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Thirteen American Leaders
on November 20, 2010
Although academic history has become a specialized enterprise, there has been a resurgence of interest in popular histories and biographies as Americans seek to understand their past. This new book of essays edited by Walter Isaacson, "Profiles in Leadership: Historians on the Elusive Quality of Greatness" consists of thirteen essays by as many different historians on the contributions and leadership styles of important Americans, some of whom are less well known than they deserve to be to today's readers. Isaacson is the director of the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C.. He has written biographies of Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Kissinger, among others.
In the book's title and in the good introductory essay, Isaacson notes that the quality of leadership is "elusive" and nonformulaic. He draws a broad distinction between those who become leaders by articulating and staying with a principle and those who are flexible and pragmatic and respond to their perception of immediate need. This distinction is valuable, but it does not capture the many different qualities of leadership illustrated in the book. I have enjoyed reading the short biographies in the American President's series edited by Scheleisinger and Willenz for their insights into the leadership qualities of the presidents. But, intellectuals, ministers, financiers, activists, and baseball managers, as well as politicians, can show leadership. What is leadership and when is it effective?
In preparing this book, Isaacson and an organization called the Society of American Historians asked several leading historians to write about whatever interested them on the subject of leadership. The result is a diverse series of thoughtful essays from a variety of perspectives. Here are the subjects considered in the book.
1. A study of George Washington's military leadership during the Revolution by Thomas Fleming.
Sometimes criticized for his alleged lack of military knowledge, Fleming gives a persuasive account of Washington's strengths as a commander.
2. Charles Finney by Frances Fitzgerald, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for her study of Vietnam.
Finney was an evangelist most active between 1820 -- 1850. Fitzgerald shows how he changed the character of American religion with his passion, personality, egalitarianism, and individualism.
3. The Presidency of Ulysees Grant by Sean Willentz, professor of history at Princeton and author of many studies of the Jacksonian Era.
Many recent historians have revisited Grant's presidency and argued that its low reputation is undeserved. Willentz
focuses on Grant's efforts both to promote equality for the Freedpeople in the South and to end violence against them and to reunite the nation.
4.J.P. Morgan by Jean Strouse, author of biographies of Morgan and of Alice James.
A sympathetic account of this financier and capitalist who intervened on several occasions to rescus the American banking system and mitigate the effect of financial panic.
5. Chief Joseph by Elliott West, Professor at the University of Arkansas and author of many books on the American West.
Highly moving account of this great Nez Perce leader discussing the leadership qualities he displayed in peace and in war and the respect he garnered from a spectrum of Americans.
6. Presidential weaknesses by Robert Dallek, Professor Emeritus, UCLA
Good overview of many presidential shortcomings over the years. Dallek offers a remedy I find questionable in the form of a proposed constitutional amendment.
7.W.E.B. DuBois bu Annette Gordon-Reed, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
Overview of DuBois's many achievements as a scholar, intellectual, and activist.
8.Joseph McGraw by Kevin Baker
A study of the successful, pugnacious, in-your-face leadership style of the manager of the New York Giants.
9. Hoover and Roosevelt by Alan Brinkley, Professor of History at Columbia
One of the better essays in the book. It compares the background and leadership styles of the two presidents of the Great Depression and suggests why Hoover failed and Roosevelt succeeded.
10. Eisenhower as General and President by David Kennedy, Professor Emeritus at Stanford
Another excellent comparative study, this time of one person in two roles. Kennedy finds that Eisenhower was more successful as General than as President and offers reasons about why this was the case.
11. Wendell Willkie by David Levering Lewis, Professor of History at NYU
Wonderful essay, best in the book, reminding me of a person I have long admired. Willkie was a dark-horse candidate who ran against FDR's third term. Willkie showed both principle and pragmatism before, during, and after his presidential run. He supported civil rights and internationalism and made famous the concept of the "loyal opposition". I think his short career was our nation's loss.
12. Pauli Murray by Glenda Gilmore, Yale University
Captures the character and accomplishments of an early, eccentric leader in Civil Rights and women's rights.
13. Robert Kennedy by Evan Thomas, Professor of Journalism at Princeton
This essay seems to me overly sympathetic towards a complex figure, Robert Kennedy, who ran for president in 1968 after LBJ announced his decision not to run, and who was assassinated in a year of great tragedy and trauma.
The book concludes with good brief bibliographies of its subjects for readers who wish to explore further. The essays in this book are varied and thoughtful and will stimulate reflection on America's leaders and on the nature of leadership.