Transcript: Book panel on "Face the Nation," Nov. 26, 2017

Stories of leadership

Authors Robert Dallek, Ron Chernow, Nancy Koehn and Mark Updegrove joined "Face the Nation" Sunday for a conversation examining leadership in times of crisis.

What follows is a transcript of the discussion, which aired Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, on "Face the Nation."

DICKERSON: We turn now to a conversation with four authors whose new books examine leadership in times of crisis.

Robert Dallek is the author of "Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life." Ron Chernow is author of "Grant," a new biography of the Civil War Union general and 18th president. Nancy Koehn is the author of "Forged in Crisis," which looks at five historical figures who demonstrated steady leadership in times of upheaval. And Mark Updegrove's new book, "The Last Republicans," examines the presidencies of George W. Bush and George Herbert Walker Bush and the relationship between father and son.

Welcome to all of you. I'm so glad you're here.

Ron, let me start with you.

You are all historians, but you are also storytellers, too.

So, put General Grant, President Grant on stage for us. Give us your favorite story.

RON CHERNOW, AUTHOR, "GRANT": My favorite story. OK.

It's Virginia 1864. It's Spotsylvania. Grant is standing on the edge of the wood when a lethal shell comes whizzing by him. It passes within three inches of his ears. Grant doesn't blink. He doesn't flinch. His facial expression doesn't change.

He turns to his adjutant and said: "Hudson, go get that shell. Let's see what the enemy is firing at us."


CHERNOW: And the reason I love this story is it that shows Grant's literally coolness under fire.

And his metabolism was such that, at moments where the rest of us would be fearful or anxious, he gets very cool and focused.

DICKERSON: Yes, he was more cool on the battlefield almost maybe than in the barracks. And we will talk about that later.



DICKERSON: But which one story do you want to tell?

KOEHN: Well, it's October 1915. Ernest Shackleton is marooned with 27 crew members on iceberg off the coast of Antarctic. His ship is being crushed by the ice. And the men are intense on the berg.

And he's pacing at night. He can't sleep. He doesn't know how he's going to get them all home alive. And he records later in his diary, I had no idea, but I had to get them home alive. May I be made into what I need to be in order to do that.

The next morning, he awakes each of the men by coming to their tent with a cup of hot tea and says, "Ship and stores gone now, lads. We will go home."

And, again, the coolness under pressure, the commitment, right, in the perfect storm to do something very worthy, and his own uncertainty, right, which was very important, but not evident to his men. Forged in crisis.

DICKERSON: Right. That's great.

Robert Dallek, how about you? What is FDR going to...


ROBERT DALLEK, AUTHOR, "FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: A POLITICAL LIFE": Well, he had a great sense of humor.

And Ben Cohen came in the Oval Office one morning, and Roosevelt was chuckling. And Cohen to him, "Would you mind sharing the joke with me, Mr. President?"

And Roosevelt said: "All right, Ben. Eleanor was just in here. She had been to her doctor this morning for her annual physical. And I say to her, so, Eleanor, what did the doctor have to say about that big ass of yours? And she says, oh, Franklin, he had nothing wrong to say about you."


DICKERSON: Mark, you tell the story of father and a son. Which moment from that do you want to tee up for us?


One is in 1990. The Christmas holidays, the extended Bush family convenes at Camp David. And it's on the eve of Desert Storm, and George H.W. Bush has a decision to make as to whether to send ground troops into Kuwait to drive out the Iraqi invaders. And it's a big decision.

And he has a dream that night, that his father is alive again, his father who had died in the 1970s is alive. And he finds out he's at a hotel room near a golf course. And he goes to that hotel room, and there's his dad.

And he recalls him big, strong, highly respected. And he hugs him and says, "I miss you very much."

Flash forward a dozen years, and, improbably, the Bush family is once again at Camp David celebrating the Christmas holiday, with George W. Bush as president confronted with the same enemy, and trying to figure out whether he should wage war against Saddam Hussein.

