September 30th, 2018


Book Review: Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Renowned author Doris Kearns Goodwin has written best-selling biographies of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, the last-named of which she worked for and helped to write his autobiography. In her most recent work Leadership in Turbulent Times, she compares and contrasts the leadership qualities and styles of the four iconic chief executives, in a comprehensive examination of how each of the four prepared for and confronted the challenges that each were faced with as president and how each developed and implemented his vision of a better America as president.

The book is divided into three sections which contain alternating chapters on each of the four in chronological order of their presidencies. The first section, entitled "Ambition and the Recognition of Leadership" looks at the paths each of the four men took to rise to positions of leadership, in some cases from humble beginnings, in others aided by wealth and family connections. In the second section "Adversity and Growth", she examines the early political career of her four subjects and how each overcame some personal challenge to rise to national prominence. In Lincoln's case it was his rise from poverty and his struggles with depression. Theodore Roosevelt overcame poor health as a child and the deaths of his beloved mother and his wife on the same day. A formerly robust Franklin Roosevelt was stricken with polio at a time when it was presumed that a "cripple" had no political future. For Johnson, the author concedes that some of the challenges were less daunting (a loss in a senate race) but she examines how this and a subsequent heart attack subjectively presented formidable obstacles for the ambitious Texan.

The third section of the book details how each confronted the challenging issues of their times and examines some of the qualities that each possessed in order to face those challenges. The challenges are especially apparent in the cases of Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt who came into office at a time when the nation was in big trouble (secession in Lincoln's case, the Great Depression for FDR) while for TR and Johnson, leadership was a matter of implementing their respective visions of a better life for those less fortunate in their nation. For Theodore Roosevelt, Goodwin examines his expansion of the powers of the presidency as a means of caring for the working class and for the less fortunate through his "Square Deal" while Johnson achieved considerable progress in the advancement of civil rights and in bringing about his vision of the "Great Society." The book concludes with an epilogue which examines the final days of the four, two of whom died in office and two who had different forms of "retirement."

It is apparent that Goodwin is closest to Johnson and she references her time working for him. She presents as fair in her assessment of her former boss, giving praise for his skillful handling of Congress in bringing about long-overdue progress in the field of civil rights, and criticism for his failure in Vietnam.

For those who had read the author's previous works, this will be a refresher, focusing on the most interesting parts of these subjects' lives. For those who have not read Team of Rivals, the Bully Pulpit, No Ordinary Time, or Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, this book provides an excellent encapsulation of four unique figures in American history. What many may find lacking is a summary of the important leadership qualities that can be wrung from these lives, although these lessons are there to be found by the discerning reader and student of history.
Golden Hair

Murder Most Foul

Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination by Karen Halttunen

A study of the change in literature from the Puritan execution sermons -- which treated it as extreme sin, but nevertheless the logical outgrowth of habitual sins that just about everyone has, and downplayed both the crime itself and the immediate motive -- to the Gothic treatment, which went far more into individual motives, the gory and morbid details of the crime, and the treatment of murderers as alien monsters.  Various themes, such as murder within familes.

I, Claudius and Claudius the God, by Robert Graves

A fictionalized autobiography of the Roman Emperor Claudius.

I, Claudius

1934, 468 pages

Here is one of the best historical novels ever written. Lame, stammering Claudius, once a major embarrassment to the imperial family and now emperor of Rome, writes an eyewitness account of the reign of the first four Caesars: the noble Augustus and his cunning wife, Livia; the reptilian Tiberius; the monstrous Caligula; and finally old Claudius himself and his wife, Messalina. Filled with poisonings, betrayal, and shocking excesses, I Claudius is history that rivals the most exciting contemporary fiction.

Falling between Caligula and Nero, how could he not look good by contrast?

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