We had the unique opportunity to host an intimate conversation with preeminent presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in December 2016. The thoughtful conversation was moderated by Terry Anker, chairman of the Anker Consulting Group, Inc. and president of the Legacy Fund, who framed the conversation so eloquently. After reflecting on the messages that she discussed with us, we came up with five great lessons to share with you.
1. Everyone, not just presidents, wants to leave a legacy. Even in his 20s, a young Abraham Lincoln was worried that his generation didn’t have a huge challenge ahead of them—like the Founding Fathers—and he wondered how he could make his mark. As he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he knew he had cemented his. President Obama, reflecting on decisions made regarding Syria, said it’s not that he felt he made the wrong decision, but wondered what would have happened if he had “the creativity of Churchill, the genius of Lincoln, the charm of FDR or the acumen of LBJ.” Regardless of the legacy, public figures and private people can live on as long as we keep telling their stories.
2. We’re not hearing the same facts on competing media outlets, but that’s happened before. In the 19th century, people received their news by a political newspaper—and knew that’s what they were getting. So one paper would say one thing about a candidate, and the other would say the complete opposite. And often, it was terrible things that were said—probably what rivaled this election. The differences: you knew you were reading something from your own side, and it wasn’t available nonstop on TV and the internet for children to see.
3. Words matter. In 1960 when JFK made a promise in a speech that he later may have regretted, he kept his word. He understood that those words meant something. Today, our culture seems to undervalue words—they’ve gotten diluted. And, we don’t always believe what we’re hearing because there’s a lack of institutional trust.
4. History and the humanities can help us find comfort in times like these. If you think we live in tumultuous times now, for example, history can remind you that in the 1860s our country was tearing itself apart. During the election of 1912, Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were best friends turned enemies. “When you’re in the middle, it can seem incomprehensible,” Doris said. The humanities can also offer an escape—literature, theatre, storytelling—these are all ways presidents have relaxed and replenished.
5. How to be a great leader. In her public lecture, Doris gave us a couple of tips about leadership and some examples, such as: Surround yourself with people who question and challenge you (and like Lincoln, provide a strength where you have a weakness); inspire the best out of your team by setting a good example; temper your anger by writing a “hot letter” or multiple drafts of something; and be a master of communication. “When the right person is in the right place at the right time and the people are mobilized in the right way, great things can happen.”
Special thanks to Bingham Greenebaum Doll and the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site for partnering with us on this program.