Online Conversation | Leadership in Tumultuous Times
On Friday, May 8 we partnered with Pepperdine School of Public Policy and Montgomery Bell Academy to host best-selling author and historian Ron White on the need and nature of wise leadership in tumultuous times. Ron’s decades of deep study of the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and others gives him unique insight about what it takes to lead wisely and well amidst conflicts and chaos. We hope you enjoy this conversation about the joys, challenges, and responsibilities of leadership.
Painting is Aurora Borealis by Frederic Edwin Church, 1865
Intro song is “With Malice Toward None” by John Williams
Transcript of “Leadership in Tumultuous Times”
with Ron White
Cherie Harder: We first started this online conversation series at the onset of our national quarantine in hopes of together making sense of our own tumultuous times. Often our most reliable guides to tumultuous times are those who have navigated and led others through similarly challenging terrain and whose experience can provide insight and guidance. And so it is a great delight to welcome as our guest today a great presidential biographer, historian, and, I am proud to say, Trinity Forum Senior Fellow: Ron White, who has spent much of his life studying those who led our country through her most difficult time. Ron is the New York Times bestselling author of the presidential biographies A. Lincoln and American Ulysses, as well as the author of Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words, and the forthcoming works Lincoln in Private: What His Most Personal Reflections Tell Us About Our Greatest President, and, in 2022, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: A Biography. Ron, it is great to have you here. Welcome.
Ron White: Thank you, Cherie. I’m a fan of you and of the Trinity Forum. I’ve been watching every Friday webinar. Thank you for providing this service to so many of us.
Cherie Harder: Well, it’s really fun to have you join us live on the other side of the camera this time, Ron. Jumping in, I wanted to ask you: you have now written three major works about Abraham Lincoln and have spent much of your life immersed in his. How did Lincoln capture your imagination? And given that you have a fourth book on Lincoln coming out soon, how has your view of him and his leadership changed over time?
Ron White: Thank you for the question. I live in Pasadena, California, and I’m just miles from the Huntington Library in San Marino, which has the third-largest Lincoln collection in the United States. Some years ago, they put on the largest Lincoln exhibition ever. I simply walked in the first day and sat in the back row. Nobody invited me. I had never written anything on Lincoln, but I was teaching history at UCLA and I thought, “Wow, I’ll offer a seminar on Lincoln, and to get students involved I’ll bring them to the exhibit and I’ll have someone give a lecture. It won’t be me.” But we started reading Lincoln together and I was just taken aback by what he said and who he was. And that began the journey. I remember now (we have these things stuck back in our memory) that as a teenager I read Carl Sandburg’s multi-volume biography of Lincoln. But I was a Johnny-come-lately, actually, although now it’s been quite a few years. I was struck by the moral gravitude, the greatness of the man, and I wanted to learn more.
Cherie Harder: You’ve mentioned before the importance of understanding the early life of whatever leader you’re writing a biography of, whether it’s Lincoln or Grant or anyone, to understand the man and the leader they became. I know at one point you even quoted Ulysses S. Grant as saying that he didn’t read any biographies because “they do not tell the story of the boy who became the man.” Why do biographies so often skim over their subjects’ early years? And what is it that you searched for in a leader’s childhood to help you better understand them?
Ron White: It’s a puzzling question to me why they skip over it. I guess perhaps people say, “Well, let’s get to the president. Let’s get to the general. Let’s get to the artist. Let’s get to the inventor.” But I believe that the early years are so important. I realize it in my own life. I began as a youth leader and I watched high school and college students in their formation. When I speak to audiences, I will often say, “Think of your own lives when you were 16, 18, 20, 22, 24. Were these not formative for you?” Oh, sure, you’re a different person at 40 or 60 or 80. But I’m interested in what I would call “formation.” So when I wrote the biography of Grant, for example, I spent one week at West Point trying to understand what it would have meant to be a boy five feet one inch tall, weighing one hundred and fifteen pounds, coming from the West (Ohio is the West). What did he learn at West Point that began to shape and form him to become the great general he did in later years?
Cherie Harder: You made an interesting statement at the National Book Festival a little while ago where you said that when you write a biography, you write from the inside out. What did you mean by that?
Ron White: Thank you for that question. What I mean by that is that I think it’s very important to understand what a person did. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared war on Japan in 1941. Grant was the general who won the Civil War. But I’m more interested in the character of the person and the formation of that character. That takes some digging to tease out who were the mentors in their lives. Certainly it might be parents–but we all know that often, as we become teenagers, it’s not our parents. It might be a teacher. It might be a youth leader. It might be someone else who’s able to help us. So I think people are really interested in learning, how was this individual man or woman formed in their early lives?
