Thumbs up for Harry S Truman’s presidency. Thumbs down for Bill Clinton’s. Ronald Reagan probably was more clever than he appeared. And Dubya, although he’s been looking good in response to Sept. 11, had better mind the home front so it can sustain the war front.
Those were some of the judgments on our national leaders delivered by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin at the Feb. 20 Fox Leadership Forum. Goodwin, a former Harvard professor and White House fellow under Lyndon B. Johnson, is the author of a number of best-sellers, including “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys” and “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.”
In a talk that wove some of her private history as an avid baseball fan with the public history she records, Goodwin indicated how the history of presidents past might guide presidents present and future. A rapt audience of more than 500 in Irvine Auditorium listened as Goodwin wove the present in and out of the steady stream of anecdotes and observations about our country’s leaders, great and not-so-great.
She praised President George W. Bush, whom she at first doubted as a leader, for warning Americans that the war on terrorism could take some time, harking back to LBJ’s mistake of not warning Americans that the war in Vietnam could drag on and on. And when she saw Tony Blair here conferring with Bush after Sept. 11, she recalled Winston Churchill’s constant visits to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the two of them buoying each other up during World War II.
FDR’s misguided incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II warned the country off taking similar blanket measures against Arab-Americans. And like Abraham Lincoln, Bush appointed a cabinet of people more experienced than he. “I give Bush credit for that,” she said.
Lack of credibility was the undoing of LBJ and of Bill Clinton. “[Clinton] lost his moral authority as a leader,” she said, diverted from his agenda by the circus his lies perpetuated. “The credibility of a government is the most important asset it has.”
Originally published on March 7, 2002