Editor’s Note: The Axe Files, featuring David Axelrod, is a podcast distributed by CNN and produced at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. The author works for the podcast.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, has spent a career analyzing some of America’s most consequential presidents, understanding their shortcomings and the characteristics that made them extraordinary.So, when Donald Trump, in his first debate against Hillary Clinton, boasted that, as someone who regularly wins, he has “a winning temperament,” the sentiment immediately captured Goodwin’s attention.
In her read of history, it is personal adversity rather than perpetual success that molds presidential temperament.
“I think overcoming adversity is an extraordinarily important trait for a leader,” Goodwin told David Axelrod on “The Axe Files” podcast, produced by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN.
“Which was what stunned me, in a way, when Donald Trump said that he had the very, very best temperament of anybody who had ever run for the president because he always won, that he had a winning temperament,” Goodwin continued. “History would record just the opposite.”
Goodwin went on to describe the positive transformations some of our presidents underwent after being struck by tragedy – FDR’s polio made him feel more connected to people; Lincoln’s bouts of depression made him more empathetic; Teddy Roosevelt’s personal losses gave him needed perspective.
Listen to the full episode
Goodwin also discussed why it’s important that our political leaders tell a story that captures the imagination of the people they aspire to lead. Goodwin, an evocative storyteller in her own right, said this was one of the crucial reasons for Trump’s success.
“In a certain sense, because [Hillary Clinton] was telling a more complicated story about America and all the various things she wanted us to do, it didn’t have the simplicity of a story that Donald Trump’s did,” Goodwin argued.
“Donald Trump told a story, whether true or not, that people felt was real,” she continued, pointing to Trump’s message of restoring America and bringing economic relief to those who felt forgotten by Washington.
“And that kind of story somehow reached out to a certain part of America. And even if Hillary’s plans and her programs might have touched those people more deeply, the connection emotionally between her and those people seemed to have been lost,” Goodwin concluded.
The challenge for a president to lead by telling a sustained and engaging story is even more complicated now, Goodwin said, given the modern media landscape that must be navigated.
“It’s much harder for a president now,” said Goodwin, who wrote a book that focused in part on Teddy Roosevelt’s belief in the president’s ability, through his “bully pulpit,” to mobilize public opinion. Social media and other tools of communication mean that everyone has a platform now.
“The Internet has allowed people with megaphones as large sometimes as the big public figures,” Goodwin said. “You’re competing against a lot of other people with a lot of other little or big platforms, so it’s much harder, I think, to exercise public leadership in this media world than it was back in [Teddy] Roosevelt’s time.”
To hear the whole conversation with Goodwin, which also covered her love of baseball, which historical moment she believes most closely parallels our politics today, her insights into some of our most seminal presidents, and much more, click on http://podcast.cnn.com. To get “The Axe Files” podcast every week, subscribe at http://itunes.com/theaxefiles.