LIFE WOULD BE SO MUCH EASIER, Doris Kearns Goodwin half-jokingly acknowledges, if she could find an obscure person about which to write a simple straightforward biography. But donâ€™t let the Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian fool you. She loves spending years upon years with Americaâ€™s legendary political figures, even if it means weaving several biographies into one voluminous work.
â€œThe great benefit of choosing well-known people and forcing yourself to find a new storyline is that theyâ€™re so interesting to write about,â€ says the one-time assistant to President Lyndon Johnson. â€œWhat a great adventure to have spent 10 years living with Lincoln and the Civil War or six years with Franklin and Eleanor [Roosevelt].â€
The author of such critically acclaimed works as Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (awarded the Pultizer Prize in history in 1995) has made Boca her home away from home. She and husband Richard, a presidential speechwriter and advisor to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, rent an apartment in Mizner Park from January through Marchâ€”a move prompted by Goodwinâ€™s continued involvement with Festival of the Arts Boca, at which she will once again speak (March 12) as part of the literary component.
The resident of Concord, Mass., who couldnâ€™t be more excited about her beloved Boston Red Sox this season, talked to Boca Raton about presidential politicsâ€”present and, of course, past.
In your television work, you always bring perspective to political discussions. Do you ever feel that such perspective gets lost amid todayâ€™s more polarized discourse?
To some extent it does. Fortunately, I donâ€™t have to be part of the polarized debate. They know Iâ€™m not coming on to be a pundit. Iâ€™m so glad to be able to provide, when Iâ€™m asked, some stories of history to bear on whatever the topic is.
But I think youâ€™re right. The way that cable television stations have positioned themselvesâ€”some liberal, some conservativeâ€”itâ€™s becoming more divisive than it was in the older days when the networks were the main sources of the news.
How has that divisiveness altered the electorate and how we view politics?
Itâ€™s much harder now for a president to have a bully pulpit the way he could in the old days. When Franklin Roosevelt had his fireside chats on the radio, he knew that 85 percent of the audience would be listening to himâ€”even larger than for the biggest prizefight or comedy show on radio. Saul Bellow, the novelist, said that you could walk down the streets of Chicago on a hot summer night and every radio would have Roosevelt on. You could keep walking and not miss a word.
After JFK gave his Cuban Missile Crisis speech, the networks cut back to their regular programming. Today, youâ€™d have everyone on the networks and cable shows tearing that speech apartâ€”so what gets covered the next day isnâ€™t just the speech but what everybody said about it. Itâ€™s harder for a unified voice to reach the country compared to how it used to be.
A recent Gallop poll showed that JFK remains the most popular modern president. Why is that?
For people living now, what remains alive are the images of JFK and his inauguration and the young vibrant president. If JFK had not had brothers, perhaps his presidency would have become more of a moment in history. But there was Bobby and Teddy, not to mention Jackie and John Jr. Each time one of these people rose up and, sadly, died, youâ€™d go back through the images of JFKâ€™s presidency all over again.
Plus, there was a sense in the early 1960s of hopefulness, a belief that you could change the world in a positive way.
Following the release of FBI files on Ted Kennedy, you were interviewed about his run for the presidency in 1980â€”and the subject of possible assassination. What do you recall about that conversation?
I remember being in Cape Cod with Teddy right about the time he was deciding to run. He talked about the fact that some of the family worried about the potential of another attack. But he also told us that he couldnâ€™t lead his life looking around corners.
My husband was in South America with Bobby Kennedy, and they were in a motorcade when a firecracker went off. He describes how Bobbyâ€™s whole body just tensed; that must have been a moment where he thought it was happening again.
Imagine being Teddy and going forward with both assassinations having happened.
Do you think President Obama lives with that fear, given the polarized times we live in?
Thatâ€™s a really good question. Somehow, he must not let that in the forefront of his consciousness. Maybe there is such a trust in the Secret Service that you develop a relationship of comfort knowing that theyâ€™re thereâ€”and knowing that, really, there is little you can do about it. As a public figure, you canâ€™t refrain from going out.
