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What It Takes - Doris Kearns Goodwin

What It Takes - Doris Kearns Goodwin
What It Takes - Doris Kearns Goodwin
What It Takes: Doris Kearns Goodwin
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00:00:05 ALICE WINKLER: Not too long after Barack Obama became a United States senator — this was in 2005 — he read a new book about one of his heroes. The book was Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Senator Obama was so excited by it that he called the author, Doris Kearns Goodwin, to ask if she’d be willing to meet and talk about Lincoln. They did, and not too long after that, Obama announced he was running, with a heavy nod to the 16th president.

00:00:37 BARACK OBAMA: The life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible!

00:00:47 He tells us that there is power in words. He tells us that there's power in conviction, that beneath all the differences of race and region, faith and station, we are one people. He tells us that there's power in hope.

00:01:02 ALICE WINKLER: President Obama has called on Doris Kearns Goodwin quite a few times, during his years in the White House, to talk about American history and leadership, but the president is just one of her fans. Doris Kearns Goodwin has a lot of them, readers who appreciate the way she’s able to breathe some sort of vital life force into history. She’s written five hugely successful presidential biographies, and she’s won the Pulitzer Prize.

00:01:31 So what started her down this career path? Believe it or not, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

00:01:36 ANNOUNCER: Elston Howard sends a grounder to Pee Wee Reese, and these Dodgers, at last, are world champions, delirious with joy!

00:01:46 ALICE WINKLER: Hang in there. An explanation is forthcoming. This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement. I’m Alice Winkler.

00:02:01 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:02:07 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:02:13 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:02:18 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:02:25 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:02:33 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:02:38 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:02:49 DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I often root my love of history to the days when I was only six years old and my father taught me that mysterious and wondrous art of keeping score so that when he went to work during the day, I could record the history of that day’s Brooklyn Dodgers game, play by play, inning by inning. He would come home at night and sit on the porch and listen for two excruciating hours as I went through everything that had happened that day.

00:03:11 Well, when you’re only six years old and your father thinks you’re doing great as a miniature historian, it’s a great impetus to keep it up later in life. In fact, he made it even more special for me because he never told me in those early days that all of this was actually described in great detail in the sports pages of the newspapers the next day.

00:03:28 So I thought without me he wouldn’t even know what happened to the Brooklyn Dodgers, which meant that history had a magic from that day that it still holds to this.

00:03:36 ALICE WINKLER: Doris Kearns Goodwin is talking here at an Academy of Achievement Summit in 1996, the year after she won the Pulitzer Prize.

00:03:45 DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: My mother was very sick from the time I was born, and died when I was 14, so I think my love of books, in some ways, came from knowing that she was pretty much bound to the home and read all the time as a way of learning about other worlds that she would never be able to experience because she couldn't travel very much because of her heart condition. So books took on a certain kind of magic for me, just as the baseball scores did. So between those two experiences, somehow history and reading became a very important part of my childhood.

00:04:12 ALICE WINKLER: Later, Goodwin says, after she’d been to college and graduate school, she met the person who would have the most influence on her particular approach to writing, Lyndon Johnson, a man she got to know extremely well and the subject of her first book.

00:04:30 DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I knew I was interested in American history and government, so I thought instead of just reading about it, I'd better find out about it in practical terms. So one summer, I worked in the House of Representatives. Another summer, I worked in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; and another summer, I worked in the State Department. And then eventually, I became a White House Fellow and worked for Lyndon Johnson, and that probably was the single most important experience in orienting me to want to do presidential history because I got to know this crazy character when I was only 23 years old.

00:04:57 ALICE WINKLER: There’s a great story I want to interject here that Goodwin told during a commencement speech she delivered in the 1980s at Dartmouth College. After she was chosen as a White House Fellow, but before she’d actually moved to Washington, President Johnson discovered that she’d been an activist in the anti-Vietnam War movement. She’d even written an article called “How to Dump Lyndon Johnson.” Goodwin was sure she’d get kicked out of the program, but instead, LBJ just said, "Bring her down here for a year, and if I can’t win her over, no one can."

