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Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin Looks to Past Presidents for Lessons the World Could Use Right Now

7 minute read

Doris Kearns Goodwin lives surrounded by American history. Her home in Concord, Mass., is minutes from the site of one of the first battles of the American Revolution. The house itself, cool on a day that broke heat records in nearby Boston, is full of history too. What was once a three-car garage is now a library. Abraham Lincoln books are in there, and Franklin Roosevelt is nearby. The section on Theodore Roosevelt is upstairs. A small room with exercise bikes is devoted to memoir. Fiction has its place too. And at the end of one hallway, there’s a section that might surprise visitors to the home of one of the nation’s most famous historians: business and psychology books on leadership.

That section is new. These–and the papers in dozens of colorful three-ring binders in a nearby room–were research materials for Goodwin’s new book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, out Sept. 18. Leadership guru is a role Goodwin, 75, has filled informally for years, as a frequent speaker on lessons gleaned from the Presidents who have been the subjects of her award-winning biographies. In her new book, Goodwin has taken “her guys”–Lincoln, both Roosevelts and Lyndon B. Johnson–and crafted elements of their parallel stories into a comparatively slim volume (read: nearly 500 pages counting the bibliography) for history buffs and C-suiters alike.

Goodwin says the writing experience reminded her of graduate school, when she and her friends would talk about how their studies might offer a path forward in their own lives. It felt like “coming full circle,” she says–and allowed her to feel like she was paying something of a debt to the leaders she has chronicled over the years.

“Each time I finished a project, I had to move that guy’s books to another room, and I always felt I was vaguely betraying him,” Goodwin says. “This time I could keep them all where they were.”

In Leadership, each President gets his start, faces obstacles personal and national, and achieves success. Some moments stand out: Teddy Roosevelt’s handling of a strike or FDR’s road map for the first 100 days, which became a staple for future Presidents’ first terms. From Lincoln comes the idea of writing “hot” letters, never to be sent, to get out one’s anger. It’s hard to imagine Goodwin angry–she won’t let TIME take an unsmiling photo of her–but she says anyone can use that tip. And a coda to LBJ’s story, about his lack of leadership on Vietnam, neatly highlights the stakes of her lessons.

Goodwin has a close-up perspective on Johnson, having helped with his memoirs following a fellowship in his White House, but that’s not the only reason Leadership is personal in ways a presidential biography can’t be. The subject demands to be related to one’s own life, and Goodwin isn’t immune. Lincoln’s praise for his team was a reminder to thank her own helpers even more. Each of the four Presidents she profiles had to return from at least one big setback. Similarly, she faced plagiarism accusations in the early 2000s, which she has attributed to mistakes caused by a faulty note-taking system. Goodwin retreated briefly from public life before returning with Team of Rivals, the best-selling Lincoln biography that inspired both Steven Spielberg (it’s a basis for Lincoln) and then Senator Barack Obama, who called her to discuss it. There was also an overlay of personal sadness; Goodwin was writing an epilogue about the Presidents’ deaths just as her husband, JFK and Johnson adviser Richard N. Goodwin, faced the final stages of cancer. He died in May, and she says it was helpful to reflect at that time on what it meant to leave a legacy.

“Knowing that he felt that he had an extraordinary life and that the world understood that too,” she says, “was just such a comforting factor.”

Over lunch at a Concord Inn that’s older than the United States, Goodwin returns to a favorite story about FDR: in 1940, he set a target for U.S. warplane production that seemed impossible to hit–and yet that goal would “ignite the imagination” of the aviation industry. The moral is that leadership involves presenting others with a vision of what they might achieve.

The new book also means to offer an instructive new perspective. Its most urgent lesson isn’t found in any specific example of how a great man faced down a great problem. Rather, she says, it’s in seeing just how massive their problems were.

“This has become more apparent over the past couple of years: we’re going to ignore history at our own peril,” she says. “I’d like to think it would give people reassurance to know that if you think we’re in the worst of times right now, it isn’t the worst.”

Yes, these times qualify as turbulent, she says, although she didn’t know how much when she started the book about five years ago. Beyond any specific failures of leadership in its capital, she sees the U.S. as overwhelmed by polarization. The four examples she uses may help citizens recognize good leadership when they see it. But even more, she hopes citizens will remember that greater obstacles have been overcome before.

“It’s like being in war so long, you don’t know what peace is like,” Goodwin says. “We’ve been at each other’s throats so long in Washington. To know and remember what bipartisanship is like, that’s what I want people to see. We had it.”

That possibility of a better world isn’t limited to politics. All of her subjects earn her praise for taking time to retreat, reflect and pause amid crisis. If you think work emails arriving in your inbox during vacation makes that impossible, think again.

“If Lincoln during the Civil War can go to the theater a hundred times, and if FDR during World War II can have a cocktail hour every night where you can only talk about books you’ve read and gossip, and if Teddy Roosevelt can take two hours every afternoon to exercise,” she says, none of us has an excuse. “We just keep thinking our time is more complicated. It is because we’ve made it so.”

Goodwin is pretty good at pausing too. When she watches her beloved Boston Red Sox, she says, she thinks about only baseball, and she has made a ritual of eating out with friends multiple times a week (the historic tavern where we had lunch is their Thursday spot). She’s big into mysteries. And she makes time for family and neighbors. One of her sons lives in Concord with his family, and their town is the kind where people stop to say hello–including five separate times during our postlunch visit to the Concord Bookshop.

She’s also taking a slower-paced approach to the question of what comes next. She wants to finish the book her husband was writing when he died, which she describes as a “love letter to the idea of America.” Several film projects based on her work are in progress–Spielberg has moved on to her Teddy Roosevelt/William Howard Taft book, and a miniseries drawn from her FDR work may happen, too–and she has started a production company with her manager. She’s not sure she wants to spend another decade on a biography. If the right person came along, maybe. But that would mean moving her books again, and that doesn’t feel right, not yet.

“It’s still just too close to this one,” she says. “I’d feel like I was betraying these guys before they’d even come back to life.”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com