BLACKSBURG — When Virginians voted on Super Tuesday last week, famed presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin gave an audience on the campus of Virginia Tech insights into how “we should be judging our leaders.”
Goodwin’s lecture, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” after the title of her 2018 book, examined leadership qualities through the careers of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
“I believe these are the traits that we should be looking at as we figure out who our next leader should be, not only how we evaluate these people from the past,” said Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has written biographies of each of those presidents.
Her book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” served as a basis for Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film “Lincoln.”
“I would like to believe that these stories of our past leaders are not simply remnants of yesteryear,” she said. “On the contrary, I believe they must be told to remind us that as difficult as our political situation is today we’ve been through far more troubled times before.”
The Tech Foundation paid $58,000 to the Washington Speakers Bureau to cover Goodwin’s fee and airfare, a spokeswoman said. The money comes from an alumni endowment fund specifically for the lecture series.”
Weaving together anecdotes, both humorous and profound, from the presidents’ careers, Goodwin, during her presentation, shared 10 traits she believed each possessed that made them effective leaders. Those included “the ability to grow through adversity, humility and empathy”; learning “to control negative and unproductive emotions”; and transforming “an ambition for self into an ambition for the greater good.”
She highlighted their abilities to communicate simply and to master the medium of the time, such as newspapers for Theodore Roosevelt and radio for Franklin Roosevelt. Lincoln, she noted, was a brilliant storyteller and quick on his feet in debates. “He could absolutely do tweets if he had to,” Goodwin said. But as president, she noted, he was careful not to speak extemporaneously.
In a question-and-answer session, the moderator noted that Goodwin spoke on the day of a presidential primary and asked which of the four she would pick to lead today.
Goodwin said Theodore Roosevelt could harness the power of a media landscape that craves celebrity.
“He could actively command the center of attention, as does President Trump,” she said, noting Roosevelt “understood that problem of the gap between the rich and the poor, he understood big companies swallowing small companies, he understood the anxiety people felt in the 20th century, which is much of the anxiety people are feeling today.
“Right now I would take any of them to come back,” Goodwin said to laughter and raucous applause.
“We will get through this,” she added. “I think.”