It was Q & A time. The gentleman from the audience started his question with an exclamation, “Talking to you is like talking with a Beatle!” She laughed and shot both her arms in the air in triumph, genuinely happy to be designated as an icon of pop culture – a Beatle! We all laughed in the audience, knowing what he meant! She is indeed a rock star! For many of us presidential history nerds, we have our favorites: Jon Meacham, Michael Beschloss, Douglas Brinkley – great storytellers all – but this woman is the queen, a standout among historians. Here she is, in a packed house at a local college, sold out, SRO – the person we’d seen on TV, whose books we’d read with delight and learned from. She is Doris Kearns Goodwin.
My husband and I have been following her for about twenty years. When we found that she would be speaking locally, we rushed to get tickets. We initially saw her in San Fransisco years ago, we catch her many interviews on Meet the Press, This Week, and any number of news shows. We want to hear her because she always seems to have something new to say about old topics. And she is almost always the one who is called upon to compare and contrast between the current situation in our country and times we’ve already been through, and the leaders who took us through them.
But she’s not an historian of dates, names and places. She’s an historian with a narrative, with an actual story. She honed her knowledge as a graduate student and later burnished it as a professor of government at Harvard. Her talent was recognized early when she was chosen as a White House Fellow, one of the nation’s most prestigious programs for leadership and public service, and, at the age of 24, she worked with Lyndon Johnson, and later assisted him in the writing of his memoirs, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. She won a Pulitzer Prize for No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, to this day one of my very favorites. It’s a wonderful story of what was going on in this country while our military were fighting the war in far off parts of the world. It talks about the enormous influence of Eleanor Roosevelt on Franklin during those times. It tells of the story of the uncommon friendship of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who spent vast periods of time living in the White House during the war. It tells about the efforts of all Americans to help in the war effort, from Rosie the Riveters to families planting victory gardens, to rationing of foods and other goods. An amazing story, wonderfully told.
How she learned the art of narrative comes from her lifelong love of baseball – first, with her idolized Brooklyn Dodgers and then when she moved to Massachusetts, her beloved Red Sox. She’s had Red Sox season tickets for 40 years! She actually wrote a memoir about growing up in the 1950’s and her love of the Brooklyn Dodgers called “Wait Till Next Year.” She tells the story of her father teaching her at age 6 how to track of the score of the game. She would listen to the game on the radio and when her father returned from work each day, she would run to him and scream, “The Dodgers won!!!” not realizing that her dad already knew who won by listening to his radio. He patiently sat as she described in minute detail each score. She learned early that, in baseball as in history, even when the audience already knows the outcome, it’s the backstories that bring the piece to life.
She delves, she interviews, she researches and brings us a story that entertains as well as teaches. She becomes so familiar with her subjects that she believes she really gets to know them intimately as friends, but none more so than her beloved Abraham Lincoln, the subject of her 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln which was described by the Los Angeles Times as “the most richly detailed account of the Civil War presidency to appear in as many years.” It won numerous awards including the prestigious Lincoln Prize and was the basis for the 2012 movie, Lincoln, nominated for 12 Academy Awards. Throughout her presentation the other night, she referred to Lincoln as “my guy” because of her intense and extensive research into his life, foibles, and character. He’s the president she’s studied most closely. She talked about how Lincoln’s one overriding goal from a very early age was that his life would have purpose and that he would be remembered for something. Dr. Goodwin tells the story of his journey through our country’s gravest moment and how ultimately Lincoln would fulfill his life’s ambition beyond his wildest dreams.
The true basis for her presentation on Thursday was her lastest book, published in 2018, and for which she won another Pulitzer Prize, Leadership in Turbulent Times. In her presentation, she used both Leadership and Team of Rivals to illustrate the traits of great leaders, such as:
- The ability to communicate: Franklin Roosevelt used his fireside chats so that people across the country came to believe that the president was talking directly with them
- Choice of close advisors: In Team of Rivals she shows how Lincoln didn’t pick yes men who would rubber stamp Lincoln’s own beliefs. He chose smart, experienced, knowledgeable men, some of whom were adversaries, but who had a point of view that they would readily express to the president, giving him the food for thought to formulate his own path forward to win the war, to save the Union and to end slavery.
- The ability to legislate: Lyndon Johnson was a masterful legislator. He had the temperament and experience to bring together differing sides of the aisle and demand that they not leave the room until they had achieved a resolution to be brought forth for a vote. By the end of his time in office, he had achieved more for civil rights than any leader since Lincoln, clearly a gutsy move for a longstanding Texas politician.
- Working for the good of the country: Recognizing that a president’s mission is larger than any one person, the office demands work on behalf of the good of the entire country and not to satisfy just the motives and ambitions of one person.
In all she has written seven books, including those already mentioned and The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, The Bully Pulpit about the friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
The thing about Doris Kearns Goodwin is that you don’t need to be an historian or even just a knowledgeable history buff. It’s enough to want to know interesting things about the evolution of our country during challenging times and to learn about the men who got us through them. She writes in a style that is intellectually satisfying to those who have a working knowledge of history but she has kept the common touch for those who want to be enlightened while also being entertained. I would strongly encourage anyone interested to read all of her books and, if you do, I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Until next time…..