Doris Kearns Goodwin would like Trump to learn from Lincoln, Roosevelt, LBJ: "They'll teach you something"

Doris Kearns Goodwin on effective leaders

Pulitzer prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has researched American presidents for 50 years, writing extensively about the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In her new online Master Class course, she teaches how leadership qualities can define a commander-in-chief.

On "CBS This Morning" Monday, she was asked what are the characteristics of an effective leader. "I think there are a bunch," she said. "Humility is one. You acknowledge your errors. You learn from your mistakes. Empathy is so important, to be able to see other people's points of view. Resilience to get through adversity. The ability to create a team where people can argue with you, where you can share credit and you can shoulder blame. And I think most importantly is the ambition for self becomes an ambition for something larger in the transformative leaders."

"Humility, acknowledging errors – when you mention that in the context of past presidents, you think of the current president who famously does not say 'I'm sorry,' does not acknowledge errors, is not known for his humility," said co-host Tony Dokoupil. "Is he casting a new mold of presidential leadership?"

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Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. CBS News

"I don't know. It seems to me the most important thing with all those qualities is the ability to grow," said Goodwin. "If you have humility and empathy, you can learn, you can learn in office. You're not going to change fundamentally once you become president, but you're hoping that leaders grow. And it's hard to grow if you can't acknowledge errors, 'cause then you're never wrong, so what are you going to learn from?"

Goodwin said that she has not spoken to President Donald Trump but would like to: "I think what I'd say to him is, 'Can I bring Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and LBJ in to talk to you tonight?' I'd rather they be able to talk to him than me. 'I'll channel them, and you listen to them, and they'll teach you something.'"

She related a story about President Lincoln writing what she called "hot letters" to his staff. "So, he'd get mad at somebody, right? And instead of yelling and screaming at them, he would write a letter in which he expressed all of his anger."

One example she cites: Lincoln's letter to General George Meade, dated July 14, 1863:

"I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape – he was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with the our other late successes, have ended the war – as it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. … Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it."

"And then he put the letter aside and hoped he would cool down psychologically, and never sent it. We never even saw these until the 20th century. Suddenly we see a whole bunch of letters to people.

"And the interesting thing is, I was talking to President Obama about this when I did an exit interview. I said, 'Do you ever think of doing that?' He said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'Do you do that?" He said, 'I do it all the time!' He writes letters and then he throws them in the basket, and they never went anywhere."

"Like a draft folder of one's tweets!" said Dokoupil.

"Exactly. Cold tweets, rather than hot tweets!" said Goodwin.

Dokoupil asked, "Historians always talk about how, as troubled as our times today may seem – and by many measures they are very troubled indeed – the past was worse. Please tell me how."

Goodwin said, "There was an old woman on the plane who said to me, 'Tell me, you're an historian, were times really worse?' I started talking about the 1850s; we had this partisan press, you only believed what newspaper you were reading – the Republican or Democratic or the Whig. She said, 'That didn't end up too well, it was the Civil War.' Right! It is true.

"Think about Lincoln coming in and the Civil War's about to begin. The Great Depression, World War II in the early days – somehow democracy gets through these things, and we have to believe that."

Dokoupil said, "One of the ways in which you say in the master class that democracy can come through is if we make sure we know each other. And one of the ways to solve that in the present day would be a volunteer program. Why do you think that's so important?"

"I feel so strongly, if I could do one thing, like in my 50 years of being in this kind of life as an historian, it would be to have a national service program," she replied. "Just think, Teddy Roosevelt warned that the reason democracy will fail is if people in the other part of the country think of themselves as the other, different sections. If you're in a national service program, you're not going to the Peace Corps abroad necessarily, you're going from the city to the country. You're hosted by a family. You're learning how to deal with national disasters. You're helping mentoring people, you get time off from college, or for college tuition. You would just know what military people get. When my son joined the Army right after 9/11, nothing would equal that. He just graduated from Harvard, he learned to be in a platoon with all sorts of people. It would be great to understand each other again."

"You become invested in the country in different ways," said co-host Anthony Mason.

"We should be teaching it in school and we should be learning it in ways like this," Goodwin said. 

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.