Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Doris Kearns Goodwin, University of Chicago

Doris Kearns Goodwin
I am reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and have been interested in the ways people can find meaning in their lives.  Frankl posits that there are three main ways to do this; through your work, through your relationships, or by sheer will.  When I saw Doris Kearns Goodwin (DKG) talk this week, it was clear that she is lucky (although that word choice is not meant to diminish how hard she works) to draw meaning from both her relationships and her work.

She started talking about “the men [she] has spent [her] life with”, and it took me a minute to realize she was talking about the historical figures she has written about, and not her father, her husband, or her three sons (because she spoke about those personal relationships in such a kind and significant manner).

At the end of her speech about the book, she spoke for a few brief moments about why she thinks she was drawn to history.  At this point, I put my pencil down and just listened to her, because it was so touching.  When she was six years old, her dad taught her how to keep score of a baseball game, logging every play with a special code (much as I imagine she does when compiling research).  When he would return home from work in the evenings, he would ask her how their team, the Brooklyn Dodgers had done, and she would regale him with a retelling of the match, play by play.  She said she quickly learned the power of the narrative because if she started her story with “The Dodgers won!” he’d have a hard time maintaining interest in the rest of her story.  Her dad passed away when she was in her twenties, before her sons got to meet him.  She said that when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, she had a hard time following baseball for a few years.  But then a boyfriend took her to a Red Sox game and her love was restored.  She and her family have been season ticket holders for thirty years and she said that sometimes when she’s at a game, she can close her eyes, feel the sun on her face, hear the action from the game, and imagine that she’s sitting there with her dad.  Then she opens her eyes and where her dad would be sitting is one of her sons.  See what I mean about finding meaning in her relationships?

One of the questions at the end of her speech was about the three main women in the book: Edith Roosevelt, Helen (“Nellie”) Taft, and Ida Tarbell.  Each of the women were distinctly different; Edith happily played the role of wife and mother taking care of the home.  Nellie, intelligent and ambitious, thought she would never marry, but Taft valued these qualities and she became very active in the public life of her husband’s office.  Ida Tarbell was a muckraking journalist who never married, but was a critical member of the press in the early 1900’s.  The tie between all three women, though, is that each found such significant meaning in some aspect of their life that really propelled them to success both outwardly, and I assume internally as well.  DKG spoke briefly about being a professional woman; when she was a young professor at Harvard, she went to teaching part-time, and shortly thereafter at a cocktail party, overheard someone say “what ever happened to Doris Kearns?”.  She said  “I wanted to hit them over the head with a book!  I had three boys!  That’s what happened!”  In her response, she said that women still have a hard job finding a way to balance their roles.  But what an example to hold up for what can be achieved!  As David Axelrod said later in the night, she’s a “national treasure”. 

Kearns Goodwin has a new book out, The Bully Pulpit, about Teddy Roosevelt (TR), Howard Taft, and the role of journalists during their presidencies.  Her enthusiasm in sharing her work is evident in the girth of her books (this one clocks in at 750 pages with 150 pages of notes and citations), and in the way she gained energy when sharing the stories she uncovered.  This is just the start of her book tour, but I would be surprised if her passion waned at all.  If you get a chance to see her, I am confident that you will see how, in addition to her relationships, she draws meaning from her work.  If you don’t get to see her in person, hopefully the notes can convey this conclusion. 

(photo credit: nndb.com)

