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AFPM '19: Pulitzer Prize-winning author touts past presidential leadership

By ADRIENNE BLUME, Executive Editor, Hydrocarbon Processing

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and presidential historian who worked in the White House under President Lyndon Johnson, spoke at the General Session on Monday about the leadership qualities of past presidents. She is the author of seven New York Times-bestselling books, including her most recent, Leadership in Turbulent Times.

When she began her five-decade career, Goodwin “never imagined I’d be spending every day with dead presidents.” She spoke about helping former President Johnson write his memoirs and how his presidential legacy, which was tainted by the Vietnam War, is being reconsidered in current times.

In her recently released book, Goodwin addresses leadership by former US presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Although the presidents had very different temperaments and opinions, “each of these leaders had a particular skill to be the right person in the right place at the right time,” Goodwin said. Lincoln, for example, was not afraid to fail. He was the “dark horse” candidate in the 1861 presidential election, “and the rest, as they say, is history,” Goodwin said.

Franklin Roosevelt employed humility to soften what some saw as an overly high sense of confidence. “He developed what he called a ‘genuine fellow feeling’ that made him want to improve the others’ lives,” Goodwin said. He persevered throughout the polio illness that left him paralyzed in his late 30s.

Many first ladies also had positive effects on the leadership of US presidents, Goodwin added. Ladybird Johnson provided “a welcome thorn in [President Johnson’s] side” and was “a trusted voice willing and able to speak truth to power.” Likewise, Eleanor Roosevelt championed for women working in US industry and provided a strong role model for succeeding first ladies.

“These presidents were approachable and accessible, able to reach out to make connections with people,” Goodwin said. Lincoln shook a thousand hands on the day he signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, Goodwin explained, which left his own hand shaking. Lincoln waited until his hand had steadied again before signing the document, so that it would not appear to future generations that he had hesitated.

In closing, Goodwin noted that “an unheralded leadership trait, and something that we need more today than ever before, is the ability to find time and space to think and to relax.”

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