00:05:40 DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: He's still the most formidable, fascinating, frustrating, irritating individual I think I've ever known in my entire life. He was huge; I mean just as a huge character, not only standing 6'4", but when you talked to him, he violated the normal human space between people, so he would be right on top of you. You'd be sort of looking up into his chest. He had an enormous voice. He was a great storyteller. The problem was that half his stories, I discovered, weren't true. There was this great time I was swimming with him in this pool that he has at his ranch.

00:06:07 It's an amazing pool that he created so that it could be a working pool. So at every moment when you're trying to swim in it, floating rafts came by with floating telephones on top of them, other floating rafts with floating desks and notepads. And in the middle of it, I had read an article that day by Hugh Sidey, a reporter, who had said that Johnson had given a great speech to the troops who were going to Vietnam, in which he talked about patriotism, and in the speech he mentioned that his great-great-grandfather had died at the Battle of the Alamo.

00:06:32 And Hugh Sidey said, "It was a wonderful speech. The only problem was that he didn't have a great-great-grandfather who died at the Alamo. He just wanted to have one so much that he kind of made him up." So I turned to President Johnson. I said, "How can you do that?" And he looked back and me, and he said, "Oh, these journalists. They're such sticklers for detail." And it was then that I realized that I could only believe half of what he told me. But the stories were so much fun, and he loved politics, and even though his presidency was in many ways scarred forever by the war in Vietnam and destroyed in a lot of ways, he, as a character, was even larger than his presidency.

00:07:02 So being able to get to know him well — I worked for him the last year in the White House and then helped him on his memoirs the last four years of his life before he died, spending summers and Christmases and every other weekend at the ranch. So that firsthand relationship with this large character, I think, is what drew me to writing books about presidents from — that was my first book on Lyndon Johnson, and then the Kennedys, and then the Roosevelts came after that.

00:07:25 ALICE WINKLER: Listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin recall her conversations and interactions with LBJ gives you a good sense of what makes her such an extraordinary historian. It’s her attention to the kind of details that give you, of course, information, but also a three-dimensional, Technicolor view of history, or maybe a holographic view is the better metaphor. So listen to her talk here a little more about Johnson, the person, she says, who made her always strive to understand the private side of public figures.

00:08:02 DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think the one thing he'll be positively remembered for was that he was responsible for the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Open Housing Act. And he was a Southerner, but he somehow, at some point, came to believe that this was his destiny, to do something for black Americans. That part of him was the best part, but the part I remember most is that the man I saw in those last years, in his retirement, was really a desolate man because he was out of power, had absolutely no interests to keep him going once the presidency was gone, so that retirement was almost like a little death for him.

00:08:33 He'd wake up in the morning and really not even know how to get through the days, and I think what it convinced me of more than anything was that that kind of success, bought at that price, isn't worth it unless you have other things to balance you. He had no hobbies, no interest in sports. His family loved him, but they couldn't fill the hole in him that he needed to be filled by the applause of millions, so he almost willed himself to die in those last years. He hardly ever left the ranch. The only comfort he got was having staff meetings in the morning, just as he used to in the White House, but no longer would it be telling people which bills were going to get through the committee on the Hill that day, but rather, how many eggs he hoped to be laid in the ranch that day or how many people he wanted to go through the LBJ Library.

00:09:12 He so wanted more people to go through the Johnson Library than were going through the Kennedy Library in Boston that, after a while, he used to have them — "Free doughnuts, coffee, anything. Get them in there." And after a while, the librarians, knowing how much it mattered to him, used to have a clicker, so they would click themselves in and out over and over again just to give him an escalated count at the end of the week.

00:09:35 He told me that his mother loved him greatly but always made him feel that unless he kept succeeding, she would withdraw love from him. If he came home with a bad report card, for instance, she would actually pretend that he had died. She would sit at the dinner table and say to her husband and his brother, "Isn't it too bad Lyndon has gone from us?" And that's a pretty severe statement, to make somebody feel that "Unless I keep succeeding, there's not going to be anything for me there." He even had a certain warehouse at the ranch, where, each time you went to visit him, he felt compelled to give you a gift, almost as if you wouldn't come back unless he could buy your friendship by more and more gifts.

