Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

January 2014

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Living With the Presidents

By Susan Sarfati, CAE

Pulitzer Prize-winning author, presidential historian, biographer, and political commentator Doris Kearns Goodwin has spent her writing career meticulously excavating stories that reveal the talents and foibles of the leaders who helped forge the United States. Once she completes an exhaustive tour promoting her new book about Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, what will be her top priority? Attending conferences.

I caught up with Doris Kearns Goodwin on the phone just six days before the release of her new book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, in early November. She was full of extraordinary energy and anticipation — no surprise, because her mission is to make past presidents come alive for readers as they do for her. Understanding history, Goodwin believes, provides deep insight into the present and future.

 

Her fascination with presidents began when she was a 24-year-old White House intern for Lyndon Johnson. “‘White House intern’ used to be a badge of honor,” she joked, “but it's gotten more complicated.”

Goodwin is the author of several penetrating biographies of U.S. presidents: Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream; The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga; No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1995); Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln; and now The Bully Pulpit.

After earning a Ph.D. in government at Harvard University, she went on to be a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and a White House Fellow. Goodwin taught at Harvard University, including a course on the American presidency. She has appeared as a presidential historian on NBC, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, CNN, “The Charlie Rose Show,” “Meet the Press,” and many other programs. She is married to writer, presidential adviser, speechwriter, and playwright Richard N. Goodwin, who worked in the White House under both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The Goodwins live outside Boston, and have three grown sons.

Doris Goodwin credits her father with instilling in her a love of storytelling — and baseball. From the time she was six years old, he would ask her to listen to the Brooklyn Dodgers games on the radio and recount for him, inning by inning, the game's plays when he got home from work. The first woman journalist to ever enter the Boston Red Sox locker room, Goodwin displayed evident excitement during our interview — which likely had as much to do with the fact that her beloved Red Sox were poised to win the World Series as with the release of her new book.

You have said that if you could have five historical figures over for dinner, you would invite Leo Tolstoy, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Jackie Robinson, and Barbara Tuchman. How did you select them?

Good first question! What I feel about history and leadership is that the best way to reach people who I write about is to be able to tell a story. People remember stories. If you can illustrate a leadership attribute by a story — as history is a series of stories of people who lived before — you can learn from their struggles and triumphs.

Storytelling is at the heart of what I do, how I talk and write. Leo Tolstoy is the greatest fiction storyteller that I ever read. Mostly, I write about groups of people, and Tolstoy does that best. In my new book, I have eight major characters — so watching a master at it is what I like to do.

Teddy Roosevelt is the person I have been living with along with William Howard Taft for the last seven years, and they become real figures in my life. That's how I learn about them. It's how I'm able to ask Roosevelt questions about his life and presidency.

Abe Lincoln is [on the list] because, of all the presidents I've studied, no one matches the ethical qualities that he had — just that inner strength of an extraordinary character. If you could only observe him, you would become a better person. He was such a great storyteller. That was a big part of his way — people used to love to listen to him tell stories. As the president, he told the story of America in the Gettysburg Address.

Jackie Robinson is on the list because of my irrational passion for baseball. As a kid, I cared more about meeting him than anyone — and after many years, I finally did manage to get his autograph, and I was thrilled.

Barbara Tuchman was a woman historian writing about military affairs. She said you have to write without knowing the end of the story, but rather according to what people knew at the time. That was a very important lesson.

To follow up about Abraham Lincoln, many people believe that he was introverted — not a characteristic typically attributed to a president, although today there is a greater appreciation for introverts’ contributions to society.

What you're saying about Lincoln is very interesting. A child psychologist I know says you're either born with an optimistic or a melancholy attitude — like you may say of Lincoln. It's critical that the introverted person is able to get outside of himself. Lincoln said that the reason he told so many stories was to get rid of some of his sadness. Sometimes a shy person may not be able to connect as well to the outer world. Lincoln, although introverted, had that capacity, which I think is very special.

You've also said, “I shall always be grateful for this curious love of history, allowing me to spend a lifetime looking back into the past, allowing me to learn from these large figures about the struggle for meaning for life.” Please talk about how knowledge of the past is helpful in our lives today.

I think it's critical that people read about past leaders so we don't start everything all over again. It's important to look at people who have been through similar challenges. Even if the challenges are different, you can learn from their mistakes and triumphs. If we think of some of our best presidents, they read the history of other presidents. You have to hope that any leader in any industry can look at their predecessors to learn where they went wrong and right.

Instead, often we start at the beginning, with no echo behind you, no foundation. Even though we're so fragmented today, reading about others gives you time to relax and contemplate your life and actions.

People today are time-deprived and believe that their lives are so different from the past that there isn't much to learn from history.

It's not so. It's interesting that at the turn of the century, there were so many new inventions — the telephone, the telegraph, so you could talk to people instantly. This is a time where things seem particularly frantic because of technological changes and fragmentation. Keeping up with all the different forms of communication without digging deeply into any one of them is challenging.

When people [used to write] letters, they thought deeply about what they were saying and clarified their own thoughts. Teddy Roosevelt clearly was as busy as president as we are, but read all the time. He said books teach you about human nature, which is the most important thing you need to know as a leader. Books are a constant companion.

The question is how people carve out the time. Being able to connect all the time — even on an airplane, which used to provide a different kind of time [experience] — is a real problem. It's difficult to move away and think about something else entirely. “Because it is so irrelevant, it is exactly what I needed,” Teddy Roosevelt said of a book he was reading on a different subject.

Relaxing and keeping your mental curiosity alive is critical for leadership. That's why conferences matter. Conferences are away— not just because of the camaraderie people develop when they're there — of meeting

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