By Ed Smith
Lessons in judgment, restraint and self-assurance from some of our greatest presidents were on display Wednesday as presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin closed the NCSL Legislative Summit in Boston.
“What a turbulent time it has been to be a presidential historian,” Goodwin said during the closing General Session, in what many might have seen as an understatement.
On a day when the world was on edge over the exchange of sharp language between the leader of North Korea and President Donald Trump, Goodwin said there were plenty of lessons we can draw from history.
“We have never quite seen a president like Mr. Trump,” she said, “but the anger and fear has echoes in the past,” such as the industrial revolution, the tide of immigrants in the early 20th century and the wealth inequity of the Gilded Age.
One way to link past leaders and Trump, she said, was to look at some of the traits that great past presidents shared. Referring to Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, she pointed to these qualities:
Each discovered they had the potential for leadership.
They were resilient.
All three had the confidence to surround themselves with people who disagreed with them.
They learned from their mistakes.
They could control their impulses.
Knew how to relax and shake off their anxieties.
Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, for example, both first ran for office at 23. FDR was a later bloomer and only ran for the New York legislature at 28 after he was recruited, in large measure because of his name and family wealth.
They also experienced frustration, even despair, such as when Teddy Roosevelt saw both his first wife and mother die on the same day.
“All leaders must develop a resilience to cope with trials by fire,” Goodwin said. “Like all leaders, [Trump] will experience reversals and adversity. The real test is not how he responds to winning but to adversity.”
She pointed to Lincoln’s cabinet, which she chronicled in “Team of Rivals,” as the ultimate example of surrounding yourself with people who will disagree. Lincoln said he needed the “strongest and most able” people to help him run the country.
Goodwin said she was heartened to see several of Trump’s Cabinet appointees disagree with him during their confirmation hearings. Trump “seemed to be open to a strong foreign policy team and he’s shown a willingness to change his mind on policy issues.” The “chilling worry,” she said, was whether his recent remarks on North Korea were vetted with his Cabinet or just a spontaneous comment.
She was less sure of Trump’s capacity to learn from his mistakes. “The question remains: Is his temperament suited to self-reflection? There’s not much evidence so far of that humility.”
Her one concrete piece of advice for the current president was drawn from Lincoln’s experience. He had a habit of writing letters expressing frustration and anger only to put them aside and sometimes never send them at all. One such letter was to General George Meade after the battle of Gettysburg. Lincoln was incensed that he’d failed to pursue Robert E. Lee’s army and end the Civil War.
Taking a page from Lincoln, she said, “President Trump could set up two Twitter accounts, one real and one fake.”
He could use the fake one, she suggested, “to get the anger out of his system.”
Ed Smith is NCL’s director of digital communications.