It is a Wild Time to Be a Presidential Historian
As the foremost expert on U.S. presidents and their peccadilloes, Doris Kearns Goodwin thinks we could learn a thing or two from the past.
Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin cozies up to Abraham Lincoln so warmly, you could almost forget that he’s a man 134 years her senior, cast in bronze, and attached to the stairs outside the New York Historical Society. “Isn’t he great?” she purrs, touching his cold, hollow cheek.
If anyone has a sense of humor about her well-documented Lincoln obsession (NBD, Barack Obama apparently has one too), it’s Kearns Goodwin herself. The 16th president has been her most noteworthy relationship next to her marriage to lauded presidential adviser and speechwriter Richard Goodwin, who died last May.
Kearns Goodwin spent 10 years with Abe while writing Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and several more while advising Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis on the 2012 biopic Lincoln. She and Abe were reunited for her latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, which explores the transformational presidencies of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, whom Kearns Goodwin served as a young aide in the 1960s.
Thanks to her new best-selling book, frequent TV interviews, and near-constant public appearances, her profile as a public intellectual has climbed even higher. Not many historians are recognized by strangers on the street — even fewer have cameos on The Simpsons — but Kearns Goodwin, 76, handles the attention with affable ease. “Most of the time,” she says, “I’m meeting with people who have read my books, and you get energy from them.”
She credits her demanding schedule partly to President Donald Trump. “I think that people’s interest in politics is stronger now because of him,” she says. “There is a yearning for people to know that there have been other times in history that have been as troubling as this and that we came out stronger.”
Could that mean a Trump biography is next? Actually, no. “I don’t want to wake up with him in the morning,” she says. “I don’t want to think about him when I go to bed at night — or plenty of other leaders.”
Tell me about a day in your life. I live in Concord, Mass., and I like to wake up early, around 5 or 5:30 a.m. I go downstairs and click on my electric fireplace and work from 5:30 to 8 or so. I don’t look at email or do anything except write. I don’t like coffee — I can only drink it if it’s vanilla with fuzz on top. Then around 8 my husband would come down and read the papers. We had studies on opposite sides of the house and would meet at lunchtime to read each other what we had done. We’d go back to our studies until 5:30 or 6, then we would go to a bar in Concord every single night unless we had a social obligation or a Red Sox game. We have an extended family of people that go out together — we call ourselves “the gang.” There are Trump people there, there are lawyers, a bench-maker, a doctor, a lot of characters. Now my son Michael, who lives in the house with me, comes along too. I go to sleep early unless I have to do TV in the morning — in that case I watch the news.
According to your website, you had 19 appearances in one month, including two in London. How do you do it? Somebody told me the other day that her father had Alzheimer’s and hadn’t spoken for months. She was reading him Wait Till Next Year, the baseball book I wrote, and when he saw the pictures of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, he suddenly pointed out, “That’s Gil Hodges, that’s Jackie Robinson.” Then they called the whole family over — oh my god. So when you hear things like that …
What’s next? My manager, Beth Laski, and I have formed a film and television company called Pastimes Productions. One of our first projects is about Ida Tarbell, a muckraking journalist during Teddy Roosevelt’s time and probably the most well-known historian of her day. She did a whole long series on the corruption of Standard Oil, which brought about the lawsuit in the Supreme Court that broke up the company.
Who is the ultimate badass woman? Eleanor Roosevelt. She spoke up and used her platform to do good, especially for other women. She was unafraid of people criticizing her. She would say, “They’re not really criticizing me; they just don’t like my ideas.” She was a welcome thorn in FDR’s side, always willing to argue with him, always willing to question his assumptions. And she made a rule that only female reporters could come to her press conferences.
That is badass! That’s how a whole generation of female journalists got their start. She used her power for causes she cared about, especially regarding civil rights and women. Once the war started and the factories were finally hiring women, she set up a system of nationwide day-care centers that not only took care of the kids but provided hot meals for the women to take home at the end of the day so they wouldn’t have to shop and cook. So she was just way ahead of her time.
Who was the most badass president? Teddy Roosevelt, for sure. He did what he wanted in his life and loved being president with every fiber of his being. He would be the best challenger to Trump today, if we could bring a guy back. He knew how to fight. His time was similar to ours, as the industrial revolution had shaken up the economy much like the tech revolution and globalization have today. The rural working-class people felt cut off from the cities. Roosevelt said if people in different regions started thinking of other people as the other, the country would fall apart. He was able to channel all that emotion into progressive reform, which was something positive.
What is your takeaway from the surge of women running for office in 2018? Somebody told us last night that the average age of members of Congress is dropping by 10 years with this new class going in and that 40 percent of the Democrats are women. In the battleground states of Texas and Nevada, five times as many millennials voted [in these midterms] as in 2014. That just shows that at times when our moorings seem to be undone, people can still believe in politics. It’s really important in a democracy.
At 29, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just became the youngest person elected to the U.S. Congress. Does leadership demand different things of youth? Young people have to learn in office. In politics or any career, you don’t go in full-blown. You may have some inborn traits that help you, but you’ve got to learn how to develop leadership skills.
Do you have any career advice for young women? When I graduated from college, I’d gotten a full ride to go to France. But I had a boyfriend, and he was transferring back from Berkeley to Harvard to be with me. So I felt too guilty and never took the full ride to Paris. I guess I’d say to my 20-year-old self, “Go to Paris.”
Was your husband ever jealous of Abe? He loved him too. My husband was such a great writer, and when he was working on speeches for Bobby Kennedy and Johnson, Lincoln was a big part of the rhythm and the poetry. If [I] had been [interested in] Millard Fillmore or Franklin Pierce, I don’t think my husband would’ve been as understanding.
Photographer: Katie McCurdy. Sittings editor: Stephanie Perez-Gurri. Hair: Shinya Nakagawa/Artlist. Makeup: Andrew Colvin.
For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Jan. 18.