1.     Introduction
a.     The epitome of a great historian is one who makes you sit on the edge of your chair. (David Axelrod)
2.     DKG
a.     This is the maiden voyage of her book tour
b.     She has a fear that in the afterlife, all of the presidents she has written about will be on a panel to tell her what she got wrong
                                               i.     And LBJ (who she helped write his memoirs) will say “why is JFK’s book twice as long as mine?!”
                                              ii.     She was a White House Fellow when she was 24-years old.  There was a dance that all of the Fellows attended and she had a chance to dance with the President (there were only 3 women, “so it wasn’t that impressive”, she said).  She was sure that she was going to lose her job because two days after the dance, she had an article published in The New Republic titled, “How To Remove Lyndon Johnson From Power”.  In spite of this, LBJ asked her to work as a special aide to his office.
3.     Teddy Roosevelt and the qualities of leaders
a.     The leadership of the historical figures she has written about interest her the most.  Over the years, she has seen similar characteristics in all of them:
                                               i.     The ability to withstand adversity
1.     TR had asthma as a child and couldn’t enter into any physical activity.  He worked hard not to be an invalid, though, and in his life, became an avid exerciser. 
2.     His father died when he was a sophomore in college.
3.     His first wife and his mother died on the same day in the same house.
4.     As Hemingway said, though, “sometimes people are stronger in broken places.” and Teddy left for the Badlands where he was constantly active. (The activity kept his mind busy and helped him sleep.)  His time in the Badlands would help form his appreciation for nature and would serve as a foundation from which he would eventually designate 5 national parks, 18 national monuments, and 150 national forests.
5.     The early tragedies also helped him develop a healthy perspective. 
                                              ii.     The ability to recognize the challenges and opportunities of your era
                                            iii.     The insistence of and ability to inspire excellence among those around him.
1.     An average man who developed ordinary activities extraordinarily through difficult and hard work.
2.     He was always prepared so that he wouldn’t have to worry (would start writing speeches immediately after they were booked, even if they were a year out).  ]
                                            iv.     Absorption of criticism with grace.
1.     No president had a better relationship with the press than TR.
2.     The press mobilized the country
3.     The two (TR and the press) could criticize each other and maintain a relationship.
4.     One of the big differences between then and now was that everyone paid attention to the same publications (they didn’t have their partisan options to choose from).  Also, magazine articles were long, well researched, and widely read.
                                              v.     They are always learning
1.     TR said, “Books are great companions that once met are never forgotten”
2.     He always carried a book
3.     If he liked a book that he read, he’d invite the writer to the White House.
                                            vi.     They acknowledge errors and learn from mistakes.
                                           vii.     The higher the office, the more time spent out of it.
1.     TR was always traveling around the country, showing extreme delight at each stop along the way.
                                         viii.     They are masters at communication
1.     TR was folksy with farmers, and thought his Harvard friends would hardly recognize him during these exchanges.
2.     TR gave Maxwell House the slogan, “Good to the last drop”. 
3.     He refused to criticize the wealthy unless they had come upon it in illegal ways.
4.     Likewise, he refused to criticize the poor unless they refused to take advantage of opportunities.
                                            ix.     They know how to relax and refresh
1.     He took regular treks through Rock Creek Park and had a rule that you couldn’t go around any obstacle.  If you came to a boulder, you had to go over it.  If you came to a creek, you had to cross it.  He loved physical activity.
2.     TR had a great relationship with Edith Roosevelt.  They came from such different backgrounds (her dad had lost his money and their family went from being rich to being poor.   She was able to provide TR a sanctuary.)
b.     Teddy Roosevelt and the transition to Taft
                                               i.     TR loved being the center of attention and regretted not running for a third term.  He handpicked Taft has his successor.  (Taft had been his right-hand man while TR was President).
                                              ii.     One of Taft’s campaign slogans was “Get on a raft with Taft”.  (TR must not have known about it ahead of time because he never would have let it happen, DKG said.   Taft weighed 340 lbs.!  You wouldn’t want the image of him in a raft.)
                                            iii.     TR was indeed radiant when Taft won
                                            iv.     But Taft was the perfect #2 – and never even wanted to be the #1.  He wanted to be a judge.
c.      William Howard Taft
                                               i.     Married Nellie because he valued her intelligence and ambition. 
1.     She helped him every step of the way.
2.     She said that his inauguration was the happiest day of her life. 
3.     She was very active in public life
4.     In May 1909, she fainted and collapsed.  She had suffered a stroke and was never able to speak in complete sentences again.  (Although she would be able to eventually read, write, and walk again.)
                                              ii.     Taft’s judicial temperament didn’t serve well in the public eye.
d.     TR vs. Taft
