How will we be remembered?
That question is a central theme that runs through the books of presidential historian and best-selling author Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has studied some of the most prominent leaders in American history, including Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Teddy Roosevelt.
My first introduction to Kearns Goodwin was in high school when I read her book, “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream,” the captivating story of her years as a young aide to LBJ. It piqued my interest in history, the presidency, and certainly the force of nature that was Lyndon Johnson, whom I featured prominently in my book “Poles, Wires, and Wire.”
Kearns Goodwin is a walking encyclopedia of presidential stories. Last month, I was honored to moderate a discussion with her at the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation Summer Summit in Texas.
Like the presidents she has studied, Kearns Goodwin is a person of action. However, her appearance before electric co-ops was her second foray on the road in over a year. It followed a private meeting with President Joe Biden and other preeminent historians, who provided their expertise to help him navigate these turbulent times.
During the CFC meeting, Kearns Goodwin captivated the audience with stories of LBJ lobbying FDR for Rural Electrification Administration funding. She also channeled the presidents she studied “her guys,” she calls them—noting their leadership “fit the historical moment as a key fits a lock.”
She explained that each of them demonstrated incredible resilience through adversity to help those who could not help themselves. They each shared the mindset that they needed to do something great before they died.
Kearns Goodwin noted any cooperative leader can learn from studying how these men performed best when things were at their worst: Lincoln assembling the most unique cabinet in history to help get America through the Civil War—his “Team of Rivals;” Teddy Roosevelt’s tirelessness during the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution; FDR’s ability to restore confidence to the American people during the Great Depression; and LBJ’s unwavering determination in 1964 to pass a Civil Rights bill when others said it was impossible.
But perhaps Kearns Goodwin’s best advice came at the end of our fascinating session when she urged co-op leaders to preserve the stories of people in their own lives so their legacies can live on. Electric cooperatives may have a small space in presidential history, but we perform at a high level each day to help our members. Our legacies may not be enshrined on Mount Rushmore, but they will be told through our children, our families, and our colleagues. That is a monument unto itself.