Many guests arrived more than an hour early to the Laurie Auditorium to claim good seats for the free event. By the time the speaker took to the stage, the auditorium was packed.
Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke at Trinity University as part of the Flora Cameron Lecture on Politics and Public Affairs Wednesday night. It was a memorable evening for all who attended, myself included.
Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American biographer, historian, and political commentator – frankly, she’s an amazing storyteller. She loves to make audiences laugh, and they do, often. Her presentation: “Leadership Lessons of History: Doris Kearns Goodwin on American Presidents,” gave the audience a behind-the-scenes look into her research and creative process.
What was most touching about her stories were the real-life sorrows and celebrations, the behind-the-scenes thoughts and conversations she had gathered from countless photos, letters, diaries, and other publications that offered glimpses of (and into) our nation’s leaders, their wives, allies, and supporters.
She has authored six biographies of U.S. presidents, including “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” (which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1995), “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” and –her most recent work – “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.”
Her work has also been the source material for several movies and documentaries. “Team of Rivals,” for instance, was used as the basis for the award winning film “Lincoln” starring Daniel Day Lewis and directed by Steven Spielberg.
She humanizes some of the most powerful humans that we’ll never be able to meet – but for 90 minutes it was as though we sat with some of them in the same room. All of a sudden I wanted to learn more about the funny jokes they told, their ability to rise above tragedy and broken hearts, their friendships, and how they handled being mocked by a cruel public.
President Lincoln had experienced poverty and this allowed him an appreciation for equality, Goodwin said. He also apparently had a keen sense of humor and was a storyteller himself, so he usually livened up board rooms. Goodwin shared a story about Lincoln placing a photo of George Washington in the outhouse where the British might see it when visiting him at the White House.
His response was along the lines of: “I certainly hope the British would shit themselves upon the sight of this war hero!”
Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, William Howard and Nellie Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, and more. Goodwin tells the traditional histories and facts while weaving in relationships and influences.
FDR and Eleanor had an open marriage, but the two stood by each other as a team through the New Deal, the United Nations, and a topic of great interest to Eleanor was the plight of working women. World War II changed the world of working women through the image of Rosie the Riveter and the idea of women supporting the war effort through industry. Eleanor was engaged in this topic before the rest of the nation even thought about the topic, Goodwin said.
Theodore Roosevelt had hand selected Taft to succeed him, mentoring and grooming him. Taft worked well with his spouse as a team but sadly Nellie suffered a stroke shortly after he was elected into office. He also lost a military aide, Archie Butt, who died on the Titanic. Taft did not handle these traumas well, Goodwin said. Taft’s relationship with Theodore disintegrated, only to be resolved six months before Theodore died.
During Goodwin’s lecture, I realized these lofty titles of President and First Lady, our democratic version of King and Queen, are really no different than The Jones and The Smiths down the street. Well, besides the entourage of 20 security guards.
What makes a good President and a true leader? Goodwin said it’s a complicated mixture of strength, empathy, humility, confidence, good humor, and the abilities to admit your mistake and move on, roll with the punches and laugh it off, avoid wearing out your welcome, and to recognize those who support you – be it a wife, husband, cabinet members, military aides or other allies.
It takes great courage to stand up for yourself and what you believe in, especially more so to represent an entire nation, Goodwin said. At one point her voice lowered as she reflected that this modern-day political race machine is almost set up to attract the wrong people to win elections. For the most part, only those who are wealthy or ruthless will survive.
As I reflected on the leaders she had mentioned, I thought it best to close with some of their famous words:
“If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?” — Abraham Lincoln
“Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt
“I have spent many years of my life in opposition, and I rather like the role.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” — Theodore Roosevelt
“After I heard that part of the ship’s company had gone down, I gave up hope for the rescue of Major Butt, unless by accident. I knew that he would certainly remain on the ship’s deck until every duty had been performed and every sacrifice made that properly fell on one charged, as he would feel himself charged, with responsibility for the rescue of others.” — William Howard Taft’s eulogy for Archibald Butt
“A President’s hardest task is not to do what is right, but to know what is right.” — Lyndon B. Johnson
“Lincoln is a strong type of those who make for truth and justice, for brotherhood and freedom. Love is the foundation of his life. That is what makes him immortal and that is the quality of a giant. I hope that his centenary birth day will create an impulse toward righteousness among the nations. Lincoln lived and died a hero, and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives. May his life long bless humanity!” — Leo Tolstoy
*Featured/top image: Doris Kearns Goodwin. Photo by Eric Charbonneau, courtesy of Dreamworks Studios.