With the world in the throes of a devastating pandemic and U.S. President Donald Trump so far refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he is voted out on Nov. 3, observers of the run-up to the coming election can be forgiven for feeling a sense of dread.
But if Doris Kearns Goodwin is worried, she isn’t showing it. The historian and author of Pulitzer Prize-winning books on several presidents, including Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, is viewing the crisis through nearly two centuries of perspective.
She compares the current situation to previous emergencies that were ultimately weathered, which is why – contrary to the wider anxiety – she is optimistic that the United States will pull through and emerge as a stronger nation.
“History will give us some more hope if we look back to how Franklin D. Roosevelt handled the Great Depression and World War II,” she says in the first of three U.S. Election Dialogues webcasts hosted by The Globe and Mail and BMO.
“When he comes in, he changes course and immediately tells the people he has been given the gift of leadership and he’s going to exercise that gift… The headlines then declared, ‘We have a leader, the government lives!’ He conveyed optimism about the future, but he was brutally honest about the present.”
Speaking with the Globe’s international affairs columnist Doug Saunders, Kearns Goodwin acknowledges that the current divisions between Republicans and Democrats – represented by Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden, respectively – are wide. But again, she adds, the United States has been in such a situation before.
Polarization between the north and south was even greater during the Civil War between 1861 and 1865, she says, a fact that was exacerbated by the media of the time. Similar to how social media is worsening divisions today, newspapers at the time were blatantly partisan and furthered the political views of their owners. Like now, simple facts were often in dispute.
Lincoln, whose presidency Kearns Goodwin documents in her Pulitzer-winning book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, managed to pull the country together by bringing three rivals who had run against him – Edward Bates, Salmon Chase and William Seward – into his cabinet.
They fought in meetings, but Lincoln stuck with his strategy. The result is that when he ultimately made his decisions, he was spared serious criticisms by his rivals, who felt like their concerns had been respectfully heard.
“What mattered above all is that Abraham Lincoln had the confidence to know that he could bring in people around him who were more celebrated, more educated, more experienced than he was,” Kearns Goodwin says. “They thought they were smarter than him, but they finally saw he was a unique leader.”
Kearns Goodwin also discusses how even the most obstinate leaders can change dramatically when confronted with a crisis. Lyndon B. Johnson, who she profiled in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, had become considerably conservative by the time he was in his forties. But after suffering a major heart attack and ensuing depression, he changed his political course. He helped pushed the stalled Civil Rights Act through the Senate and then later championed its enshrinement as President.
“It shifted his goal for what he wanted to be remembered for,” she says. “As a southerner, he thought he could do something to heal the south.”
Kearns Goodwin is optimistic that a peaceful transfer of power will occur should Trump lose, despite his signals to the contrary so far. The tradition, which started with George Washington handing control to John Adams in 1797, is fundamental to too many Americans regardless of political stripe to be violated.
“There’ll be a pressure on Donald Trump if he were not to do that,” she says. “I still believe the forces of the country, the belief in our system of government and the fundamental belief in the peaceful transfer of power is so big in our system that I’ve got to believe that it’ll prevail.”
Either way, the country will have to face a reckoning at some point and engage in a process of reconciliation similar to what Lincoln enacted after the Civil War.
Republicans and Democrats are going to have to come together to address the festering needs of the country, from pandemic response and health care to issues such as education and election reform.
“They’re going to have to get the majority of the country to understand why those programs are necessary,” Kearns Goodwin says. “They are not partisan programs. We need it as a nation.”
Interested in watching the full webcast? Visit tgam.ca/dialogues
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