This book is similar to another I read recently: The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meacham. Both books deal with presidential leadership in troubled times, and both books have as their main examples Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Meacham’s book is wider-ranged and offers more examples, but Goodwin focuses solely on these four men. It must be a sign of the times that some of the nation’s finest historians point us to stories of mature, intelligent, sacrificial leadership, of which there is such a paucity at present.
Goodwin’s book is divided into three sections. The first deals with the rise to power of these four politicians; the second tells of the deepest times of darkness and despair that they each had to live through and overcome to mature into great leaders; the third points to outstanding achievements in their presidencies that reveal great leadership.
As a young man, Lincoln aspired to become a politician and improve the quality of life of those who lived in the rural towns and farmlands of Illinois in which he grew up. Depression and despair followed political setbacks that caused him to feel that he had failed his constituency. After a brief stint in Congress, he withdrew from politics and practiced law. During this time he began his profound lifelong struggle against the institution of slavery and took part in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. After a failed run at a Senate seat, he somehow secured his party’s nomination for the presidency. The great struggle of his presidency that Goodwin presents is his determination to declare the Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of the Civil War.
In contrast to Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt grew up in a wealthy home surrounded by all life’s luxuries. He had a strong spirit hampered by an asthmatic constitution. After early success in politics, his great trauma came when his first wife, the love of his life, and his mother, with whom he was very close, died on the same day. Roosevelt withdrew to mourn and renew himself to a ranch in the Badlands of the Dakotas. When he emerged, he became a national hero as a New York police commissioner, assistant secretary of the Navy, Roughrider during the war in Cuba, and governor of New York. While serving as vice president under McKinley, Roosevelt was thrust into the presidency when McKinley was assassinated. In the book’s final section, Goodwin highlights his leadership skills during the devastating coal strike of 1902.
Franklin Roosevelt was also born into privilege and was a natural politician. His crisis came when he was stricken with polio and was forced to endure years of agonizing convalescence and a painful yet gratifying reemergence into politics. As an example of leadership in the midst of overwhelming crisis, Goodwin recounts Roosevelt’s zeal and tenacity in creating and shaping social programs during the Hundred Days in the midst of the Great Depression.
Lyndon Johnson grew up in Texas as the son of a renowned politician and never had a doubt about his calling. He recovered from political setbacks and a massive heart attack to become a master of the Senate. When he assumed the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, his overriding concern was the passing of a civil rights act. He used the power of his office to secure equal rights, including the right to vote, for all Americans.
Each of these men had weaknesses, disappointments, and setbacks, but in spite of these, they managed to manifest great leadership and accomplish great deeds. This is a very well-written and inspiring book, and I highly recommend it.