In an unprecedented presidential election, she’s been asked to reach back into her Pulitzer-prize winning memory and (please) provide historical precedent for the prevailing madness.
By Debra Goldie Jones
Whether you subscribe to Wikileaks or wacky tweets, everyone agrees this was the weirdest year ever. Or was it? Mudslinging, backbiting and lies that would make Pinocchio blush made the 2016 race impossible to look away from, like a wreck along the road.
At the SMU Tate Lecture Series back in September, a political science professor asked commentators Tom Brokaw, David Gergen and Doris Kearns Goodwin “Are there any precedents in history to explain what we’ve seen in this election?” In unison, the men deferred. “Doris?”
The sold-out crowd watched the familiar Sunday talk show guest grin and grab the microphone. “Around the turn of the 20th century,” she began in her faint but distinct Brooklyn accent, “we had the Industrial Revolution, workers migrating from farm to city and a wave of immigrants coming in. The Gilded Age was a time of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Today we have technology, immigration issues, a vanishing middle class and a country moving too fast. It’s very similar.” Ms. Goodwin has joked it takes so long to write each book, history repeats itself by the time she’s finished.
Doris the Explorer
I’m so humbled to meet the first lady of literature, I almost curtsy. Then I remember she puts her size 6 Brooks Brothers sheath on one arm at a time just like the rest of us. At 73, she’s the grand dame of hugely successful presidential biographies starting with her fortuitous first of LBJ and comprising the Roosevelts, the Kennedys and Abraham Lincoln.
I wanted to know two things: a) how she found her genre and b) if President Obama would be her next subject. “It would be very hard for me to write about any modern day president,” she explains. “The kind of writing I do depends primarily on the sources of journals and letters. That’s what I love. To get to know the feeling of the people writing those intimate letters…to go back to a period and look over their shoulders imagining myself there when they’re writing.“
I mention Ms. Goodwin’s blockbuster Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and ask her to compare the dignified Lincoln-Douglas debates with the Trump-Clinton debacles. Would Mr. Trump have rated Mary Todd a mere 5 or branded the short and portly orator “Little Stevie Douglas? Teddy Roosevelt had journalists on the payroll to help bust up monopolies. Mr. T. calls the media “scum.”
“Truth doesn’t seem to matter. We let it go too long; we can’t hold him accountable now,” she sighs.
So Is the Party of Lincoln dead?
“Whatever happens, the Republican Party has to come back and ask what they’re standing for after this election,” she offers. “In 2012, they knew they needed a broader base that included immigrants, young people and African Americans. That didn’t happen. Those Republican leaders who said they wouldn’t vote for Trump are going to have to come together.”
She remembers other precedents. “The Democratic party got too far left and turned centrist under Bill Clinton. The 2000 Bush election was shaky, but then he was a good president. There’s an anti-political movement. People believe Washington’s failed, it’s broke. That’s why the Whigs became the Republican Party. Hopefully they’ll figure it out so we can have two strong parties.”
I switch the subject. “How can we get young people more interested in history?” (I really want to ask about Daniel Day-Lewis, see below.)
“There’s no reason people shouldn’t love history. But rather than a set of facts you have to memorize, it should be taught as a series of stories that will arrest their attention.” Just listen to her 2013 talk at the LBJ Library to understand what a captivating storyteller she is.
That skill runs in the family: her son created an interdisciplinary program for high school juniors and seniors whereby English, history, science, math and art are taught altogether by five teachers. They study rivers, revolution, earth, fire and take field trips to see where the American Revolution began and where Thoreau and Emerson lived.
Does she think movies are another good way to teach history?
“In the hands of the right person, they can stimulate interest,” she believes. When so many more people see it that hasn’t read the book, she says, they care about the characters and may want to learn more.
Husband Richard Goodwin wrote the story that inspired Quiz Show, the 1994 movie Robert Redford produced. After his Academy award-winning production of Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones, Stephen Spielberg has bought the rights to The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.
A Page From the Writer’s History
I read that as a student Doris Kearns protested the Vietnam War so I ask “what do you say to the protesters of military intervention today?”
“As I look back on the anti-Vietnam War movement, I’m proud to be a part of it. I think the mistake we made then was to confuse the protest against our government with a protest against our military.” While studying at Harvard in 2001, another son responded to 911 by volunteering for the Army. He became a platoon leader in Bagdad then later served in Afghanistan earning a Bronze Star.
Friends asked how she and Richard, himself a Vietnam War protestor, felt about this. “We were proud of him. He wanted to do something for his country. I think it’s fine for people to protest against wars as long as they respect the military who are carrying out the policies of the country.“
Big Papi and Box Seats
Doris’s calendar is like the New York subway—if you see an opening, squeeze in. Between lectures, TV appearances, movie sets, book signings and press conferences (all requiring constant travel), how and when does she relax? “I love going to movies and I used to play tennis a lot,” she admits. But it is her life-long love of baseball, born of her hometown Brooklyn Dodgers and transferred to her husband’s Bean town boys, that keeps this go-getter grounded. She’s so smart about the sport Ken Burns consulted her for his television documentary Baseball.
“You have the chance when you go to a game of just totally thinking about the Boston Red Sox. That’s what relaxation is.” At night, she reads mysteries before falling asleep.”
Perhaps some day a student of Goodwin’s will unravel the mystery of Election 2016.