                                               i.     The two ran against each other for President in 1913.  Taft would have won because he had the party control, but ultimately they two split the Republican vote and Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, won the Presidency.
                                              ii.     For years, people tried to reunite the two
                                            iii.     One time when Teddy was in the hospital, Taft wrote him a note that TR responded to.  This broke the ice. 
                                            iv.     Then one night they met incidentally at a hotel in Chicago.  They embraced in the dining room to applause from the other patrons.  Eight months later, Taft was an honored guest at TR’s funeral.  He said he was so relieved to have repaired their relationship.
                                              v.     In contrast to Lincoln who wanted to accomplish something to be remembered by, TR wanted a long, honorable, useful life through the memories of his family, friends, and colleagues. 
4.     Questions
a.     What have you learned from each of the Presidents you have studied?
                                               i.     Not sure if it’s conscious or not. 
                                              ii.     She found herself wanting to learn some of the things Lincoln willed himself to do.  Lincoln didn’t act on negative feelings.  It’s not that he didn’t feel those feelings, but he wanted to be able to overcome them.  “Lincoln will be there forever”. 
b.     In 1912, did TR consider becoming a Democrat?
                                               i.     A the time , The Democrats were still stuck on states rights (because of the South) and TR believed the federal government had to take on issues.  Even TR’s belief in government would have probably been a turn off to the Democrats. 
c.      With the digital age, how will historians be able to study communication?
                                               i.     There will be so much more “stuff”.  With Lincoln, we only knew how he walked and talked because of other’s descriptions.  People poured themselves into their letters.  With the telephone era, this is totally lost (except for those who willfully record them! (laughter)).
                                              ii.     Then she told a story about meeting an executive with PepsiCola.  For some reason, this man found himself meeting LBJ when he was working on his memoirs.  He was having a hard time remembering specific details of his presidency, and he said to this PepsiCola executive, “you tell your friend Richard Nixon to record his conversations!”.  DKG isn’t sure if it’s true or not, but loves the story!
d.     Do you see “giant” qualities in leaders today?
                                               i.     Whenever you’re in your own time period, it’s hard to get a good view.
                                              ii.     Barack Obama has the capacity to use the Bully Pulpit, but the role has been diminished.  (See his efforts to legislate gun control.  He tied himself to the cause, but the private interests stepped in, funneled all of this money to the cause, and Obama hasn’t been successful because of it.)
                                            iii.     She’s convinced that money is the poison.
                                            iv.     It’s harder to generate common conversation now because of the partisan media.  It used to be that everyone read the same articles and watch the same news.
                                              v.     This political culture is the worst she has seen in her lifetime.  Politicians don’t spend time together.
                                            vi.     The only solace that history gives us is that we’ve endured tough times before (I LOVED THIS).
e.     Were Nellie Taft and Edith Roosevelt friendly?  Why not?
                                               i.     They had such different attitudes of what role women should have.  Nellie was so political and she saw early on that TR would be an opponent.
f.      Are you working with Dreamworks?
                                               i.     Spielberg has bought the rights to The Bully Pulpit.  He even got to read much of the book before the copy editor. 
                                              ii.     She loved working with him on Lincoln because she liked feeling like part of a team.  (Writing and history are such solitary endeavors). 
g.     David Axelrod: “You’re a national treasure.”  You said the era TR came into was very progressive.  Do you see the emergence now of another progressive era?
                                               i.     There is a similar gap between rich and poor.
                                              ii.     The progressive movement was an answer to the gilded age. 
                                            iii.     The answer has to be that government is the instrument that can keep the private industry in check.
                                            iv.     Reagan convinced people that government was the problem.
                                              v.     In early 2009, government was the answer.
                                            vi.     If we can define government not as Washington, but as the people’s will, then there has to be a time where we can fix it.
                                           vii.     The real worry would be if young people don’t want to go into public life (because of the scrutiny now of your family, your personal life). 
                                         viii.     History is important because we see that we can come through the valleys again.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I especially liked the observation about Lincoln wanting something to be remembered by while TR wanted a long, honorable and useful life through the memories of others. Underscores your point that there are many ways to find meaning in life.
    Also loved the story about baseball and score-keeping and how that made such a great connection with her dad and now her sons. Very sweet.