Cherie Harder: We read biographies and we look at or evaluate presidents in our own context and cultural climate. How do you, as a historian, think our current climate affects our understanding of past leaders such as Lincoln or Grant? And do you have any concerns about whether our current climate enables us to properly evaluate and size up their leadership?
Ron White: Each generation, each moment, has to ask itself the question: what are the values we treasure today? I’m concerned about the rise of authoritarian leaders across the world. Once upon a time, I led a group of young people to Poland, and I’ve watched Poland and Hungary and others gravitate to these strong men. Part of what I hear their followers saying is that the old values of humility or truthfulness or self-discipline are not so important today–that these values no longer matter. Well, I want to write biographies because I think these values do matter. In a sense, these values are timeless. They may need to be applied in different ways to become timely, but they are timeless values, and biographies help us understand them.
Cherie Harder: That’s a fascinating insight, and we’ll want to get back to that. But before we do, you alluded earlier to Grant’s pint-sized stature when he entered West Point. I think it’s fair to say that neither Lincoln nor Grant would have been considered a born leader. They had talent and intelligence, but not a lot of natural advantages, privilege, early attractiveness, or natural charisma. So how did they develop into leaders?
Ron White: Underneath your question, Cherie, is really the question, are leaders born or can leaders be made? Part of what the Trinity Forum is about, and what Pepperdine is about, is growing, training, cultivating, and equipping leaders. Lincoln started out with only one year of formal education. He was born in Kentucky with his family and moved to southern Indiana. The only education afforded to boys at that time would have been in January and February, when it was too cold to work on the farms with their fathers. So Lincoln had either five or six times where he had two months of education. But somehow, and maybe this is in the middle of him, he had this deep desire to learn. In the 18th and 19th centuries, most people followed the vocation of their parents. Lincoln’s father was a farmer, but Lincoln didn’t want to be a farmer. He wanted to grow and develop. I would argue in a general statement that most of our great leaders are readers. Lincoln was a reader. Grant, on the other hand, was what I would call a late bloomer. You didn’t see his abilities at West Point. He wasn’t a particularly good student. In his remarkable memoirs written at the end of his life he actually apologizes, but he says, “I spent most of my time reading novels.” I wanted to find out, what novels did he read? And what did those novels do to begin to prepare him for leadership? But it was a latent leadership; it only came to fore later in his life.
Cherie Harder: One of the interesting things is that Lincoln somehow recognized this latent leadership in Grant when others did not. Most of us who have found ourselves in leadership positions at some point have had someone speak into our lives and name a quality and urge us to stretch into it. It’s harder to do that if you’ve never had someone do it for yourself. So what was it that enabled Lincoln to recognize and discern Grant’s latent leadership qualities?
Ron White: Well, the first great general that Lincoln appointed was George McClellan, who was 34 years old and very much caught up in himself. They called him the Little Napoleon. Lincoln got turned off by these people who were self-promoters. Grant was not a self-promoter. He was promoted by others who saw his ability. He was a so-called “Western man.” Lincoln liked the fact that Grant didn’t complain. He didn’t toot his own horn. He didn’t ask for anything. For Lincoln, this made Grant a person much like himself that he wanted to get to know and ultimately that he wanted to approve and to appoint.
Cherie Harder: Ron, one of the interesting things about your approach to biography is that more than most biographers, you have a real focus on the faith stories of your subjects. I wanted to ask you about the faith stories of both Lincoln and Grant and how they affected their leadership.
Ron White: Thank you for that question. Yes, that is part of the way I choose to write biographies. I’m concerned that now modern biographies often skip over this. “Oh, well, that’s who people were in the 19th century. Oh, well, they read the Bible like they read Shakespeare”–without recognizing the depth the faith story often has. At the end of Lincoln’s life, in the Second Inaugural Address (41 days before he will be assassinated), in 701 words he mentions God 14 times, quotes the Bible four times, and invokes prayer three times. Where does this come from? I wish to say to people: we’re all on a journey. Like many of us or our children or our grandchildren, Lincoln threw off the faith of his parents. For him it was far too emotional. He became a fatalist, or what we might call a deist. But then when life tumbles in–first the death of one child at age of three and a half, then the death of a second child, then the crucible of the Civil War–Lincoln is forced to look again. He can’t really appropriate the faith of his parents. It remains too emotional. But he finds in Phineas Densmore Gurley, the minister of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, a very thoughtful, rational, Presbyterian version of faith. And this attracts him. He wants something. He needs something. He’s recognizing his own inadequacy. So now he’s open to faith in a way that he wasn’t as a younger man.
