Doris Kearns Goodwin

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
March 9 2001 8:30 PM

Doris Kearns Goodwin

The sunny-side-up historian.

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When we crowded around the television last summer to watch the political conventions, Doris Kearns Goodwin was there, regaling us with tales of Chicago 1968. When we tuned in last fall for the debates, Doris Kearns Goodwin was there again, recounting choice moments from the Ford-Carter matchups of 1976. As we stayed up late on Election Night waiting for a result, Goodwin recalled how reluctantly Richard Nixon had conceded defeat in 1960. As we channel-surfed during the Florida fiasco, Goodwin speculated that no matter who won, he might feel, as Lyndon Johnson did in 1963, like a pretender to the throne. And as we installed George W. Bush as president on Jan. 20, Goodwin laughed about how the unwashed hordes climbed all over the White House furniture at Andrew Jackson's 1829 "People's Inaugural."

Wherever a presidential roundtable needs an anecdote, Doris Kearns Goodwin is at the ready with a tale about Abraham Lincoln's nobility, FDR's ebullience, or John Kennedy's grace. Since 1994, when Goodwin broke into the quote-mistress racket, she's enlivened PBS and NBC news coverage with revealing gems about chief executives past. "There's this wonderful story ... " she often begins. With her easy laugh and eternally sunny disposition, Goodwin, former Harvard professor, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, and ubiquitous "presidential historian," has become our national color commentator.

It's a label Goodwin would probably welcome. She has always approached history as an unabashed fan. In her 1997 memoir Wait Till Next Year, Goodwin recounts how she would listen to each afternoon's Dodger game on the radio and recount it to her father when he came home from work. To keep his attention, she taught herself how to make her inning-by-inning accounts interesting: creating a narrative, fastening on key details, building suspense, withholding the final score until the end—even modulating her voice in imitation of Dodger announcer Red Barber.

Goodwin still values the ability to spin a good yarn. In talking about Lincoln (the subject of her next book), she marveled at his "extraordinary storytelling ability, this amazing sense of humor." In her first book, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, she described LBJ as "perhaps the greatest storyteller of his age," possessed of "gestures, tone and timing" that made him a magnetic presence in informal settings. Even Hillary Clinton earns Goodwin's praise as an off-the-cuff speaker, "because her mind is so quick, and it's intelligent and she's got stories."

A critic might carp that Goodwin's anecdotes are devoid of the hardheaded analysis that separates professional historians from other media purveyors of "fun little stories" (as Katie Couric recently put it while chatting with Goodwin). Yet Goodwin has not only real credentials—a Harvard political science Ph.D. and 10 years as a professor there—but also a real approach to history concealed in her seemingly casual storytelling. The approach is derived from the psychohistory of Erik Erikson, and Goodwin deploys it in a user-friendly fashion to plumb the characters of the people who have shaped American society.

Born in 1943, Doris Kearns earned her B.A. in 1964 from Colby and completed her Harvard doctorate by the time she was 25, simultaneously serving in the Johnson administration as a White House Fellow. An situated her as Johnson's confidante, and when he left Washington, he implored her to join him at his Texas ranch and help write his memoirs. Torn between a tenure-track job in Harvard's government department and direct access to a president, Goodwin chose both: teaching in Cambridge with weekend and summer excursions to Texas.

At Harvard Kearns delved into the newly trendy field of, which uses psychoanalytic methods to understand the motives of actors in history. Studying with Erikson, she imbibed his idea that a healthy psyche depends on a proper balance in one's life of work, play, and family. Meanwhile, her frequent trips to LBJ's ranch provoked scurrilous gossip. But her intimacy with Johnson was of a different kind: Every morning she would wake at 5 a.m. and get dressed; LBJ would enter her room a half-hour later, clamber into her empty bed and pull up the covers, and unburden himself of his anxieties, dreams, and reminiscences. Kearns, playing Freud, nodded and took notes.

Kearns reclaimed much of the unused memoir material for Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, her 1976 best-selling psychoanalytic look at Johnson. The book received respectable academic reviews—no small feat given the deep animosity toward Freud—although some critics fairly faulted her for ignoring unpublished records and relying too much on LBJ's notoriously unreliable tales.

Having recently married former Kennedy and Johnson aide Richard Goodwin, given birth to a child, and proved herself as a bankable author, Goodwin abandoned a to devote herself to writing. Her next book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, was not only another best seller but also a superior piece of scholarship. Goodwin expertly wove connections between the private relationships and public achievements of three generations of Kennedys in a way that seemed neither reductively psychoanalytic (like so much academic fare) nor gratuitously salacious (like so many blockbusters). Eschewing psychoanalytic jargon while still probing the interplay of work, family, and leisure, Goodwin produced a serious group-character study whose psychological insights were tucked inside miniseries pageantry. The psychoformula worked well again in 1994's No Ordinary Time, a behind-the-scenes account of the Roosevelt White House during wartime that illuminated the residential as well as the working quarters. Again, Goodwin neither downplayed nor overplayed the principals' affairs, deceits, and foibles but presented them empathically, as a natural part of the human drama. This time she won the Pulitzer Prize and her place in the commentariat.

Despite Goodwin's televised omnipresence, she's the rare pundit who doesn't irritate. Trained to appreciate the complexity of human motives, she displays no bitterness toward the politicians she discusses. The refusal to play the scold, the absence of cynicism, the capacity for empathy—these qualities seem to grow out of Goodwin's perpetual hopefulness. In her baseball memoir, rooting for the home team served as a metaphor for the dogged cheerfulness that kept her family together after her mother's untimely death. The Dodger fans' slogan, "wait till next year," became a self-fulfilling credo that optimism would be its own reward. The same sunniness informs her punditry. John McCain's candidacy, she noted last year, could "appeal to that latent idealism in people" and might lead to "young people getting involved in politics again." Last summer, it was Al Gore, she said, who might rekindle the spirit of the 1960s, ennoble politics with a sense of purpose, and reach "a whole generation not just of young people but of all people who want us to be prouder. ... I think the readiness is there." Whether sizing up the electorate's capacity for tolerance or its willingness to make sacrifices, she always suggests that people's better angels are poised to prevail.

Occasionally, Goodwin's optimism gets the better of her. During the recent election debacle, she claimed, for example, that the United States should "not be embarrassed at a system that actually produced finality"—in effect minimizing the harm of the election outcome and, worse, obscuring the genuinely malevolent behavior of many participants. And yet Goodwin would not be as welcome a presence in our family rooms without her relentless good cheer. Even when there is cause for gloom, Goodwin refrains from recrimination, reminding us that our politicians are less often evil than flawed human beings, limited by their own fears and insecurities. If democracy is in disrepair, our best hope is to wait till next year. 

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