Doris Kearns Goodwin, eminent American historian of presidential lore, will speak at Benaroya Hall on Oct. 1, kicking off Seattle Arts and Lectures' literary arts series.
It’s comforting to know that an eminent, American historian of presidential lore such as author Doris Kearns Goodwin is a stickler for precise and abundant detail.
When I ask her where (meaning, what part of the country) she happens to be during a recent phone call, she tells me she’s sitting on her couch in Concord, Massachusetts, “waiting to go to the Red Sox game on Friday.”
Did I mention our conversation was on Wednesday?
Goodwin, best known for writing such illuminating biographies as “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” (based on her years as an LBJ assistant); “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II” (for which she won a Pulitzer Prize); and “Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” (which served as the basis for much of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”), will speak at Benaroya Hall on Oct. 1.
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Presented by Seattle Arts & Lectures, Goodwin will discuss her resonant new work, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times.” An engrossing, comparative analysis of the four presidents Goodwin has written about most often (Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Johnson), the book reveals key parallels between them concerning formative early experiences and development of nascent leadership; followed by further growth through adversity; and how occupying the White House requires one’s leadership to evolve amid an era’s pressing problems.
From the life stories of those four presidents and their capacities to lead during times of rancor, explosive social change or war, Goodwin distills lessons on the value of real political experience. Presidents who pay attention to people in need of justice and dignity, she says, and who understand how fragile democracy can be when under duress, prove the most inspiring.
“I started working on the book five years ago, even before Donald Trump was elected. There was a sense that Washington was broken, with no ability to get bipartisan legislation through. I started thinking about how a lot of people felt something was happening in the country, making them anxious. I’ve always been interested in leadership, and I knew there had been presidents who led during times more turbulent than ours.
“Think about Lincoln coming in when the Civil War was about to start. He said if he’d ever imagined what those first months would be like as president, he couldn’t have done it. Theodore Roosevelt became president when the impact of the Industrial Revolution had shaken up the economy. FDR comes in at the height of the Depression and LBJ is sworn in after the assassination of a president and when the Civil Rights movement is going forward, but is met by violent resistance.”
Goodwin decided to examine the four presidents (she refers to them cheekily as “my guys”), and figure out how they led the country during times harder than our own.
“I think history can give us the imagination to know that if we’ve lived through crises before as a people, we can somehow find our way out of the difficulties we face today.”
Is there some other X-factor in Goodwin’s favorite presidents that gives them a rare confidence they can and must lead?
“Lincoln and Johnson both felt a natural empathy toward others and wanted to somehow ease the lives of people in need. Teddy Roosevelt, as a police commissioner, sees what it’s like in the slums of New York, and develops what he calls ‘fellow feeling.’ FDR developed empathy by being at Warm Springs (a Georgia spa town where he was treated for paralysis). He helped fellow patients have joy again in life. He was able to identify with ordinary people in a way he wouldn’t have before.”
Asked if current concerns that our democracy, in the Trump era, is eroding, are an echo of past distress, Goodwin says “absolutely.”
“We’ve heard those worries before about the collapse of democracy and the American system. But we’ve proved stronger than we seemed. In Lincoln’s time, it looked like America might not cohere. If the south split off from the north, then Lincoln worried someday the west might split off from the east, and the whole idea that ordinary people can govern themselves would no longer exist.”
Goodwin, 75, was born in Brooklyn, New York. A prized student, she became a White House Fellow during the Johnson administration. Johnson wanted her to be his Oval Office assistant, but an article Goodwin wrote for the New Republic denouncing the Vietnam War caused her to be routed to the Department of Labor. Later, Johnson did make her an aide and then asked her to help write his memoirs.
“There was a sadness enveloping him, knowing his legacy had been cut in two by the war in Vietnam. But I also saw glimpses of the LBJ who got Medicaid and Medicare done, and voting rights and civil rights. When he reflected on those things, he came back to life again.”
Goodwin is embarking on a strenuous book tour not long after the May death, from cancer, of her husband of 42 years, Richard Goodwin. A colorful public servant and writer, he served in both the John F. Kennedy and Johnson administrations, met secretly with Che Guevara, and was with Robert Kennedy when the latter was assassinated.
Goodwin says she is holding up through the loss and looking forward to the tour. Throughout our phone call, she breaks away repeatedly to help her young grandchildren with one thing or another.
“It’s great for me to have the energy of little kids around (following her husband’s passing),” she said. “I wouldn’t have done the tour if it meant being away from Dick. But I like doing them and talking to people.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin, 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 1; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle. Tickets are available as part of a subscription; standby tickets will be sold at the door for $40; 206-621-2230, lectures.org.