Presidential Leadership In Crisis The Key To US Rebound: Kearns Goodwin
After Franklin Delano Roosevelt was crippled by polio in 1921, he was told he would never walk unaided again. To remain independent and mobile, FDR was told to strengthen his upper body.
And that's how the future 32nd president of the United States wound up dragging himself around his office floor. The exercise helped strengthen Roosevelt's shoulders, arms and back, said Doris Kearns Goodwin, who told the story Tuesday during LIMRA's virtual annual conference.
"And he said, 'You surely learn humility that way by crawling around the floor as a grown man,'" she said.
Kearns Goodwin, a celebrated historian and author of prize-winning books such as No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, told the story to demonstrate the leadership value of resilience in a crisis.
Polio taught Roosevelt, born into a blue-blood New York family, so much that served him well as a president during America's crisis period from 1932-45, Kearns Goodwin said.
"It really was the first time I think he was able to fully identify with other people to whom fate had dealt an unkind hand," she said. "It increases empathy. I think the polio that had disabled his body expanded his mind and sensibilities and made him more able, when the Depression came and World War II, to connect to other people who were having a really hard time."
'I Need Them By My Side'
Resilience in crisis also applies to Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, two other presidents featured prominently in Kearns Goodwin's books. Perhaps her most famous book -- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln -- was made into the movie "Lincoln" by Steven Spielberg in 2012.
The 16th president had a gift for winning over opponents through his hard work and commitment to integrity, Kearns Goodwin said. And his capacity for empathy.
When Lincoln first broached the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves, many of his cabinet members disagreed with it. By the time it was finally issued in September 1862, they all agreed with it and supported the president.
Lincoln famously filled his cabinet with some of his harshest critics in the Republican party. That move, and the succeeding leadership to win them over, is the measure of his greatness, Kearns Goodwin said.
"He said, 'The country is in peril. These are the strongest and most able men in the country. I need them by my side,'" she recounted. "So he knew that they had strengths that would compensate for his weaknesses. And he may have strengths that would compensate for theirs."
Kearns Goodwin, 77, formed a film company with a partner and produced one documentary-style miniseries on George Washington. She has additional projects for The History Channel on Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt in the works.
Married for 42 years to the late Richard Goodwin, a celebrated advisor to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Kearns Goodwin said she is going through 350 boxes of papers the couple collected. Richard Goodwin died in 2018.
Most of the papers and pictures date to the 1960s, she noted, and there are lessons to learn from that decade and everything that happened then.
"I'd like to think that the '60s offers us both moments of progress and moments of backlash, law and order, and what went wrong and what went right," she said. "And that's a story. I really feel that history, we ignore it at our peril."
InsuranceNewsNet Senior Editor John Hilton has covered business and other beats in more than 20 years of daily journalism. John may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @INNJohnH.
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