Arts and Culture

What makes a leader? And are they born or made? Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has spent the past few decades writing in-depth biographies of America’s leaders; in her latest book “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” she drills down on four past presidents — Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson — and examines what made each the right leader for his time.

Goodwin will be in Louisville on Thursday for the Kentucky Author Forum, where she’ll be interviewed by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer A. Scott Berg. You can listen to our conversation in the player above.

Goodwin on why she focused on leadership:

“It seemed to me, even five years ago before I started the book…that we were having a problem with leadership in Washington. There wasn’t the bipartisanship we once had, that there was a sense of the two parties not working together. So I decided that if I took the four guys I spent a lot of time with, that if I just looked at them through how they grew as leaders, how they went through adversity and how they exercised their leadership in difficult times, it might be a moment of perspective and maybe even reassurance for us that we’ve been through tough times before and we can get through them again.”

On speculation that Goodwin’s book is meant to contrast President Donald Trump with past presidents:

“There was no Donald Trump on my mind when I started. But I do think that for any set of leaders, the qualities … these men in their pasts exemplified humility and empathy and resilience and the ability to connect to people and to control their emotions and were able to think and relax — all of those qualities I think are aspects of leadership, not only in politics but in any field. So I was really trying to reach young people even, who might want to become leaders to show how these people struggled at the beginning — I start when they first run for office — and they’re going to move and have troubles and make mistakes, so people can not necessarily just see them at the pinnacle when they become president.”

On whether those four presidents could have been the same leader they were without the specific challenges they faced:

“Teddy Roosevelt said at one time ‘if there’s not a war, no one would know Lincoln’s name.’ And there’s a sense that crisis does create a possibility for a leader if they’re prepared and if  they’re the right temperament for their time to be able to do something memorable. When you think about Lincoln coming in, obviously the Civil War was on the edge, but James Buchanan had been there in the 1850’s when the country was already beginning to split apart and he didn’t have the right leadership skills or the temperament; goes down as one of the worst presidents.”

Goodwin will speak at the University of Louisville Kentucky Author Forum on Thursday night. Tickets are sold out, but tickets for overflow seating and dinner with Goodwin at the Ali Center are still available. More information is available here or by calling 502-589-2884.

Bill Burton is the Morning Edition host for WFPL News.