With impeccable timing, the acclaimed historian focuses on the ways four presidents navigated the country through wrenching clashes and crises.
Pulitzer Prize winner Goodwin (The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, 2013, etc.) profiles Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, all of whom she’s written about previously. Lincoln’s “unmatched work ethic, rhetorical abilities, equable nature, and elevated ambition” steered him to the moment in 1862 when he gathered his Cabinet for the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. That document, writes the author, is “remarkable for its flat precision,” revealing Lincoln’s wisdom in reining in rhetorical flourishes “to reach across factions” and avoid moral condemnation of slaveholding states. Goodwin admires Theodore Roosevelt for his ability to change himself from a “nervous, unhealthy, fragile child” to a leader who, through the force of his personality and adept use of the press, protected working-class Americans from vast wealth inequality. Franklin Roosevelt’s amiable confidence and ability to lead by example pushed the country through the Great Depression, while Johnson’s mastery of legislative strategy eventually compelled many national politicians to see that civil rights were long overdue. The most remarkable aspects of this book are the astute psychological portraits of these leaders: comprehensive, human, and engaging, clearly the results of long study. In the final chapters, Goodwin uses short signposts, snippets of advice, to guide readers. For example, in the section about Johnson’s seemingly insurmountable passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she writes, “make a dramatic start” and “establish the most effective order of battle,” and then follows that line with several paragraphs about why Johnson fought to pass a tax cut before attempting the more momentous civil rights bill. These demarcations clarify the labyrinthine political and cultural issues the presidents confronted.
In intimate, knowing ways, Goodwin crafts history as aspiration—or at least inspiration—for readers; let’s hope a hefty portion of those readers have titles that begin with Sen. or Rep.