Cherie Harder: Both Lincoln and Grant had to lead the country through its most divisive time in its entire history. Thankfully, times are not as divisive now as they are then. But at the same time, we still have a great deal of polarization, tribalism, and fracture. In studying the lives of Lincoln and Grant, do you see lessons for our own ability to navigate and heal some of our divides?
Ron White: I think I do. As Lincoln traveled from Springfield to Washington on a thirteen-day train trip to be inaugurated as the nation’s sixteenth president, he would say to audiences, “I know you’re not cheering for me. You’re cheering for the President of the United States. If Stephen Douglas were here, you’d be cheering for him.” And so he would actually invite fans of the defeated candidates (there were four candidates in 1860) to join him on the railroad trip. He almost never spoke of himself as President. He wanted to look beyond his own person to the office of the presidency. And that, I think, is a terrific lesson. I think we’re losing that, but it’s a lesson that we could learn from Lincoln.
Cherie Harder: One of the interesting things about both Lincoln and Grant is that they led the effort to defeat the South, but then also took real efforts to represent the very people that they had vanquished. How does one do that? How does a leader do that effectively? We’re finding it hard even now to represent people who voted against us.
Ron White: I think this is maybe almost their greatest quality of leadership: what we might call their “magnanimity.” After the Civil War, when Andrew Johnson wanted to prosecute Robert E. Lee for treason, Lincoln said, “You will not. Do you not realize that Robert E. Lee is the spiritual leader of the South? And that the way we treat him will have everything to do with the way the South responds?” The people who came to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address–I’ve read their diaries and letters, and they were filled with anger and bitterness. If you think about it, everybody there must have lost a father, husband, son, brother. And yet Lincoln calls out to them, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” So I think in the most traumatic times, the best leaders step beyond the polarization, the divide, the party, to call people together in healing. I think Lincoln and Grant were healers as leaders.
Cherie Harder: I would like to ask you a little bit about their language and their rhetoric. Both Grant and Lincoln were amazing writers. Grant was perhaps not the best of orators, but they both had a real felicity with language. In our own time, there seems to be an increasing use of fairly overt Nietzscheanism in our political language. We use the language of slavery to describe owning our ideological opponents. Both Lincoln and Grant did exactly the opposite. I would love to hear your thoughts about how they came to develop the rhetorical and literary style that they adopted, as well as how it changed over the course of their presidencies.
Ron White: I believe Lincoln rose precisely because he developed felicity with language and especially an ability at speaking. There were contemporaries of his who were lawyers who had fought in the Black Hawk War, but he rose beyond them by that gift. Grammar was taught quite differently then. In the grammar book that first came to him, one half of it was elocution: the gift of public speaking. Half of the book was Byron’s poetry, the Bible, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. So Lincoln developed his gift as a public speaker. Rhetoric was at the center of every college curriculum in the 19th century. And it wasn’t simply the gift of public speaking. It was the whole understanding of the nature of language. We’ve lost that. It’s really tragic. Grant didn’t seem to think he was such a great speaker. He was not going to write his memoirs until he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. How would he support his wife, Julia? And so under the publishing arm of Mark Twain, who saw Grant as a great writer, he wrote in this very plain language–again, lifting up others, not lifting up himself. So both of them are great writers. I worry that we’re losing this and that–one final comment–there’s really a difference between reading from a teleprompter and giving a public speech. If you give a public speech, you have to be very conscious of the audience. With a teleprompter, you can just read it.
Cherie Harder: Absolutely. One thing I wanted to ask you about, I’m sure many of our viewers are curious: you talked earlier in our conversation and throughout your books about the importance of character. But there seems to be a very rapid erosion of public understanding of the importance of character. Perhaps nowhere has this erosion been more dramatic or more accelerated than among those who call themselves evangelical Christians. In less than 10 years, the number of people who believe that character is vital to successful leadership has fallen from 70 percent to around 30 percent by some estimates. So it’s eroded very quickly. As a historian, why do you think character so important to leadership effectiveness?
Ron White: I did not know that statistic. That’s very worrisome. A few months ago, in one of your daily readings that you give to members of the Trinity Forum Society, a woman had written an article on character. So I downloaded it. She began simply by saying something like, “Character: what an old fashioned word.” She then tried to revive the word. But I think character is at the very heart, because one of the real questions is, how does one act spontaneously? I think of the fire chief who rushed into the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris to rescue all of these elements and how important that was to do. That came spontaneously. That was not programmed. I think character is really at the heart of the kind of leaders that we want in society. In every realm where we have leaders, not simply politics, we want to lift up the value of character and ask, what are its components?
Cherie Harder: And as a historian, how would you answer that?
