Doris Kearns Goodwin closes her book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” with a chapter called, “Of Death and Remembrance.” She spends a few pages on each of the presidents featured in her book writing about the circumstances of their leaving the presidency and the impact their term had on the nation. Two of the presidents profiled died while in office while the other two “survived beyond their presidencies to experience the problematic aftermath of leadership.”
Just as each of the four presidents profiled seemed to operate from a different leadership strategy, each one also demonstrated a different aspect of stepping out of power. On the day of his death, Abraham Lincoln was reported to have been in high spirits, more upbeat than perhaps any of day of his presidency. His wife even seemed surprised by his good cheer. Lincoln was pleased with how the war was drawing to a close and the plan he had mapped out both for reuniting the country and dealing with those who had fought against him. A great weight was being lifted from him and the work he had done in building coalitions would surely be the foundation upon with the nation could rebuild. Sadly, an assassin’s bullet robbed the country of what could have been.
Franklin Roosevelt died 82 days into his fourth presidential term. His appearance had definitely revealed signs of physical decline over the last year of his presidency, but FDR’s sunny optimism and resolve to navigate the conclusion of WWII kept him going. FDR had also spent most of his life hiding the secrets of his health, both as a young boy to keep his father from worrying and also as Commander-in-Chief. For all of his accomplishments, FDR demonstrates how even the most resilient leaders have limits and the toll it can take when the commander will not or cannot share the stage.
Theodore Roosevelt left the White House at the ripe old age of 50, but would only live another ten years. Teddy’s life post-presidency was restless and frustrating. He ran for president again in 1912 and was preparing for another run in 1920 before he died. Retirement was not well-suited for a man of action like TR. He longed to be in the mix, even petitioning President Woodrow Wilson to allow him to form a company of soldiers to fight in WWI. The Scriptures say, “without a vision, the people perish.” The Roughrider may have never lost his vision for what was possible and how he could serve, but without a role in the fight, he was lost.
The four years between Lyndon Johnson’s retirement and death were filled with regret. While he spoke proudly and energetically about his efforts toward civil rights, his thoughts never strayed from Viet Nam. He believed that “history’s judgment was already stacked against him.” He put his energy into his Texas cattle ranch, but also tried to stay connected to current events and maintain a voice in the civil rights community. In many respects, LBJ was the epitome of a man with great ability and grand ideals who ultimately had to live with the sorrow of unfulfilled dreams and deep sadness of other roads not taken, especially with regard to decisions on foreign policy. He also seemed to anticipate death was near and had no intention of fighting it.
Eventually, every leader’s turn on the main stage comes to an end. The line from the musical “Hamilton” reminds us that “history has its eyes on you,” but the legacy of a leader is often a complicated, highly subjective compilation of accomplishments, failures, and personality. As much as we might like to control who tells our story, we really cannot. So perhaps as leaders it is best that we learn to live into our authentic selves, prepare for opportunities, press ahead with vision and resolve, and lead with conviction and character. And when it comes to an end, may we hear the voice of the only judge that matters telling us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
 Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018,) 345.
 Ibid, 366.
 Ibid, 358.
 Ibid, 355.
 Proverbs 29:18
 Goodwin, 347.