by Lucas Thayer
Doris Kearns Goodwin made her living looking over the shoulders of presidents.
Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, biographer and presidential historian, came to Spokane at the invitation of President Beck Taylor for Whitworth’s fall Presidential Leadership Forum.
On Oct. 15, she addressed an audience of nearly 900 people at a $40 a plate breakfast at the Spokane Convention Center.
The day before, however, the Brooklyn-raised, Harvard-educated academic came to the Robinson Teaching Theatre for question and answer session lasting just under 50 minutes.
Sitting in a cushy brown chair, which made her look much smaller than she was, Goodwin fluidly answered each question in her native New Yorker accent as a rapt crowd of nearly 100 listened to her stories of presidents she had the privilege of getting to know.
She has written books on the Kennedy family, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson.
But as Taylor said near the outset of the Q&A, Goodwin’s name is inexorably tied to President Lincoln, thanks to the 2012 Stephen Spielberg film, “Lincoln,” based on her book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”
But as much as she loves Lincoln, she gave credit to LBJ for starting her career, Goodwin said. Goodwin worked with LBJ as a White House Fellow, one of the few women selected for the honor, in 1967. That was back when she was still conducting research for her doctorate in government at Harvard University.
Goodwin recalled her time with LBJ with fond admiration, despite his at times crass nature, she said.
“He [LBJ] was a brilliant man. Fantastic, colorful stories,” she said. “Of course, later I learned half of them weren’t true.”
Goodwin worked with LBJ for two years on programs to help the poor. After his presidency, and later visited him on his ranch in Stonewall, Texas while writing his biography.
Of course, LBJ was not the only president known for tall tales. Lincoln was famous in his time for being an avid storyteller, who “came alive” whenever the opportunity arose for a joke.
When Goodwin worked with screenwriter Tony Kushner on the script for “Lincoln,” she was up front and adamant about Lincoln being a storyteller.
“I will never speak to you again if he doesn’t tell a lot of stories in the movie, because that’s the Lincoln I know,” Goodwin said she told Kushner.
Lincoln was of a melancholy temperament, Goodwin said, due to the tragedies he faced in his life from an early age. Lincoln’s mother died when he was just 9 years old, instilling in him a fascination with death’s finality, and an ambition for immortality through greatness, she said. If he could accomplish something great in life, Goodwin said, he believed he would live on in memory. Lincoln was of a melancholic temperament throughout his life, and he nearly took his own life at the age of 30 in the midst of a bout of depression. Lincoln’s sadness came from his tragedy and from his ambition, from the disparity between where he wanted to be in life and where he often found himself, Goodwin said.
And yet, it was as a storyteller that Lincoln often lifted the spirits of his companions during the darkest times of the Civil War, she said.
Some scholars might look back and try to diagnose Lincoln with the medicine of today, but Goodwin said she does not think it is that simple.
“The best thing to do is just tell a story,” Goodwin said.
Lincoln came back from his depression because he had not yet achieved anything on earth that would make any human being remember that he had lived, Goodwin said.
Goodwin’s answers to audience questions alternated between personal experience and historical anecdote. When she spoke of the presidents she studied, it was in the informal nature one might use when talking about old roommates. When Goodwin writes a book about a president, it’s usually a six, seven or 10-year living arrangement, sharing a library with journal entries, letters and other first-hand accounts of the president.
Goodwin can only write a book about someone if she has a basic level of respect for that person, she said.
“I could never write about Hitler or Stalin,” she said. “I could never wake up with them in the morning.”
Goodwin’s next book, “The Bully Pulpit,” focuses on the relationship between Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William H. Taft, and what she calls the “golden age of journalism.” Goodwin said she finds an unhappy similarity between media outlets today and the state of the newspaper industry in the 1850s, a time when newspapers put partisan politics above accuracy.
“They [competing newspapers] couldn’t even agree on the facts,” Goodwin said. “Now, we’ve got these cable networks, all divided by partisan politics, people only listening to the side they want to listen to.”
In decades past, congressmen would form friendships over drinks, cigars and card games, Goodwin said, making it easier to pass legislation. In today’s congress, senators and representatives fly home on the weekends to raise money from constituents just to stay in office, she said.
“It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime,” Goodwin said. “The poison is the money.”
Goodwin said she worries that the best and brightest of our generation are being diverted from the public life, but she holds out hope.
“Things happen, and things get better, but I don’t see an easy out to it right now,” she said, adding that with the public pressure on the House in light of the recent government shutdown may force things to change. Although, she said, if LBJ were president, he would simply lock the leadership of both parties in the White House until the problem was solved.
Contact Lucas Thayer at firstname.lastname@example.org