00:10:10 And actually, he had the gifts arranged in shelves so that each time you went to visit him, you got to choose from a higher and higher shelf so that you — as you became an intimate friend, you finally made it to the top shelf, almost like at an amusement park. So at the beginning, I was just getting certificates that I'd flown on Air Force One, and then finally I got a scarf that had his name printed on it 500 times, until finally — this is an incredibly crazy story — I got to the top shelf after about a year-and-a-half, and he told me that he was so excited to give me this gift because it meant that we were very close friends.

00:10:37 And he loved it so much, too, because it meant that I would think of him every morning and every night when I opened this wonderful gift. And I opened it up, and inside was the largest electric toothbrush I'd ever seen in my life, with his picture on one side and the formal presidential seal on the other side. I thought, "Oh, my God, this man is right. I will think of him every morning and every night." But as I say, I think that need that he had, somehow — I would have gone back to see him. I didn't need gifts, but he felt almost like the gifts that he gave the country — the civil rights laws, the student loans, the poverty programs, Medicaid — were what would make the people love him in return.

00:11:10 And I don't think it works that way. I think, as a president, you have to want respect. You can't look for love from the American people. You have to just do what you think is right. Some people will hate you, but others, in the long run, will respect you for what you've done.

00:11:30 In fact, not long before Lyndon Johnson died, he called me, and he said that he had this terrible feeling that no one was really going to remember him, and he had been reading Carl Sandburg's biography on Lincoln and trying to bring Lincoln to life, and he couldn't do it. And he said he now realized that maybe he would have been better off searching for his immortality through his children, and their children in turn, instead of through the fickleness of the American public, who were now preoccupied with Nixon, his successor. And I remember trying to tease him out of that and saying, "Oh, they'll always remember you. I'll put a question on every exam on you," because I was teaching this course on the presidency.

00:12:02 And he said, "You're not listening to me. I'm telling you something important. Get married, have children, and spend time with them." Only two weeks after that, he was dead. He died of a heart attack at his ranch. So I think the experience taught me more than anything that if your ambition comes at the price of such an unbalanced life — that there's nothing else that gives you comfort but success — it's not worth it. And to see that at 23 years old was an incredibly invaluable lesson because I think at that time, you think work's the most important thing in your life, and fame and success are what you're dreaming of, and yet, to be able to know that if it's bought at that high a price, as I said, it's not worth it. I will always be grateful for that lesson.

00:12:37 ALICE WINKLER: And that lesson led pretty directly to some choices Doris Kearns Goodwin made in her life. By the time she published her book on Lyndon Johnson, for instance, she was a professor of history at Harvard. She was married, had a stepson, and a baby on the way, and she’d fallen in love with writing. She decided, with LBJ’s advice ringing in her ear, that she could not do it all well, so she gave up her position at Harvard to become a full-time historian. Her friends thought she was nuts.

00:13:08 DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And I remember, when I was writing the Kennedy book, after I gave up the teaching at Harvard, and I was at a cocktail party, and I heard somebody say — without realizing I could hear them, "Well, whatever happened to Doris Kearns anyway?" As if somehow I had died because I no longer was a public figure.

00:13:21 ALICE WINKLER: There were also, though, some opportunities to serve directly in the government that she declined.

00:13:27 DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: When I'd first gotten married, President Carter asked me to be the head of the Peace Corps, and it was a job that I would have loved a decade before. And really might have, had I done a good job and it led to a cabinet post or something in the administration, which is what I think I'd always dreamed of, but at the time, my little kids were one and two years old and eight years old, and there was no way in the world I could take a job that made me travel all around the world. I remember, when I told that to the White House, they understood that perfectly. But then I added in, "And you see, I'm also a season ticket holder to the Red Sox, and I think this is the year we're going to win the World Series, so I can't travel around the world."

00:13:58 There was this great silence at the other end, as if they were saying, "Oh, my God. Thank God this woman didn't take the job. What's the matter with her, anyway?"

00:14:04 ALICE WINKLER: Goodwin’s sense of humor is part of what’s made her such an appealing guest on the many television talk shows she’s appeared on over the years, particularly during presidential elections, when she’s a go-to person to give historical context and analysis. But mostly, her work life has been all about the books and the long process of inhabiting the lives of her subjects through research so that she can write about them with passion.