But his father is there, big, strong, highly respected. And he can draw on him for his counsel, which he does, the one and only time he talks to his father about Iraq, asks him what he should do. Saddam Hussein at that point is flaunting U.N. sanctions and rattling sabers.

And his father says, "If he's not complying, you have to go to war."

And you have to -- for sake of history, you have got to understand this dynamic between father and son, whose presidencies were just eight years apart.

DICKERSON: Yes. We will get back to that.

Robert, let me ask you. Let's step back now look at each of your books. You write about -- in your book, you write, "It seems well to remind Americans that the system has been capable of generating candidates for high office whose commitment to the national interests exceeds their flaws and ambitions."

Is that it is goal of your book?


And Roosevelt had an extraordinary hold of the public's imagination. For 12 years, his approval rating never went below 50 percent. Even in 1937-'38, when he was struggling over court packing and purging the party of conservative Democrats from the staff, he still had a 50, 55, even 60 percent approval rating.

And I love those two stories about the man who stopped Eleanor on the street after Franklin died and said, "I miss the way your husband used to speak to me about my government," or the man who stood by the railway track as the train from Warm Springs carrying the body went back to Hyde Park.

A man was sobbing and somebody said to him, "Did you know the president?"

He said, "No, but he knew me."


DALLEK: And can anyone imagine that, somebody saying that about the current incumbent?

DICKERSON: Nancy, you chose five people. Why these five?

KOEHN: A combination of reasons, John.

One, they -- I was very, very interested, for personal and professional reasons -- I have been teaching leadership for a long time at Harvard Business School -- in how -- in the emotional experience of leadership. What is it like for the leader, him or her self, to be in the center, right, of the waves and the winds?

And I wanted -- I wanted a selection of people that could -- that could -- that were made, leaders that were made, not born. Each of these people was made, Rachel Carson, the environmentalist, Frederick Douglass, and the others, Lincoln, Shackleton, and Bonhoeffer.

And I also wanted -- so, I needed to be able to reconstruct the making. And then, last but not least, each of these people, like the people in all of your books, stumbled into a worthy mission.

Either like -- like Douglass, Frederick Douglass, they found it early on, in slavery, or they bumped into it. And so I wanted to reconstruct, again, to your point where your book, Bob, how -- what is it like to move the boulder of goodness forward on something big and good?

DICKERSON: Let me interrupt you there.


DICKERSON: We're going to take a quick break.

We will have a lot more from our book panel when we come back. Stay with us.


DICKERSON: You can keep up with the news of the week by subscribing to the FACE THE NATION Diary podcast available every Friday



DICKERSON: We will be right back with a lot more FACE THE NATION, more from our authors' panel, plus Walter Isaacson on Leonardo da Vinci.

Stay with us.



We continue our conversation with authors whose new books explore leadership amid crisis. Robert Dallek is the author of "franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life." Ron Chernow is the author of "Grant." Nancy Koehn is the author of "Forged in Crisis." And Mark Updegrove is the author of "The Last Republicans."

Mark, I'll start with you on this question of, what is your -- you call your book "The Last Republicans," not the Bush family or something. Why that title?

MARK UPDEGROVE, "THE LAST REPUBLICANS": Well, because it was clear that the Bush represent -- Bushs, rather, represent a last -- the establishment Republican Party. Right now we see a party at war with itself. You still have establishment members of that party, but there are insurgents who have taken over. And the party really doesn't stand for anything specific. There is no binding platform or principles. It's really what it -- standard bearer, the very capricious and unpredictable Donald Trump decides it wants to be. So in some manner the Bushes, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush represent the end to a type of Republicanism.

DICKERSON: Ron, why Grant and was it the Grant when you went into the book as the same one as when you were finally done?

RON CHERNOW, "GRANT": Well, yes. You know, I have a contrarian streak to my nature. So whenever I feel that the stereotype of a particular historical figure is hardened into a caricature, I'm attacked to it.

You know, so with Grant I was interested really in retiring three chief myths about him, one that he was a crude and brutal butcher as a general. In fact, he was a dazzling strategist.

