Doris Kearns Goodwin Opens Festival With Optimism, Humor, Insight

Photo credit: Paul E. Richardson

For presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who opened the 13th-annual Festival of the Arts Boca last night at the Mizner Park Amphitheater, her return appearance was “bittersweet.” Her husband, Richard, died last year after a short bout with cancer, but Goodwin’s solo trip to Boca Raton elicited memories from festivals passed.

“It feels indeed like coming home,” she remarked. “I first came to this festival 11 years ago, and fell so in love with Boca and Mizner Park that as soon as I got home, I told my husband, ‘I’ve found the place we should spend out winters.’ So for seven years, Dick and I came here, staying at Mizner Park Apartments, following the same ritual day after day—walking to Starbucks to get our morning papers, writing in the morning, heading to Max’s for lunch every day, returning to work, and then meeting friends at night, either at the movies or one of the many great restaurants in this town. And how we loved to taunt our friends at home in Concord and Boston with pictures of ourselves, in shirtsleeves, having a drink in the middle of the day!”

All photos by Paul E. Richardson

Goodwin would continue to exude warmth and humor over the course of her lecture. After exchanging these pleasantries and reflections, she plunged right into her subject, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” which is also her latest book. Culled from notes and perspectives gleaned from her comprehensive biographies of four presidents—Lincoln, the two Roosevelts and LBJ—Leadership in Turbulent Times humanizes these Great Men of history, whom Goodwin colloquially refers to as “my four guys.” Hopscotching between the presidents while forging insightful connections, she revealed their private humilities, their contradictions and their anxieties, which would help elicit some of the most monumental decisions of the past two centuries, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Dedicated to giving the Festival audience its money’s worth, Goodwin spoke rapidly, prompted by a ream of notes, and juxtaposed comic asides with profound revelations. No sooner had she delivered a potent story that she was already onto the next one, which was undoubtedly just as interesting. If anything, she was overgenerous, bombarding us with so much information that some of it was bound to slip through our cerebral cracks. This is certainly preferable to the alternative, which we’ve all sat through; by the time she finished her presentation, I couldn’t believe an hour had passed.

A packed house listens to Goodwin

Among the most memorable anecdotes: All four of her guys suffered from depressions, and overcoming them made them better leaders. Eleanor Roosevelt should be lauded as a feminist crusader for demanding that only women reporters could cover her press conferences—which required newsrooms around the country to finally hire female journalists. Teddy Roosevelt, championed for his pithy statements—Goodwin suggested he would take easily to Twitter—came up with Maxwell House’s ad slogan, “good to the last drop.” It was Lyndon Johnson, whose many taped conversations in the Oval Office helped bring lucidity to his memoirs, who encouraged Nixon to record everything for posterity, and we know how that decision ended. Lincoln was a voracious lover of the arts, from literature to plays; he visited the theatre 300 times during his presidency—and we know that decision ended.

But perhaps most important, Goodwin left us with a renewed call for “civility, collaboration and compromise” in our body politic. She commented early on that she developed the title Leadership in Turbulent Times five years ago, not knowing just how turbulent our times would become. Indeed, for at least 55 to 60 percent of the American electorate, the past two to three years have felt particularly perilous.

Goodwin set us straight: We’re not dealing with slavery, or 600,000 dead civil warriors, or a Great Depression, or the Vietnam War. Like other politically plugged-in guests at Festivals past—Fareed Zakaria, Richard Haass—Goodwin reminded us to take the long view and the wide view, praising citizen activism, bipartisanship on a local level, and legislation to ban gerrymandering and remove toxic money from politics as solutions to a better path forward. And she gave us her four guys, whose leadership shone through their personal faults like beacons in the night.