Campus News

Baseball, LBJ, the Roosevelts, and Lincoln: Doris Kearns Goodwin Speaks at Common Hour

Story posted November 05, 2001

Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin has had a life-long love of history. That love came, she explained to Friday's Common Hour audience, from two special activities with her parents. Her father taught her how to record the "history" of each game of their beloved Brooklyn Dodgers by doing the box scores. Meanwhile, her mother, who suffered from a chronic heart ailment and was housebound, read every book she could get her hands on, often aloud, and entertained her daughter with stories from her childhood. The simple request "tell me a story" led the young Doris Kearns to learn "history is magical."

Goodwin mesmerized Friday's audience with her own stories, her wit, her eloquence, in a speech titled "Shared Memories: Lessons of History." In addition to baseball (one of her passions), she told stories about four great Americans, all of whom have been the subjects of her books (past and future).

Lyndon Baines Johnson, America's 36th president, hand picked Goodwin to assist him with his memoirs. He became the subject of her first book, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. Goodwin recounted what an enormous privilege it had been to know Johnson, one of the greatest storytellers she ever met (though half his stories were untrue, she says with amusement). Goodwin regrets that Johnson's legacy immediately after his presidency appeared to be the devastating loss in Vietnam. Despite his great domestic leadership, he retired to his Texas ranch in 1969 "in exile." Fortunately, says Goodwin, historians today give LBJ very high marks, particularly for his work for Civil Rights. Johnson's "We Shall Overcome" speech for the 1965 Voting Rights Act was one of the greatest speeches in American history, she says.

Goodwin then turned to the Roosevelts--Franklin and Eleanor--the subjects of her Pulitzer Prize winning biography No Ordinary Time. FDR, the president who brought our country through the two worst crises in history, World War II and the depression, and Eleanor, the greatest first lady who ever lived, are two of history's most towering figures. And they formed a great partnership. While FDR ran the country from home, Eleanor became his eyes and ears from coast to coast, going into the mines, visiting the dustbowl, inspecting factories and health facilities.

Goodwin spoke at length about FDR's friendship with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a friendship that began when FDR, against the wishes of all his advisers, agreed to support England at the outbreak of the war. America, insisted FDR, would send arms to help England against the Nazis. And England came through the Blitz, refusing to allow Hitler to break their spirit. In the meantime, Roosevelt set about reinvigorating the American military, which had atrophied in the aftermath of World War I. What had been merely the 16th strongest military force in the world, grew into a powerhouse that helped lead the Allies to victory.

Eleanor, meanwhile, "found herself," and her mission, through her work for her husband and her travels around the country. Among other things, she was the first First Lady to write a daily newspaper column and hold news conferences. In her insistence that only women reporters be allowed to cover her news conferences, explained Goodwin, Eleanor opened the door for thousands of future female journalists. The male dominated newspaper business had to start hiring women in order to cover Eleanor!

Goodwin is currently embroiled in research about Abraham Lincoln. Though the thought of writing yet another Lincoln book "scared" her (more books are written about Lincoln than anyone else besides Jesus and Napoleon), she found a unique angle. She has spent the past five years (longer than the Civil War itself!) mining the letters and diaries of Lincoln, his cabinet members, and their wives. What is emerging is a unique perspective of Lincoln's political leadership during the Civil War. "Thank God for all those letters people wrote," Goodwin says. Letter writing, a lost art, offers a relevant historical picture. "What will future historians do," she wonders, in this age of e-mails and phone calls.

Goodwin turned, in conclusion, back to baseball. Her book Wait Till Next Year recounts her painful love for the Brooklyn Dodgers, her family's desperation for them to win a World Series, and finally, the team's devastating move to Los Angeles. Now a season ticket holder at Fenway Park (trading one agony for another?), she continues to interweave her love of history and baseball. Will the Red Sox ever win a world series? In our lifetime? As Goodwin would say, just wait till next year.

Click here to visit Bowdoin's Common Hour site, and to learn more about Doris Kearns Goodwin.

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