Think Trump Is Abnormal? A New Book Makes the Case Otherwise

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- How does the occupant of the White House sleep at night?

That was the question at a recent talk among chief executive officers and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Abraham Lincoln, prone to depression, read Shakespeare’s comedies. The ever-anxious Theodore Roosevelt drafted letters to friends telling them not to worry about him if he lost reelection. Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the height of Germany’s occupation of Europe, pictured himself as a child, in Hyde Park, sledding.

Goodwin’s new book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times (Simon & Schuster, $30), is a bit of a head fake: Its title is seemingly tailor-made for 2018, but her subjects are four American presidents of bygone times. The 368-page opus interweaves stories from the lives of Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and Lyndon Johnson. Although Donald Trump is never mentioned, her examples serve as an indirect critique of today’s hysterical political climate.

I like to read before bed. But as the chief Washington correspondent for Bloomberg News, it’s impossible for me to stay up reading a book about former presidents, because the current one is usually tweeting late into the night across town. And yet the value of unplugging comes up often: Lincoln frequented the theater (oof), Teddy Roosevelt exercised for two hours every day, and FDR hosted cocktail parties where guests were told to discuss books, movies, gossip—anything but the war. Johnson reminds me a little of Trump: LBJ was famously plugged in, so much so, he kept telephone switchboards on a float in a swimming pool at his Texas ranch.

Think Trump Is Abnormal? A New Book Makes the Case Otherwise

At her best, Goodwin makes these American ­luminaries accessible and admirable. She zeroes in on one specific crisis each faced: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Teddy’s management of the 1902 Coal Strike, FDR’s first 100 days (at the height of the Great Depression), and Johnson’s Civil Rights Act, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. There are even self-help-style bullet points that detail leadership tips for nonpolitical types.

Throughout the book, she steers firmly clear of today’s politics, which is unfortunate. It’s impossible to read these stories of former presidents without making inferences about our current one. (Goodwin has said that she started the book before Trump won the election.) For example, she spends a lot of time focusing on the ability of each of her subjects to control his temper during a crisis. Lincoln was known to draft “hot letters” when he was angry, then toss the notes in the trash instead of in the mail. FDR would write several iterations of his “Fireside Chats,” until he eventually edited out the criticisms of his political foes. During the Coal Strike, Teddy Roosevelt’s ability to remain calm in tense meetings between coal bosses, miners, and J.P. Morgan was vital to resolving the conflict.

Reading that, I couldn’t help but think of President Trump’s brash negotiating style and his Twitter attacks against CEOs and foreign leaders, which send ripples through the markets and disrupt trade deals. This will surely be the foundation for how Trump’s communicative style is remembered in books like this; a lack of restraint that, depending on your political leanings, is either refreshing or repugnant.

Johnson, likewise, wasn’t afraid to berate staff in front of others. It was effective, Goodwin says, mostly because “he worked harder than anybody else.” This assessment reminds me of conversations I had with some of Trump’s earliest political staffers, including original campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who described him as a relentless boss who worked all the time and demanded the same from his staff. It’s a side of him most Americans don’t see—one that historians will have to work to highlight amid the other noise. And does he have methods of relaxing other than playing golf? We don’t really know.

The subtext that runs through the book is that our current president is abnormal, that his leadership is unlike any other president before. But after reading about the mental health of her subjects—Lincoln was so suicidal at one point in his early 30s that aides removed scissors from his bedroom—the idea that there is one kind of temperament or psychological state that is “presidential” simply isn’t true.

In a weird way, I found it comforting to know that previous occupants of the White House struggled with their own sleep and assorted emotional issues. Whether Trump will use any of the tools in this book to keep himself calm in the face of a real crisis—well, it’s enough to keep a reader up at night.

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