Ron White: I think character, again, comes from the inside out. I think there’s many components. The ones that are being distanced that I would want to continue to lift up include humility, or what Grant would call self-effacement. I think another is truth or truthfulness. I think another is trust. Over time, no matter what title you have–president, CEO, teacher, business leader, lawyer–people will ultimately discover whether you are trustworthy. Even though Grant had scandals in his second administration (we could talk about how that happened; nobody ever accused him), he left with a tremendous amount of trust. He had accrued this trust. He could have easily won a third term. So trust is extremely important. And then I would say courage: courage to act sometimes when the votes are not there, when even your own advisors are saying “you shouldn’t do this,” but the courage to do what you think is the right thing to do at that moment.
Cherie Harder: In response, I think most people would give assent that humility and trustworthiness and self-effacement and modesty are worthy leadership qualities. But when you look at how people actually behave and actually vote, as you mentioned earlier, there are countries around the world who seem to gravitate towards the authoritarian strongman. And it’s not just in politics across sectors. There was a recent Harvard Business Review article that said it seems to be human nature to find it very difficult to distinguish between confidence, even outsized confidence, and competence. Which raises the question: as a scholar of leadership, what do you think makes us, we the people, gravitate towards self-promoting, narcissistic, grandstanding leaders rather than self-effacing ones? And how do we as citizens develop the discernment to distinguish between confidence and competence? And character?
Ron White: I like your word “discernment.” In October last year, the Library of Congress invited me to speak to a group of members of Congress in Washington. Fourteen members and four spouses accepted the RSVP in a very different, difficult time. I tried to put for them the tension between ambition and humility. Lincoln and Grant were both ambitious people, but they were both humble people. Is it possible in today’s politics? Well, when the whole meeting was over, a woman came forward, a spouse of a congressperson. She told me that her husband had been in Congress for more than 20 years. As she began to speak, I noticed tears began to well up in her eyes. And she asked me this question that I’ve not been able to forget. She said, “Do you think it’s possible that humility can ever return to American politics?” Can humility ever return to American politics? It will return if you and I believe that’s a value that we validate, that we recognize, that we want in our politicians. Do we believe that value is important? Because we can blame the particular politician or leader, but we, after all, are the electorate. We are the people who are voting people into office. Who are we? What are our values?
Cherie Harder: That leads to the follow up question. How do we develop discernment as citizens to value what we should?
Ron White: We need to read history. I read recently a biography on Angela Merkel. I’m impressed again with the way Germany has responded to this crisis. What surprised me and struck me, first of all, were how many German politicians have PhDs, are very, very learned people, and how learned the population in Germany is. They really know their politics and their government. You’re not asking this question, but I’ll jump in any way: I’m worried that because of the money we are now allowing people who were real estate developers, or this or that or the other, who can self-fund their own campaigns, to be elected politicians with absolutely no experience. I don’t want anybody without experience to tell me what to do in this pandemic or to be my lawyer or to be any other expert in a field in which I need their services. But somehow we are electing people today with absolutely no experience in politics. Recently, several universities have elected presidents who had great fundraising ability, who may have been trustees. They’ve been disasters. We need to discern who these leaders are, but we need to allow ourselves to become discerning people. And that means to understand our own history and our own government.
Cherie Harder: One thing I’d love for you to comment on: you’ve probably heard of the well-known leadership consultant Max De Pree. He said the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality, the last is to say thank you, and in between is to be a servant. But we are now at a time when our information streams are increasingly siloed, stratified, even ideologically weaponized–where it’s not merely the interpretation of events that is often called into question, but the facts of the events themselves. How do leaders define reality when reality itself is contested?
Ron White: You began our webinar by suggesting that we do not, at this moment, have quite the same problems as the Civil War. I might almost say we do. And there’s a difference. People always ask me the question, how does this compare to the Civil War? You talk about the silos. In the Civil War there were newspapers in every major city: one Democratic, one Republican. In the city of Chicago, the Tribune was the Republican newspaper, The Times were the Democratic newspaper; but people read both. What impressed me about Abraham Lincoln is that when he came back from his single year in Congress, he said to his law partner William Herndon, “Now I want to order two newspapers: one from Richmond, Virginia, and one from Charleston, South Carolina.” Herdon said, “Why would you read those newspapers? They are pro-secession, pro-slavery newspapers.” He said, “All newspapers need to sit at our table. I need to learn what other people are thinking. I don’t necessarily have to agree with it, but I need to learn and know what other people are thinking.” I am very worried that we do live in our silos today. Even in terms of this pandemic, I think we’re getting different newscasts with very different stories of what’s really happening.
