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Ellen and I had an experience Friday that will stay with us for a long time and gave us some perspective on the troubled times facing our country today.

We were attending a book luncheon at the Hay Adams Hotel, overlooking the White House, where Doris Kearns Goodwin was speaking about her soon to be released latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Times. (We’ve long been a fan of this Pulitzer Prize winning author/historian and have read most of her historical works and also her wonderful memoir  – Wait Till Next Year.)

Goodwin spoke about her 50 years of studying and writing about the four presidents whom she focuses on in her new book, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson, and what she judges to be their leadership qualities and how they each lead the country through critical moments in our history.

Although Goodwin has been writing this book over a period of the past five years, she told the audience that it “is about today…that it does shine light on our own troubled times.” And, she reminded us that “this (today) is not the worst of times.” (Each of these former presidents had to face in turn: a country at war with itself; severe economic and social crises; the Great Depression; the assassination of a president and a growing demand for equality and civil rights for all.) According to the back cover of the book (release date Sept. 18), she portrays Lincoln’s presidency as “Transformational Leadership,” Theodore Roosevelt’s as “Crisis Leadership”, FDR’s as “Turnaround Leadership”, and LBJ’s as “Visionary Leadership.”

Goodwin’s book (which I have not yet read) focuses on issues such as were these leaders born or made, how adversity affected these leaders, and do the times make the leader or the leader make the times? She writes about when each was young, before they were leaders, and follows them to and through their presidencies. Their paths were not identical, she said, but there were important commonalities: ambition, resiliency, empathy, the ability to relax and reflect, the ability to control negative and unproductive emotions, the simple courage to do “what is right,” and character and integrity. She also said that leadership is a two-way street, and all four were able to connect with people.

Of course, she notes, each of these presidents had blind spots, made errors in judgement, and were not always perfect examples of ideal leadership, but they all shared certain motivations, personal characteristics, and values that enabled them to navigate the crises they faced.

As Goodwin spoke, I couldn’t help but look out over the wide balcony from the hotel towards the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Jefferson one too (see photo above) and think about the present occupant of the White House, and how he compares to the four in Goodwin’s book.

Most important to me, however, was Goodwin’s reminder that the country has gone through more difficult, disruptive, and divisive times than the present. We need those reminders.