Presidential historian gives advice to President Donald J. Trump

Presidential historian and Pulitzer-Prize winning author Doris Kearns-Goodwin speaks to BYU students and faculty at the Marriott Center. (Ryan Turner)

Presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns-Goodwin recounted her experiences working with past presidents during a forum given on March 21. She described how people can learn from others by looking back at history.

“History is about telling stories about people who lived before, by studying the lives of others we hope that we live and learn from their struggles and triumphs,” Kearns-Goodwin said.

Kearns-Goodwin’s fascination with the presidency grew when she was a 24-year-old White House Fellow during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. She has worked with presidents for over five decades and has enjoyed every minute of her work.

“At the time I knew (President Lyndon B. Johnson). his glory days were over and I think he opened up to me in ways he never would have if I knew him at the height of his power,
Kearns-Goodwin said. “I’d like to believe that privilege fired within me, the drive to understand the inner person behind the public figure.”

Kearns-Goodwin said she wanted to put some perspective on today’s political dynamic and answer the question many people have today, “Has history ever seen a candidate like President Trump, a true outsider who has never held a political of military office before?”

“The answer is that while Mr. Trump has no historic counterpart, a potent mix of anger, anxiety, fear and desire that fuels Trump’s momentum has clear ethos in the past,” Kearns-Goodwin said.

Kearns-Goodwin said Trump promised not to simply return lost jobs but to restore lost dignity and power.

“Running as an outsider, as a non politician, Mr. Trump promised to make America great again,” Kearns-Goodwin said. “In reality against immigration, free trade, and the establishment, he provided a story, I believe, for those who felt left behind.”

Kearns-Goodwin continued with lessons the current president can learn from past U.S. presidents.

“They all essentially made themselves leaders by enhancing and developing the qualities they were given and by summoning their talents to improve the lives of their fellow man, and most importantly, all three men were united by fierce ambition, a hunger to succeed, which sooner or later revealed itself along the resolution and the resilience to sustain that ambition in the face of frustration,” Kearns-Goodwin said.

Kearns-Goodwin focused on the histories of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidencies and gave nine lessons or tips Trump could learn from them.

Be able to conquer oneself

Kearns-Goodwin said President Trump’s real test will be how he deals with difficult trials and losses.

“Each of these three leaders revealed a temperament able to come through adversity, with resilience they had conquered themselves the first prerequisite for a leader,” Kearns-Goodwin said.

Have the confidence to surround oneself with people who have different perspectives

Kearns-Goodwin said when Lincoln was president, he appointed his three chief rivals to be part of his cabinet because he needed the strongest and able men in the country to be by his side.

Create a culture that motivates and inspires the best performance from their team

Kearns-Goodwin said Lincoln praised colleagues for actions he was responsible for and took responsibility for failure.

“One thing we learned recently from articles about President Trump, he too is an extremely hard worker and that he has a lot of energy and sleeps only 4 hours a night,” Kearns-Goodwin said. “That work ethic, which he claims of course, will be greater than any other president ever before may succeed in inspiring his colleagues in going hard everything they do as well.”

Be self-reflective and keep growing

“They all kept growing, they took time to be self reflective, they learned from their mistakes, allowing them to turn failure into success,” Kearns-Goodwin said.

Be able to control emotions

Kearns-Goodwin described Lincoln’s ritual called the “hot letter.” The former president would write down the letter with all his emotions and would then put the letter aside, hoping the process would cool him down.

Kearns-Goodwin said Trump should create two different Twitter accounts.

“When he’s happy, he can reach out to others and talk to them and the other’s just a fake twitter account to get all his anger out and never goes anywhere.” Kearns-Goodwin said. “He can read it to all his family and friends, but think about how much trouble it would save.”

Stay connected to the people they serve

Kearns-Goodwin said Lincoln would never lose contact with the people and Roosevelt spent more time on the road than any previous president.

“I do hope President Trump will follow Roosevelt’s example and would get out of Washington as often as he can,” Kearns-Goodwin said.

Be able to speak with the language needed to connect with the people

“All three men were able to speak to their countrymen with stories, with everyday metaphors and with a beauty in language when needed, a critical skill in a democracy,” Kearns-Goodwin said.

Kearns-Goodwin said if any of the previous presidents could speak to Trump, they’d tell him to only speak when necessary and not to let spontaneous comments change the debate.

Know how to relax, replenish energy and shake off anxiety

Kearns-Goodwin said Lincoln went to the theater more than a hundred times during the Civil War and for a few precious hours he would forget about the war.

Leave a legacy

Kearns-Goodwin said all three presidents left behind legacies that showed their leadership, programs and legislation that advanced the cause of liberty and justice.

She closed her address by thanking the audience for the chance to tell the stories of these peoples’ lives.

“I shall always be grateful for this curious love of history, allowing me to spend a lifetime looking back into the past, allowing me to believe in private people we have loved and lost in our family, and the public figures respected in history just as Abraham Lincoln wanted to believe, really can live on so long as we pledge to tell and to retell the stories of their lives,” Kearns-Goodwin said. “Thank you for letting me do that.”


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