Doris Kearns Goodwin, author and historian, has done some great research on a number of presidents. Her book Team of Rivals about the cabinet Abraham Lincoln drew around him to assist in dealing with the Civil War should be on the book shelf of every American. She draws on that time in Lincoln’s life for her book (2018) Leadership in Turbulent Times. In these pages she includes her research for her books on Franklin D. Roosevelt (No Ordinary Time), Lyndon Baines Johnson (And the American Dream) and Teddy Roosevelt (The Bully Pulpit). For each president she points to a crisis of enormous proportions in their time, a time in which they seemed to be the individual best suited, with the leadership qualities that made the difference for this country.
For Lincoln it was the decision to enact the Emancipation Proclamation; for TR it was the coal strike of 1902 and his battle to break up the big capitalist trusts; FDR’s first 100 days in office were crucial to turning the country from the despair of the Great Depression to a vision of what was possible in a country where everyone mattered; and for LBJ it was to enact the Civil Rights and Voting Acts, Federal Assistance for secondary education, and Medicare.
All were men who had a progressive vision and felt called to serve the people of this country. In fighting the wealthy, the well-born and powerful, they were answering to the needs of the people. Lincoln believed the executive was the “steward of the people” and after reading his 10 volume biography, Teddy Roosevelt echoed those very words. During TR’s term, he showed caution and patience throughout the strike, but when the situation had reached a state of acute danger to the people he was pledged to protect, when people needed help, TR could not tolerate “any implication that the government of the United States was helpless.” For the people he was willing to break precedents and risk his leadership.
Franklin Roosevelt took much the same direction when he stepped away from laissez-faire philosophy. For FDR it was the people who mattered. To relieve, ease, safeguard, guarantee, ensure — to bring comfort to the suffering he felt his highest and best calling.
Lyndon Johnson, a son of the South, was a defender of the rights of all people. He saw the country through the lens of what actually was and he would not look the other way in the face of white supremacy. In one of his final speeches he said, “The plight of being black in a white society remains the chief unaddressed problem of our nation. Until blacks stand on level and equal ground we cannot rest. Our goal is to assure that all Americans play by the same rules and all Americans play against the same odds.”
As I read about these men, I was reminded that great men and women are still standing tall in our fragmented society. They are unafraid to risk fortune and position to do what is right. We are truly looking for such people in our upcoming elections. These presidents were progressives, meaning they understood the need to reach down and raise up those in need. Many of the issues they faced are still problems which have not been fully met and solved in our own time.
During the time of Teddy Roosevelt there was a progressive movement which swept the country working for labor unions, the rights of workers, breaking up of big businesses and the power of banks and a real commitment to the national parks and environmental resources we all hold dear. Climate change, saving the Arctic, the forests of the West and working toward clean energy are all part of our responsibilities in this time and in this place. Then we turn our eyes to the rest of the world where hunger and disease are the realities for billions of people. All people matter. We must and we will overcome.