I wanted to retire the idea that he had somehow stumbled through the entire Civil War in an alcoholic haze. He did have a drinking problem, but he never drank during, much less before a battle.

And I also, most importantly, wanted to change the image of his presidency from one that was completely dominated by corruption and cronyism to one that, in fact, had many elements of courage in terms of his effort to protect the four million former slaves, now full- fledged American citizens. And Grant hires a crusading attorney general named Amos Akerman, uses newly created Justice Department and really crushes the Ku Klux Klan, which had taken over the south.

DICKERSON: Robert, I want to -- as we talk about presidential characteristics, one strikes me about FDR was that sense of guile and his lack of transparency. We talk about must be constantly truthful. He was pretty good at not always being truthful with everybody. Was that a key skill of his?

ROBERT DALLEK, "FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: A POLITICAL LIFE": It was indeed. And, in fact, you know, he would never say in public the kinds of things that he would say in private. For example, after he won 1944, he disliked Tom Dewey, the opponent, and privately called him a son of a bitch, but he would never say that in public because he was someone who was very mindful of -- he would be a half a step ahead of public opinion. And it gave him a sense of the country, a sense of leadership.

And, you know, he was an extraordinary character. After all, he was a man who couldn't walk. He -- and he only made one reference to his disability once in his entire presidency of 12 years. When he came back (INAUDIBLE), he said, I know you will excuse me for sitting down for I carrying ten pounds of steel around each of my lower limbs. It's the only time he ever made reference to the fact that he was -- but, what a story. Here's a man who was immobilized, couldn't walk, and he wrote a letter to another -- to a congressman saying, when you get frustrated, you can get up and walk around. He said, I'm stuck in this chair. And -- but privately he was always, you know, much more candid than he was publicly.

DICKERSON: I'm struck by the picture in your book of the last one of him where he looks like a man who has had to carry around a lot of weight in his entire life.

Mark, let me ask you about the Bush code. We were just talking about a letter that FDR wrote. I was struck by letter that George Herbert Walker bush wrote to his sons during Watergate. Tell us about that letter. And also, the father was always kind of taking whatever moment was happening and using it as a lesson for his sons, it felt like, about this Bush code.

UPDEGROVE: It was a primer of sorts. So George H.W. Bush, while he is the chairman of the Republican Party in the -- at the height of Watergate, two weeks before Richard Nixon resigns, writes a letter to his boys. He calls them his lads, talking about that moment and why it's important, how you stick by a friend in need, you don't -- you don't go with the crowd, you don't join the mob if you don't have to. You stick by your principles and you reserve your judgment.

One of the things he says in that is, understand that power accompanied by arrogance is very dangerous. It is particularly dangerous when men with no experience have it for they can abuse our great institution.

I mean that's amazing because the first part of that is clearly about Richard Nixon. The arrogance and power. The last part of that is a hypothetical.


UPDEGROVE: Somebody with no experience. Nixon clearly had experience. He had been a congressman, he had been a senator, he had been vice president. And so that's a hypothetical. And so it wasn't hard to infer what the Bush family felt about Donald Trump as he emerged as the clear man to beat in 2016.

DICKERSON: Nancy, in your book you talk about something called the gathering, which I want you to explain. But you also have -- when you talk about leadership, people are grabbing it. In other words, they are not -- there's this question always of greatness, is it thrust upon you or do you seize it. What's your take on that and explain what you mean by gathering?

NANCY KOEHN, "FORGED IN CRISIS": So I think that the man or the leader makes the moment, as well as the moment making the leader. So Grant is transformed as a general over the course of the Civil War. FDR, right, is changed and developed through the course of his four terms.


KOEHN: I'm sure this is true of both 41 and 43.

So -- so greatness is not thrust upon us in some kind of divine strike of lightning, right? Great is something that I think proceeds very significantly from one person's willingness to say, I want to get better, and to FDR, I'm going to show up in service to my mission with dignity, right, and humanity and compassion and a sense of the larger national interest.