Ron White: I’ll ask one last question before we turn to questions from our viewers. It seems that we are at an inflection point historically. There’s been a huge amount of change in the last few decades. Most of our leaders, at least political ones, are older. At some point soon, a new generation is going to emerge. Around twenty-five years ago, I worked at a think tank and my boss at the time had put together what I thought was really quite intellectually elegant. It was something called the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators. It looked at different measurements of what had happened culturally. Since that time, happily, violent crime has gone way down. There are some ways in which we’ve re-captured cultural ground. Abortion has gone way down. Divorce rates have leveled off. But there’s also a sense in which we are so much more lonely, fractured, tribalized, divided, alienated, depressed, medicated, indebted, and in a sense isolated in a fair amount of misery. As a historian who has seen the challenges that affected our country since its inception and has studied leadership at its most divisive times, what qualities do you think will be most important to leaders in the future?
Ron White: I’m a student of David Brooks, and I very much love his writings where he talks about the hyper-individualism that now characterizes our culture and the irony that the social media, which was trumpeted to bring us together, has in many ways kept us apart. We need to do what we’re doing today, and we’re together, but to be face-to-face. Right now, I so worry about people who are alone and what they are suffering through this terrible pandemic. So we need to discover the place of community alongside our individualism. I think the church and Christian organizations and movements have a role to play here. But the challenge is, we cannot simply start up again as if we’re going to replay the old playbook. I think many organizations need to almost think of themselves as startups. This is a different world in which we live. Then how would a startup function today to reach out to people? Although I wish and hope that young people will vote in this year’s election, I am impressed by young people’s tolerance for diversity. I think of many people of my generation who are frightened by all the rapid changes that are happening in our society. I’m encouraged that young people seem often much more open than older people to the changes, and much more willing to accept people who are different than they are. That, to me, is a positive sign of this generation.
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Ron. We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers, and we have quite a queue of questions all lined up. The first one comes from Janice Freetag, who asked: “Some of the leadership books I’ve read focus on examples of military leaders or CEOs of large companies, roles that I cannot relate to. Where are other examples of leadership, perhaps that are more relatable to women?”
Ron White: Wonderful question. First of all, in this pandemic, Janet, we’ve seen leaders arise who are not even governors. Sometimes they are mayors, the fire chief, or whomever. We have seen women arise. Cynthia (my wife) and I have just returned six weeks ago–I’m glad we could return–from New Zealand, where there’s the remarkable Jacinda Ardern. Thirty-nine years old, this remarkable leader. My wife says all the time, “If we only had more women ruling the world, we’d be in a better place,” and I agree. Women bring the values of nurturing and community, and lack the competitiveness that men often bring to their leadership. So I like your question, and I think we often do focus too much on the person who’s at the top. But the mid-level leaders are often those who are really coming through right now. And we ought to learn from them and celebrate what they’re doing.
Cherie Harder: Our next question is from Amy Uptown, who asked: “Faith formation is a lifetime journey. What were the key faith experiences of Abraham Lincoln?”
Ron White: Oh, what a marvelous comment. Faith formation is a lifetime journey. This is my interest in writing a biography, that Lincoln had many different experiences. One of the experiences was the experience of loss: that life will tumble in for all of us, sooner or later. The loss of one child and then a second child forced him to rethink what he had believed or what he had thrown off of his parents’ belief. And therefore, our faith at 20 will be different than at 30 or 40 or 50. And this is OK. To be able to recognize that faith is a continuing process–that the verities of our faith, who is Jesus Christ?, what is the truth of the Bible?, are the same, but yet we are different people and therefore we will discern different realities in those attributes that can help us grow. For Lincoln, also, I think the crucible of the Civil War forced him to rethink who he was and what he believed. My forthcoming book is called “Lincoln in Private” because I discovered that Lincoln wrote all of these little messages to himself. He never signed them, never dated them, never titled them. One of them, which his secretary later called “Meditation on the Divine Will” after Lincoln’s death, begins, “The will of God prevails. In great crises, each side claims to know the will of God. Both may be, one must be, wrong.” And then Lincoln offers this profound comment: “It may be that God’s purpose is different from the purpose of either party. And yet God uses our own personal actions to effect his purpose.” Lincoln was still growing as President of the United States.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Richard Miles, who asked: “Could Ron comment on the relationships of Lincoln and Grant to their own party? In what ways did they exert leadership among Republicans?”
Ron White: Wonderful question. Thank you very much. Lincoln was the first Republican elected President of the United States. And yet, as we know from the Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals,” he very quickly reached out to those rivals, all of whom thought they were more qualified than he, and made them members of his cabinet. Grant did not think of himself initially as a leader of the Republican Party, but quickly realized that he must be. And as the Republican Party of his day began to step back from its support for the freedom and the reconstruction amendments (13, 14 and 15), Grant stepped forward. So this Republican Party was born out of an anti-slavery impulse, of an impulse to reach out to those who had been left behind. And I think Republicans today need to think clearly about who are the founders of their party and whether their values measure up to those founders today.