Iâ€™m working on a book about Theodore Roosevelt, who became president because of the assassination of William McKinley. The summer after becoming president, he went on a campaign swing and people were panicked about Roosevelt shaking hands with everyoneâ€”because McKinley had been shot while shaking someoneâ€™s hand at a reception. But Roosevelt decided that he couldnâ€™t think about that because it would preclude him from being president.
Then-candidate Obama famously called you to discuss Team of Rivals, your book on Abraham Lincoln. Why do you think Lincoln cuts across political lines and what specific qualities did he have that contemporary leaders find so compelling?
He will always be a leader that people look back to because of what he accomplished. Republicans look to him because he was Republican. Democrats look to him for his social justice. He really has become an iconic figure for everyone.
But the more people read about Lincoln, they recognize the temperamental qualities. His ability to communicate with stories, with metaphors, with beautiful language. His ability to somehow put past hurts behind and not be vindictive about peopleâ€”wouldnâ€™t that be helpful today? His willingness to surround himself with people who could question him and argue with him. There are a series of emotional strengths that are absolutely relevant for business and government leaders. They are classic leadership traits.
Your son Joseph joined the Army on Sept. 12, 2001 and was ultimately awarded the Bronze Star. What do you remember feeling as a mother or discussing with him when he informed you of that decision?
He graduated from Harvard that June with a degree in history and literature. He had not thought about the Army, but once 9/11 happened, he wanted to do something. He went to basic training and officerâ€™s candidate school; his first mission was in Iraq as a combat platoon leader. He was doing check-point duty, weapons searches, night patrols. For that leadership, he was awarded the Bronze Star.
After he completed his duty, he was working for General Electric and eventually ended up at NBC. But then he was called back by the Army from inactive ready reserve, and he had to go to Afghanistan. Heâ€™s now in law school, and he jokes that one reason is, â€œYou should look at the bottom of your contract when you sign up for the Army.â€ It turns out that youâ€™re eligible to be called back up to eight years from the time you sign up.
My husband and I respected what he was doing. Richard had worked in the Kennedy administration, he was with Bobby when he died, and he worked on all of LBJâ€™s great civil rights speeches. History and country were a part of the legacy in our house, including my having studied presidents my whole life. So his decision didnâ€™t seem out of the blue.
The current president faces challenges abroad, economically and from both sides of the aisle. Are there cautionary talesâ€”or inspirational onesâ€”regarding how to navigate such a period?
In some ways, when I look at what Roosevelt did in 1940, it does give me thought about today. In the 1930s, he fought against the business communityâ€”he hated them and they hated him. But with the war on the horizon, he knew he had to end his personal war with business. Without hurting labor, he reached out to the business community and offered them in massive fashion some of what Obama is doing nowâ€”accelerated depreciation and various tax credits.
Roosevelt, remember, had to convert the automobile industry into producing planes, ships, tanks and weapons. Eventually, the incentives were suchâ€”and the shared unity in the country was suchâ€”that they did a spectacular job of productivity.
To a certain extent, itâ€™s not just a question of getting us out of the recession but how America is going to become an economic leader in the world again. There are certain lessons that can be learned from all that Roosevelt was able to do during that extraordinary productive period, perhaps the best business-government-labor relationship in history.
Even though it seems particularly heated today, there is nothing new about a president facing a contentious house or senate.
Thatâ€™s absolutely right. Itâ€™s especially true when you think about the 1850s, when senators were bringing revolvers to the floor of the senate or nearly killing each other. The language today may be vituperativeâ€”probably more vituperative than it was 30 or 40 years agoâ€”but itâ€™s not the same as in 1856 when democratic congressman [Preston Brooks of South Carolina] beat the head of Sen. Charles Sumner with a heavy caneâ€”so violently that Sumner was out of the senate for [three] years.
It would make for great television, though, if we could see senators beating each other with canes.
(Laughs) That would be incredible. High ratings!