Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Peeking Behind the Curtains of History

Doris Kearns Goodwin traces her start as a historian to when she kept meticulous score of Brooklyn Dodgers games on the radio for her dad to read when he got home from work. Noting every ball and strike turned out to be perfect preparation for a career of writing about dead Presidents.

Doris Kearns GoodwinGoodwin charmed a packed house Monday night at the Newmark Theatre in Portland as part of the Mark O. Hatfield Distinguished Historians Forum.

Much lauded as an author, Goodwin is like a walking, smiling history book. If she taught history, every kid in her school would take her class. Her mastery of the details of history make the past come alive as if she was talking about people you knew personally and played poker with on Saturday nights.

Her main subjects are Presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, William Howard Taft and Lyndon Johnson, men she affectionately calls “my guys.”

Goodwin’s career as a historical storyteller got off to a rocky start, she says. A Harvard student, she was accepted as a White House Fellow during the Johnson presidency. Just before she started, an article Goodwin wrote was published that called for Johnson’s removal from the White House. Instead of dooming her chances with LBJ, the article and its candor appeared to endear her to him. He asked her to assist him in writing his memoir.

Goodwin’s narrative about Lyndon Johnson is perhaps more responsible than anything else for rehabilitating his legacy, scarred badly by his obsessive pursuit of the Vietnam War. His accomplishments that include passage of the Civil Rights Act, waging war against poverty and creating Medicare stand as remarkable reminders that Congress used to pass landmark legislation.

While many historians recount facts and statistics from the past, Goodwin looks deeper to find trends and common traits. Her observations about presidential leadership are insightful and applicable in everyday, contemporary life.

Of Johnson, Goodwin wrote that he honed his ability to lead as a college student in Southwest Texas where he discovered the power of knowing intimate details about people – and being in charge of assigning parking spaces. Johnson knew how to get things done because he knew what made people tick.

At Monday’s talk, Goodwin recalled how Johnson convinced Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois to bring along Republican votes to close debate and pass the Civil Rights Act in 1965. He knew Dirksen wanted to leave a large legacy, which he appealed to when he told Dirksen that his support of the Civil Rights Act would make people mention “Lincoln and Dirksen” in the same breath.

Despite her personal affection for Johnson, Goodwin’s favorite President is Lincoln. Her book Team of Rivals coined a phrase that stands as the antithesis of politics in Washington these days.Goodwin said Lincoln’s showed supreme self-confidence and dedication to purpose by choosing political rivals for his Cabinet. Lincoln said the country faced serious problems and he needed the nation’s best minds at his side.

Lyndon Johnson, Goodwin said, had his own take on embracing rivals. “It is better to have them in the tent and piss out,” LBJ told her, “than to have them outside and piss in.”

daniel-day-lewis-lincoln4Portions of Team of Rivals inspired Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Goodwin said Spielberg pestered her about her Lincoln biography for years and she finally consented to sell him the movie rights before the book was published. Then Spielberg refused to film the movie until Daniel Day-Lewis agreed to play Lincoln.

A method actor, Day-Lewis spent a year – a part of it in Goodwin’s company – researching what it was like to be Lincoln and master his distinctive high-pitched voice. Goodwin said she watched the final cut, along with Spielberg’s wife, at the director’s home in Los Angeles. “It was like watching Lincoln actually moving around on the screen.” Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his portrayal.

True to her historian roots, Goodwin insisted the script for Lincoln include humor, which was Abe’s trademark and the way he maintained contact with average people and perhaps his own sanity in the excruciating crucible of civil war. One of her favorite and most disarming Lincoln quips came when a detractor called him two-faced. “Do you think if I had two faces that I would use this one?”

Teddy Roosevelt could be disarming as well, Goodwin said. He penned a letter to a reporter who had written a scathing article about him, explaining the piece very much pleased his wife and family. During a demonstration railing against him, Roosevelt bolted on to a platform and applauded as people passed by with placards, earning the headline, “He Cheered at Those Who Jeered.” Even critics tipped their hats at his gesture.

This is the kind of human-scale history that holds mass appeal. It is what draws readers to Goodwin’s books and lectures. It is what could help rekindle broader interest in the events and people who made America what it is – and what it isn’t. Reading history like this is more like drinking a smoothie than swallowing Pepto-Bismol.

Churchill-visits-White-House-in-1941Listening to Goodwin talk about history is as close as it gets to living a little slice of history. “I mentioned on a radio show that I would love to see where Winston Churchill stayed at the White House after Pearl Harbor,” Goodwin said. “Then I got a call from Hillary Clinton who happened to be listening to the show and she invited my husband and me to stay over.”

After attending a state dinner, Goodwin and her husband joined the Clintons in retracing who slept where in the Roosevelt White House. In particular, Goodwin wanted to find the spot where FDR rushed into Churchill’s room only to discover the British prime minister fresh from the bath and totally naked. Before FDR could retreat, Churchill deadpanned, “Don’t leave. The British Prime Minister has nothing to hide from the President of the United States.”

Thanks to historians and good writers like Goodwin, we can peek behind the curtains of history, with a healthy dose of humor and humanity.

 

 

 

 

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