Goodwin asks, “Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? … Do the times make the leader or does the leader shape the times?” These are perennial questions that she has been considering in general ways since her days as a Colby student. Now she uses those questions to deconstruct the careers of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson—and consider what lessons they offer for today.
While Goodwin leads us through these presidents’ lives in her customary fascinating way, it is the book’s second half that is particularly engrossing. It’s there that the work turns into a historical self-help book, showing precisely how these four icons navigated treacherous times and left the country transformed for the better.
Lincoln, for example, acknowledged when his Civil War battlefield policies failed and changed direction. Teddy Roosevelt ended the Great Coal Strike of 1902 (a national crisis) by carefully studying the situation and using history to provide broad perspective. Franklin Roosevelt led the nation out of the Depression by giving Americans a sense of shared purpose. Johnson took the reins after the Kennedy assassination by taking dramatic action and drawing clear lines of battle on civil rights.
There are lessons galore here. Writes Goodwin: “It is my hope that these stories of leadership in times of fracture and fear will prove instructive and reassuring.”