Cherie Harder: Caroline Walker asked, “How has studying these great leaders changed you as a person?”
Ron White: Thank you. I hope none of us will be unchanged by studying and reading these leaders and the qualities that they evoke in their own lives and in people around them. Can I become a more magnanimous person? Am I willing to learn from my mistakes? Am I able to be more forgiving of others? These are incredible models. I literally live with these people 24 hours a day. I wake up at three o’clock in the morning. I have a little notepad next to my bedside and I’ll write down an insight–“Oh my goodness!” I didn’t write these biography simply by doing research at various libraries, but trying the best I could to get inside of each of them and ask, what kind of persons were they, and why did their character appeal to such a wide audience in their day? And how can it still speak to us in our day?
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Jeffrey McCausland, who says, “You mentioned the importance of mentors. Who are Lincoln’s or Grant’s? Lincoln did not have a close relationship with his father, so that would seem unlikely. Close attachment to a stepmother, but as I recall, she died an early age. So who helped him develop values?”
Ron White: A wonderful question. Yes, Lincoln’s mother died at an early age, but his stepmother became a very important person in his life. She recognized the qualities in him that his own biological father did not. Lincoln, as he became President, interestingly, reached out to the person who had been his chief rival: William Seward, who would be appointed Secretary of State. The two of them would spend their evenings together in Seward’s home. They could not have been more different. Seward was a heavy drinker. Lincoln was a teetotaler. Seward was filled with profanity. Lincoln almost never used profanity. Seward smoked 20 cigars a day. Lincoln did not smoke. And yet, this may not be getting exactly what you’re calling a mentor, but here was a colleague whom Lincoln came to trust. Early on, Seward was not sure that Lincoln was up to the ability. But six weeks into his presidency, Seward wrote his wife and said simply, “Lincoln is the best of all of us.” Seward, who had been governor of New York, senator from New York. What a remarkable friendship. It’s captured well in the movie Lincoln.
Cherie Harder: Fritz Heinzen asked, “Why did several generations of historians trash Grant, a man of admirable traits, which he used to help them win the Civil War without inflicting retribution and then to bring justice to the South during his presidency? Your book is an excellent corrective to many years of terrible Grant historiography.”
Ron White: Thank you for the question. Swiftly, after the Civil War, what developed was called the “lost cause.” Confederate generals and newspaper editors quickly suggested that the South had lost only because they were overwhelmed by a larger military force and by the industrial might of the north–and by that butcher Grant, who, according to their whims, was willing to throw his men into battle and suffer horrendous casualties compared to their great general, Robert E. Lee. Over 40 years now, scholars have told us that story is not true. Grant’s casualties were not stupendously larger than Lee’s at all. Grant’s star is rising among military historians, and Lee, in many ways, is falling. But Grant is not going to be champion for supporting the freedmen in an era of the lost South cause or in an era of Jim Crow. And so now, only after the civil rights era and, unfortunately, long after the beginning of the 21st century, have we begun to take a fresh look at Grant and see what his accomplishments were, not simply as a general, but also as President of the United States. He’s rising. I participated in 2017 in the C-Span Presidential Historian Survey. In the 21st century, with three surveys, Grant has risen eleven places among American presidents.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. Our next question comes from Chip Wendt, who says, “One could argue that defined character ethics is a lost language. What current tools would you recommend that might help us recover character formation for Gen Z?”
Ron White: My goodness. A lost language. Well, you may be right; I’d like to hear what you have to say. How to speak about this in a way that can capture new generations of Americans? I think faith is one way we do that. This is what the whole Christian faith is about, the development of a language of faith. I worry that we also need to develop this within our political language. What language do we use in talking about politics? Cynthia and I have been watching the old series on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Roosevelts: Theodore, Franklin, and Mrs. Roosevelt. I was struck by his ability to use Fireside Chats to develop within the American people a language by which they were able to respond to that Great Depression and then ultimately to World War II. I think leaders help us develop language. We’ve lost rhetoric. As I’ve said before, speech communications is now an elective. We need to restore the value of language in our colleges and high schools and in our civic discourse.
Cherie Harder: Our next question, which is an anonymous one, asked: “Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Speech was more like a sermon than a speech. I know you’ve actually written something calling Lincoln’s Second Inaugural his Sermon on the Mount. Has there ever been a case where a U.S. president has sermonized in a similar manner?”