But that -- that development, the ability of FDR to do that, the ability of Grant, right, to do such important things toward ensuring that the transformation of American in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment actually happened, that wasn't something that they downloaded an app for, John, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, but they had it (ph).

KOEHN: They -- they had to -- they had to work at it. They had to -- and they all had -- all these people had mileage with failure, right, which I maintain is an important part of the making of resilient, courageous leaders.

DICKERSON: Well, Ron, tell -- pick up exactly on that feeling with Grant and failure. I mean I can think of so many instances where there was a failure and not only does he say, lickem (ph) again at Shiloh after he loses. I think it's Shiloh. But also if he hadn't had his failure out west, he maybe never would have come back east and been in the position to be a hero.

CHERNOW: Absolutely. And I think that happens, you know, he feels that one business after another, before the Civil War, by the time the Civil War breaks out, he's almost 40. He's been reduced to working as a clerk in his father's leather goods store in Galina (ph), where he's a clerk, junior to his two younger brothers, then the war breaks out. Two months later he's a colonel. Four months later he's a brigadier general. Ten months later he's a major general. And then four years later

, he has a million soldiers under his command.

But I think that that pre-work (ph) experience of failure was extremely important because he learned how to weather adversity. It gave him a kind of toughness and perseverance that would be extremely important in a war that was very long, bloody and protracted. And also gave him an audacity. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain. You see there the trial (ph), again and again, takes colossal risks that no other union general would have dared to take.

DICKERSON: Yes. Robert, we, obviously with FDR, there was the polio. And I was struck the -- when you point out about him becoming an actor as a result of that. A key skill for a president.

DALLEK: Yes. He said to Orson Welles once, Orson, you and I are the two greatest actors in America. But, you know, he had a kind of self-confidence. And I think it develops --

KOEHN: Absolutely.

DALLEK: As you suggested Nancy, as they go through the presidency and struggle with these crises. But Roosevelt's idea of the presidency was said was FDR in the White House. See, that -- he was the man to do the job. And, plus, he had the example of his distant cousin Theodore.

KOEHN: Absolutely.

DALLEK: Who had been a --

KOEHN: Talk about confidence, right?

DALLEK: That's right. That's right.

KOEHN: And (INAUDIBLE) and public interest.

DALLEK: And he came from a distinguished family. They were partitions (ph) and it served him brilliantly.

UPDEGROVE: But it's just very clear that great leadership grows from deeply held values, right?

DALLEK: Yes. Exactly.

UPDEGROVE: And that's still obvious in the case of both Grant and FDR.

CHERNOW: And also I think one thing important to emphasize at the moment is, you know, honesty. Grant, as president, was such a stickler for honesty that one day a visitor came to his officer. You could just walk into the White House at that point. And Grant, in his office, hears the White House usher telling someone that the president is out of the office.

Well, when the stranger leaves, Grant pops out of the office and says to the usher, he said, you should have said that I was otherwise engaged. He said, I don't lie for myself and I don't like people lying for me.

KOEHN: You know, and Lincoln had the same sense of, you know, this kind of very high bar, right, on this (INAUDIBLE). There's a wonderful line that he says to one of the quarter masters, you can't -- when they're (INAUDIBLE) the White House, providing beef (ph) to the White House. He said, you can't give me and my family the best choice of cuts of meat when my soldiers, right, don't have socks and enough muskets.


KOEHN: So the sense that the leader sets a standard, right, of honesty of comportment, of dignity, and that people -- the understanding on FDR's part, on Grant's part, on both the Bush presidents' part, that people take their cues from leaders, right, not just kids, all kinds of people, look to leaders for examples, for courage under pressure, for a sense of direction.

So I think another element of leading in turbulent times, John, is the element of how leaders show up and in response to what values, Mark.


KOEHN: It's really important.

DALLEK: And expression of that mansity (ph) was in the fact that Franklin Roosevelt never stepped forward to support African-Americans. He never worked to support an anti-lynching law. But the irony is that at the end of his administration, after 12 years, black voters had moved from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party and have remained there ever since.

