Lessons in Presidential Leadership
Trump’s fixation with Lincoln may seem ridiculous, but it is not necessarily unique. Every president is curious to measure themselves by history.
When Donald Trump sat down with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last July in Brussels on the margins of the most tempestuous NATO summit ever, he started off the conversation by asserting one point of historical trivia. Among Republicans, Trump bragged, he is a more popular leader than Abraham Lincoln. According to an official who was present, Merkel answered this odd—and dubious—claim with a typically deadpan response, saying she didn’t realize there were public opinion polls in the 1860s.
Trump’s fixation with Lincoln may seem ridiculous, but it is not necessarily unique. Every president is curious to measure themselves by history. But most try to learn from it. They study their White House predecessors for solace from the stresses of the moment, or to seek guidance for what to do. They stay in touch with those that are living, study books about others, and reach out to scholars to hear stories and learn lessons. For nearly a half-century—since she first worked as a White House Fellow for President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ)—Doris Kearns Goodwin has been one of those biographers presidents have sought for quiet counsel from the past. Yet one doubts she will be getting any invites from Trump.