A crisis allows a president to have a moment of greatness, presidential scholar Doris Kearns Goodwin told a packed audience on the UTC campus Tuesday night. Abraham Lincoln wrote his place in history during the Civil War; Franklin Delano Roosevelt made his mark with the New Deal, and next week the world will look to President-elect Barack Obama to see if he will rise to the opportunity history has presented, she said.
“You’ve got crises that are larger than anything we’ve probably seen for a long period of time,” she said in an earlier interview. “It means that he’s coming in at a time that’s fraught with great danger, but also with great possibility to move the country through collective enterprise, which you can’t always do in ordinary times.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and cable news commentator shared her insights about the qualities of great leadership during a speech that kicked off the 2009 George C. Hunter Lecture Series at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Mr. Obama has said that if he could bring one book into the White House besides the Bible, it would be Ms. Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals” about the Lincoln presidency.
By welcoming his rivals into the White House, President Lincoln reportedly encouraged a climate of vigorous debate, a culture Mr. Obama has said he hopes to cultivate with his cabinet nominations of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and Robert Gates as secretary of defense.
Mrs. Clinton, who fought Mr. Obama for the Democratic nomination, testified in her confirmation hearings Tuesday vowing to usher in a new era in which diplomacy — with friends as well as foes — would prevail as the dominant foreign policy.
For Nancy and Henry Crais of Monteagle, Tenn., Ms. Goodwin’s talk about the past seemed more relevant that ever.
“It was very, very engaging because it’s so current,” Ms. Crais said. “We’re a week away from Obama’s inauguration, and I think that makes us kind of tune in more to what’s going on in presidential politics, and then she made some references toward the end particularly about the challenges Obama faces and how similar challenges faced Lincoln. So that made it, it made it really current to me.”
“She said so much about his character,” Mr. Crais said. “And that’s what we’re sort of expecting in Obama, a person who has the values and honesty.”
Beyond his political savvy, Ms. Goodwin said President Lincoln exhibited other qualities common in great leaders. She said a willingness to learn on the job, an ability to connect with everyday citizens and to inspire others to action all are qualities that could help Mr. Obama or any other president govern effectively.
“It’s not surprising that some of our great presidents have also been good speakers, able to mobilize the people, inspire morale and make them feel they want to follow in a certain sense,” she said. “And it’s also probably not a surprise that those activist times when citizens get involved in their country as the Progressive Era or the New Deal or the New Society are the times that get remembered by history.”
Ms. Goodwin said one of the cardinal disappointments of the Bush administration was the failure to maintain the momentum of patriotism created by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. She said the country lost an opportunity to boost military enlistment, to encourage people to reduce their energy consumption or to kick off a “Manhattan project” to develop long-term energy solutions.
Without the events that occurred during the Bush administration, however, Ms. Goodwin said Mr. Obama may not have been elected. For while certain leadership qualities are transcendent across time and culture, she said history often paves the way for certain leaders to emerge.
“It is true that what we look for in a leader, which of those qualities matter more, depends on the situation and what you’ve just been through,” she said. “The desire to have an inclusiveness that (Mr.) Obama’s talking about fits the need of the time. The desire to have someone who can speak well to the country and communicate in a literary fashion after you’ve had a president who has not had as easy a time talking to the country becomes even more important.”