And Roosevelt, because of the new deal programs, those alphabet agencies, they went down to the lowest levels, so to speak, of the economy and black voters felt that he was on their side. And, you know, that wonderful anecdote about industrial worker who said, Franklin Roosevelt was the only man in the White House would ever would have understood that my boss is a son of a bitch.

DICKERSON: Mark, you mentioned earlier that the Iraq War was the one instance in which the son talked to the father. Incredibly close and yet he didn't turn to him that much. Talk a little bit about that, the tightness of their bond, what that was founded on, but then also the fact that the -- they kind of -- he wasn't calling his father all the time for advice.

UPDEGROVE: Nor was his father imposing his point of view on his son. And that goes back to the inherent humility of George H.W. Bush. He didn't want to be an added burden to his son. He didn't want to say, hey, junior, here's how you can do things.

He would also concede, as would George W. Bush say, that the world had changed since his father was president. I think he harbored some reservations about his son's policy in Iraq, but he didn't want to do anything to jeopardize the presidency.

If I could make one point, though, John, Nancy talked about comportment. You can't under emphasize the importance of civility in times of great division. And one of the things that George W. Bush says in his inaugural address in 2001, when we were very divided after that election of 2000 was contested. He said, civility is not a tactic, it is a determined choice of trust over cynicism, community over chaos. We could live by that adage today.

CHERNOW: You said it.

DICKERSON: Ron, let me ask you about -- these were solitary figures that we're all talking about, but they also had deep connections with other people. In the case of Grant, was it Sherman -- I was basically struck by their relationship, but then he also had -- was it Rollins? Talk about that interplay with other people. They were -- these weren't just totally solitary people.

CHERNOW: There always has to be kind of a fearless truth teller on the staff. And what happens when Grant becomes brigadier general, he invites a young lawyer from Galina (ph) named John Rollins (ph) on to his staff. And Rollins takes his position as agitant (ph), really chief of staff, on one condition, that Grant not touch a drop of liquor for the reset of the war or he, Rollins, would call him on it.

Well, alas, Grant fell off the wagon, you know, many times, and Rollins privately called him on it but not publicly because he really felt that the fate of the union rested on the shoulders of Ulysses S. Grant. So I think we owe a tremendous dealt to John Rollins, who later became secretary of war for always having the courage to tell Grant what he needed to know.

DICKERSON: Robert, of course there's Eleanor Roosevelt.

CHERNOW: That's right.


But he owed a great debt to Eleanor and to Harold Dickey (ph), who was also a voice for the liberal side of his administration.

He was a very careful politician, you know, when it came to the Holocaust, for example. He saw the anti-Semitism in the country, the anti-immigrant sentiments, but Eleanor was so angry when Breckinridge Long, the assistant secretary of state, wouldn't let 80 Jewish refugees from Portugal into the country. And she went to Franklin and she said, this guy is a fascist. And Franklin said, you must not say that, Eleanor. And she said, but, Franklin, it's true. And she was tough. And direct.

DICKERSON: Nancy, finally to you. Rachel Carson is different than all these others.

KOEHN: She sure is.

DICKERSON: And explain why -- she had -- she had to do kind of two jobs.

KOEHN: Right. So Rachel Carson is the only woman in my book, the environmentalists, whose environmental really builder, right, who did more than any one person to found the modern environmental movement by publishing "Silent Spring" in 1962. So the fascinating thing about her story in the context of these other five -- other four very interesting driven men, is that she's -- she's the primary caretaker for her birth family all her life. For her parents, for her sisters and brothers -- her sister and brother, then for her sister's kids, then for her sister's kids' kids. She's doing all that. She has a government job. She's trying to write a book. And in the late 1950s, she's battling breast cancer while she's adopted her grand-nephew at the age of 50. And not sure if she can beat the clock to finish a book that she knows is both dangerous and potentially really will rock the world. And so her story, a particularly female story, is a story of a very, very powerful kind of courage and grace in pursuit of something really important and decent.

DICKERSON: All right. Well, these are all wonderful books. (INAUDIBLE) have to end our conversation there.