Ron White: Thank you for the question. When I first approached Lincoln, it was to write the book “Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.” I was teaching at UCLA and I thought, as I read about the Second Inaugural, “We should study this. I’ll find a book.” There wasn’t a book, so I thought I’d better write one. But I was surprised to find that in the previous 18 inaugural addresses, the Bible had only been quoted one time (John Quincy Adams: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain,” from the Psalms). Because the scholars have told us, “Lincoln’s religious language is not dissimilar from previous addresses,” but it is. We’re used to hearing biblical passages. But as I say, it’s usually in the last paragraph–“And we need God’s help too.” Lincoln really stands alone in using four biblical passages in the center paragraph of his address, not simply as illustrative, but to make the basic points he wants to make about reconciliation, about God’s judgment, and therefore, finally, his ethical imperative: with charity for all, with malice toward none.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Mark Herbert, who asked, “What can be done to help the conversation about leadership to begin much earlier in a person’s life? So much of the foundation for leadership is laid in childhood and adolescence, and yet the leadership conversation often only begins in adulthood. Covid-19 is highlighting the need for nurturing the next generation of quality servant leaders now, so that we have leaders in place mature and actually ready to lead when the next pandemic emerges.”
Ron White: Mark, what an astute comment. What I’m hearing you say is that we should begin teaching leadership in kindergarten or second grade or fourth grade or seventh grade. Already, young children are learning how to socialize with each other, consciously or unconsciously; how to treat each other with respect, how to listen. I think maybe an outcome of this pandemic that you’re suggesting is that as we look at the dearth of leadership and yet the strength of some leaders, we need to begin the process earlier. I quite agree with you. I’m not the one to say what the curriculum should be for second graders or fourth graders. But, yes, I hope people are stepping forward, realizing the need to do that right now.
Cherie Harder: We have an anonymous attendee who asked: “Why do you think reading biographies is so important and how can we convince others of this?”
Ron White: I think biographies are important for two reasons: First, they give us examples of persons of the past and what are the qualities in their lives. Secondly, though, I think biographies are a mirror to the present. Who are we? What are our values? What are the values particularly needed in this pandemic? Well, certainly, it’s someone who has command of the facts, both from health care people and the economic facts. But I think one of the values that’s coming forward, as we look at the governors and mayors to whom people are responding, is the value of empathy. Those who are able to express genuine empathy are gaining a hearing. This is a value that we need right now. And this is the value that, again, FDR evinced in tackling the Great Depression. At his death at Warm Springs, Georgia, as the train was coming back to Washington, a reporter asked a man beside the train tracks who was weeping, “Did you know the president?” He said, “No, but the president knew me.” Wow. What a profound comment. Do our leaders know us? Do we believe that these leaders really empathize with our travail at this moment?
Cherie Harder: That’s great. We have another anonymous question, and they asked: “These two men suffered greatly from external forces, and it seems to have been a big part of their formation, but they seem to have already had innately strong character. Do you have any insight to offer those of us who have caused our own suffering or pain and how we might grow in character like these two giants?”
Ron White: Oh, what a profound question. I would answer in this way: that each of us will and does incur our own suffering. And I would expand that to be our own mistakes. One of things I found impressive in Lincoln and Grant and other great leaders is, first of all, they are willing to own that suffering and to admit their mistakes. Lincoln, you may know, suffered from what in his day was called melancholy. We might diagnose it as depression; it’s hard to diagnose someone from a hundred and fifty years ago. Early on in speaking about Lincoln, I encountered two psychiatrists who helped me understand what Lincoln might have been experiencing. They said to me that people who experience melancholy or suffering or depression often do so because they are very sensitive to the suffering of others, as well as their own suffering. Sometimes suffering can make someone say, “Oh, poor me, poor me”–understandably. But they believed, and I think I agree with them, that Lincoln’s suffering made him very empathetic to the suffering of others. He understood suffering. Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered from infantile paralysis as a fairly young man. Would he have become such a great leader if he had not endured that infantile paralysis? Did that not make him more empathetic to other people? We don’t wish suffering upon ourselves or others, but sometimes it can be a catalyst for our empathetic leadership.
Cherie Harder: We have a question from Norman Jetmansen, who asked: “Lincoln frequently used God in his speeches. He also invoked the Bible, and the cadences and language of the King James Version appears to have influenced his writing and speaking. What was Lincoln’s religious faith really like? What were his core beliefs and how did that inform his actions as president?”
