What I'm Reading (No. 36): Pulitzer winners galore!
I finished Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman this week, which I quite enjoyed. However, I'm also currently reading a biography of her, so I'll save my thoughts on both of those until next Friday for a Harper Lee edition.
This week, let's take a look at Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book, and Katherine Graham's Pulitzer-winning autobiography from about 20 years ago.
Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Pages: 368 (w/o notes)
Doris Kearns Goodwin has written some of the most acclaimed and recognizable history books of the last 50 years, cranking out award-worthy works about every decade. No Ordinary Time won a 1995 Pulitzer and Team of Rivals is listed by many leaders as one of the greatest history books ever penned (and the basis for Lincoln the movie).
Her new Leadership: In Turbulent Times highlights practical case studies and lessons from four of her subjects over the years: Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and Lyndon Johnson. In many ways it feels like an overview and distillation of her career’s work, while she also conveys some more practical takeaways from each of those four presidents.
Set up as basically 4 parallel biographies, DKG doesn’t go straight through each man’s life in succession. She looks at the early life of each, then a time of adversity for each, then the rise to presidential office, and finally a case study in leading through a specific crisis from their time in office.
Lincoln and FDR's inclusion feels obvious and definitely appropriate — those two are always found in the top 3 in presidential rankings. And Theodore Roosevelt was so full of vim and vigor and a zest for life that anything written about him is eminently readable. While Lyndon Johnson accomplished plenty, and is crazy interesting to read about, he feels just a little out of place to me among these other giants of the office.
Ultimately, this is a marvelous book, especially if you aren’t terribly familiar with these four presidents. It serves as an excellent primer on their lives and accomplishments in a digestible, not overly long way. If, however, you’re quite familiar with these men and have read a great deal about them, it may not provide anything new. (This is especially true if you’ve read DKG’s other books; again, this sort of feels like a recap/overview of her prior work.)
A must-read for fans of history and students of leadership, and a relevant, readable look at those topics for folks who don’t normally read much in those genres. DKG explicitly lays out what we can learn from these guys in our current turbulent times.
Personal History by Katherine Graham
I recently saw The Post, which is a great movie, but of course only portrays one small aspect of Washington Post owner Katharine Graham’s life and work. It also brought renewed attention to her Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography from 1998: Personal History.
It’s a long book — over 600 pages. Too long, in fact. But, her life story is incredibly interesting, and her perspective — particularly about women in business leadership — is remarkably inspiring.
There are actually a lot of similarities in her story to Queen Victoria's (who I wrote about here). Both of them had tremendous intelligence and leadership qualities, but admittedly let themselves be tamped down by their power-hungry husbands. It wasn't until those husbands died that their full potential and leadership capabilities flourished. It's a sad lesson, but one that's necessary to convey, especially to young women: don't let anyone hold you down or hold you back, or make you think you are less than capable of changing the world.
Okay — to the book itself: The first couple hundred pages detail her early life, her family’s attainment of obscene wealth, and her dad’s purchase and slow turnaround of the Washington Post. It was a surprising and name-dropping start.
It’s the next few hundred pages that were by far the most interesting to me. She gets into her husband’s struggle with manic depression, his suicide, her decision to take over and run the Post rather than sell it, the revelation of the Pentagon Papers, and the world-changing Watergate investigation.
Also making fascinating appearances are presidents 35-37: JFK, Lyndon Johnson, and of course, Nixon.
This middle chunk of the book was where it was most hard to put down, and I plowed through in just a couple sittings.
The final hundred-plus pages were rather dull to me, and could have been slimmed down quite a bit. She detailed (in too much detail, in fact) the various labor and union issues the Post faced in the '70s. So it didn't necessarily end on a high note, but I wasn't bothered by it since the first 75% of the book was so good.
It’s easy to see why Katharine won the Pulitzer for biography 20 years ago. The inside story of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate alone make it worth reading. And her evolving philosophy of the press vs. the presidency, and how that relationship should operate, is remarkably relevant to today’s context. This is all wrapped in an overarching and inspiring story of how a woman came to run and grow one of the country's largest newspapers.
What have you all been reading? Any recommendations for me? As always, I deeply appreciate the space in your inbox.