Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has been making a splash with “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” her best-seller about what presidents can teach us about finding clarity of purpose — even when the going seems tough.
One of her role models is Abraham Lincoln, and a key insight from his presidency is the power of taking some time off the clock. It’s a surprising notion, since Lincoln’s life wasn’t defined by relaxation. He probably had the hardest presidency in history, working long and hard to keep the Union together through a relentless Civil War.
Lincoln prevailed, Goodwin argues, in part because he occasionally allowed himself a respite. He found that refuge at the Soldier’s Home, a military complex three miles from Washington that included a cottage where Lincoln and his family could take a break. Lincoln commuted to the cottage on horseback, the ride itself a nice break from responsibility. That diversion, says Goodwin, allowed Lincoln the perspective he needed to save the nation.
Earlier this winter, Goodwin’s book shared space on my night stand with “Reagan: An American Journey,” a new biography of the 40th president by Bob Spitz. After Bill Clinton was elected president and paid a courtesy call on Ronald Reagan, Spitz tells readers, Reagan gave Clinton three pieces of advice. He suggested extending a presidential commission on government waste, and also urged Clinton to salute the military, a practice Reagan had begun in 1981. But Reagan’s “first piece of advice was that the new president should use Camp David on the weekends,” Spitz writes. “It was essential to get away from the White House — the fishbowl — to get outdoors and rejuvenate the spirit.”
“On Democracy,” a forthcoming collection of E.B. White’s vintage writings on representative government, includes a commentary White wrote about President Dwight Eisenhower’s struggle to find time to fully contemplate his work. “President Eisenhower made it clear recently that he intended to reorganize his life so as to have one hour per day in which to think,” White wrote in 1954. “He said he needed at least half an hour in the morning and half an hour at night to collect his thoughts.”
Since White wrote those words, the same kinds of distractions endured by presidents — the constant flood of messages, the multiplicity of choices, the nagging sense that one is not quite keeping up — have become a more broadly shared predicament of the human condition. Our smartphones and laptops, along with the incessant purr of cable news, make it so.
In this in-between time of year, when the Yuletide holidays are long gone and the promise of summer vacation is far away, the thought of putting things at arm’s length for a spell can seem naggingly out of reach.
But maybe Lincoln, Reagan and Eisenhower were onto something. And if the leaders of the republic could embrace a little down time, then maybe we should, too.