Ron White: We’ll take the next three hours to answer that. This has been one of the most vexing questions about Lincoln. Was he religious? If he was religious, what were his beliefs? He did not join a church. But I learned early on, from the then-state historian of Illinois, that Lincoln was not a joiner. To join a church in the 19th century meant so much more than to join a church today. As I’ve already suggested, Lincoln was on a journey. Part of that journey was with the Bible. He didn’t call it the King James Bible. He called it the Saxon Bible. What he meant by that was, the Saxon Bible was a Bible of the Saxon language: strong one-syllable words. In his Second Inaugural Address, in seven hundred and one words, five hundred and five are one syllable. And Lincoln didn’t just read the Bible as a cultural form. He memorized whole portions of the Bible. So I believe that the Second Inaugural is not simply tipping his hat to the Bible, as sometimes is done in 20th and 21st century inaugural addresses. It’s a profound theological document. Lincoln was a theological thinker, if not a joiner. At the end of his life, I think he had come to move far beyond the fatalism or deism of his youth. He now was very interested in how God was active in the Civil War. Christians believe in Providence, a God with personality who acts in history. This was the God that Lincoln invoked in the Second Inaugural.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. We have another anonymous question, which is, “How do you discern an honest biographer’s work?”
Ron White: Oh, an honest biographer. Well, I think the biographer will tell us, if he or she is honest, that often, even if you had asked the question, why have I approached Lincoln…Arthur Schlesinger wrote seven volumes–wrote on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and then on John F. Kennedy. And he lets us know that he is an admirer of both of these men. But then we are asked to judge the scholarship, the writing of these people. So I don’t think that the biographer or the historian should hide his or her particular point of view. But then we judge if that point of view overwhelms the evidence that is there. Does the point of view really change the story in a way that is not credible?
Cherie Harder: Our witching hour fast approaches, but we’ll take one more question from John Riley, who asked: “I believe Lincoln surpasses even Jefferson as the finest writer to ever live in the White House. How did his writing style impact his leadership?”
Ron White: Thank you. Jefferson was a great writer. I like to say that Lincoln, in one sense, led the nation through the Civil War by his writing and his speeches, even as Winston Churchill led his nation through the World War II by his speeches. There’s a difference between speeches and writing. Interestingly, Lincoln’s two secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, said that Lincoln would not have thought of himself as a great writer, but he thought of himself as a great speaker. We do not do what the 19th century did. They all read out loud. So Lincoln had a sense for the sound of words, even the musical sound of words. I learned after I wrote my first book on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address that Lincoln would usually sound the word out loud before he put pen to paper. So Lincoln was a wonderful writer and his letters are certainly worth reading. But he’s the greatest speaker; his speeches are the greatest in American history.
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Ron. We have covered a lot of ground. I want to ask you to give the last word in just a second, but before we do that, I want to thank all of our viewers for participating and for the gift of your time as we wrap up. Immediately after we conclude, we will be sending you an online feedback form. We’d be grateful for your thoughts about how we can continue to make these conversations even more valuable and encouraging to all of you. As a special incentive for sharing your thoughts with us, we will offer a free Trinity Forum digital reading of your choice. We have 80 different titles to choose from, including “Abraham Lincoln: The Spiritual Growth of a Public Man,” with a foreword written by none other than our guest today, Ron White. I would encourage you to take advantage of that. We will also be sending you a video link tomorrow of today’s online conversation, and would love for you to share it with others and keep the conversation going with your own friends, family, and colleagues. If you missed our past online conversations with Joe Loconte on C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien, Karen Swallow Prior on reading in quarantine, Curt Thompson on redeeming shame, or Dana Gioia on poetry and beauty, you can watch all of those either on our YouTube channel or on our website at www.ttf.org. In addition, we would love for you to get involved with the the Trinity Forum and our membership society, the Trinity Forum Society, which will help make events like this possible. You can join today online at www.ttf.org or by text, simply texting the number 44-321 and then entering the code “ttf.” Next week, we’re delighted to announce that we’ll be hosting Os Guinness and our friend Pete Peterson on the topic of vocation and calling in a post-pandemic world. You can register now on the link provided in the chat function just to your right. The witching hour is now here, but Ron, I would love to give you the final word to sum up, or a final thought on Lincoln and leadership.
Ron White: This terrible pandemic has brought to fore leaders that some of us didn’t really know before. It might be our own governor. It might be our mayor. It might be a local leader. But it’s also asked the question, what kind of leadership are we looking for? Why should we keep reading biographies of Lincoln or Grant? It’s because we encounter them in different ways in different times. I always ask the question, what time is it? We need to encounter them through different generations. In the moment that we’re facing right now, we may see things in them, aspects of their leadership, that may have escaped us in the past, but will be very helpful at this moment; we’ve never faced anything like it. Thank you very much, Cherie, for inviting me to be a part of this.
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Ron. It’s been great to spend the last hour with you. And thank you to all of our viewers for joining us. Have a great weekend.