explores leadership skills of 4 great presidents

Doris Kearns Goodwin's latest book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, examines the character traits that made Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson great leaders, and looks at whether the current president shares any of the same traits. (Alexander Gardner, Hulton Archive, Pool, Topical Press Agency, Agence France Presse)

Originally published on Oct. 19, 2018.

One can only wonder what Abraham Lincoln would have thought about U.S. President Donald Trump's claim that Honest Abe was the only American leader more presidential than Trump himself. We don't have Lincoln around to ask, but Doris Kearns Goodwin might be the next best person to consult. 

Her book Leadership in Turbulent Times delves into the lives of four American presidents to examine how their ambition, character and leadership abilities were forged.

It details the crises Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson faced, and how they rose to the challenge to unify and elevate the nation.

While Trump is never mentioned by name in the book, comparisons can't help but be made.

"He's made himself the centre of every conversation of every day, and not necessarily in a good way," Goodwin told The Sunday Edition's host, Michael Enright.

Goodwin is the pre-eminent historian of American presidents. Her study of Lincoln — Team of Rivals — won the Pulitzer Prize and was the inspiration for Steven Spielberg's Academy Award-winning movie Lincoln. Goodwin has also written biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Johnson, whose administration she worked for as a young scholar.

What set [Lincoln, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and Johnson] apart from other presidents, and what did they have in common?

There's no master recipe for leadership. Each person is fitted or not fitted for the times in which they lead. But I do think there's a family resemblance of leadership traits, even though they came from very different backgrounds.

They did seem to combine in their leadership empathy, that either they were born with or developed; resilience to get through adversity; their ability to control emotions; their ability to learn how to think and relax their temperaments so that they were able to replenish their energy. The capacity to communicate in a way that people felt trust in their words. Curiosity. Energy is huge.

And two things, most importantly: hard, sustained work, and an ambition that starts out maybe for themselves, but then ends up for a larger cause.

You point out that each of them had failures, setbacks and adversity. How critical is that in the development of leadership?

It's a critical thing to get through adversity or a trial by fire and come out the other end — there's a certain confidence and wisdom that comes from it.

The adversities [these four men] suffered were more harrowing than most people have.

Lincoln fell into a depression so deep in his 30s, that they took all knives and razors and scissors from him, fearful that he would kill himself. And it was in part because he had broken his word to his constituents — he had promised he'd bring infrastructure projects to Illinois, and the thing had failed — and he had broken his engagement to Mary Todd Lincoln, and he felt that he had failed her. And he was so far from getting to the big, ambitious stage he was hoping he would.

Then when his great friend came to his side and said, "You must rally, or you will die," he said, "I know that. And I would just as soon die right now, but I have not yet accomplished anything that would make any human being remember that I had lived."

So that became his lodestar, carrying him through failure after failure until he finally became president.

The four presidents you're talking about all had to deal with polarizing issues. Now there's an occupant in the White House who thrives on actually creating division. Not solving it.

I think that's the major problem with his leadership.

Teddy Roosevelt warned that the way democracy would founder would be if people in various regions and parties and religions started to see themselves as the other, rather than as common American citizens.

That was already happening. That's partly why [Trump] won.

He was able to appeal to one group of people in the country — his base — who felt angry about the economy, perhaps about immigration, perhaps about race, and they became his core. And the goal when you become president is to expand your base.

He's the leader of a faction, rather than the leader of a country, and the country is factionalized.

I wonder if character still matters.

It has to, or else I'm really going to lose my optimistic sense that America's going to get through this. It's character that matters above all. Character is how you treat people; it's who you are; it's your moral sense. And all those qualities, we have to be looking for in our leaders. And they may not come in ordinary times when we don't need them, but in times like this, we really need someone who can cross all these lines and speak to us as Americans and bring us together as a nation again. 

This is Part Four of The Swamp, a special series The Sunday Edition developed in the lead-up to the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 6, 2018.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

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