00:14:34 DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And I do think when you spend as long as it takes — it does me, anyway — to write these biographies — it took me five years on Lyndon Johnson, ten years on the Kennedys, six years on the Roosevelts — inevitably, you get shaped by the people that you're thinking about during that period of time.

00:14:51 In the Kennedy situation, what was so interesting about studying the Kennedy family was that my husband had worked as a speechwriter for John Kennedy and was very close to Bobby Kennedy — with him when he died, actually — so I had access to 150 cartons of material that had been in the attic in Hyannisport for over 50 years that belonged to Joe and Rose Kennedy. So what interested me most about the Kennedys was the family situation. Somehow they had created this family that lasted over time. I mean they had a sense of connection to one another, and especially in our nuclear age, where people are spread all over the country and they don't see grandparents and parents, this family bonded together.

00:15:26 And I got myself even more interested in that than in John Kennedy's presidency. What was it that created this enormous ambition in that generation that they all had to succeed? And there, it was a mixed story as well. I mean I think John Kennedy had a great deal of confidence that came from his personality, but always in his family he felt he wasn't as good as his older brother, Joe, Jr., who was the star of the family — more handsome, the better student, the more religious, the better kid in the family — and I think he always had to show up this older brother. And when the older brother died in World War II, then suddenly there was an opening for John Kennedy to become something.

00:16:01 It's interesting to imagine what might have happened if Joe, Jr. had not died and he had become the first president. Then John Kennedy, as we know him, might never have emerged. So it showed how even place in family was so important in something like that, and what it was that Rose and Joe Kennedy, Sr. were able to do to make these kids — usually, the children of wealthy people, famous people, celebrities, have a tough time making their own way in the world, and yet they inculcated a sense of ambition in that next generation. That's very unusual, compared to Roosevelt's children, none of whom became anything like Franklin Roosevelt.

00:16:34 Joe Kennedy's kids, when you look at Teddy and Bobby and Jack Kennedy, and the girls — Eunice Shriver and Special Olympics — they've all been driven to succeed, even though they didn't have to do anything in their life because they could have been playboys and playgirls. So that's, I think, what interested me most about that.

00:16:49 ALICE WINKLER: And then there were the Roosevelts, who became the subject of the book that won Doris Kearns Goodwin a Pulitzer Prize in 1995. The book is called No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. It’s a long title, but then again, it’s a long book.

00:17:09 DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I think what drew me to the Roosevelts was really two things. One was I wanted to live back in the era of World War II. The book is mostly about Franklin and Eleanor during World War II, and it was a time in our life when the country was bound together by a common enemy and a common goal, when there was a real sense of community in the land. And I just wanted to know — and especially in contrast to today's world, where there's so little belief in politics, in government — it's much more fragmented, our sense of nationhood — it was wonderful to go back and spend six years studying a time when the country really was bound together.

00:17:44 And then I found absolutely fascinating — and there's no other parallel for it in our history — the partnership between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

00:17:57 And I think what was so revealing to me about that partnership was that, in many ways, it was born in the pain of Eleanor's discovery, when she was married for 12 years, that Franklin was having an affair with another woman named Lucy Mercer. She wanted a divorce but it was the last thing he wanted. The important thing was he convinced her to stay together and promised her she could do whatever she wanted within the marriage, which meant that she went outside the marriage to become a teacher, to become a political activist, something that few women could do in 1918.

00:18:25 If you were a married woman, you didn't run around outside, but that gave her — in some ways, this terrible catastrophe in their private life, gave her the freedom to go outside the marriage and become Eleanor Roosevelt. So it showed you that some things that you might think of as the greatest crises in your life can lead to opportunities because Eleanor found that through public life she had a confidence that she didn't have in her private life. And then once they get into the presidency and he becomes paralyzed by polio, she becomes, in many ways, his eyes and his ears. Without her, his presidency never would have been as rich as it was.

00:18:56 She traveled the country on his behalf, bringing him back a deep sense of what was happening in the land. She was much more active on civil rights, on poverty, on coal miners than he was and really made his presidency more socially just than it would have been. And he would be the first to admit that she made him stronger, and then she admitted at the end of his life that without him she wouldn't have had the platform to be Eleanor Roosevelt. So just knowing how you can go through very difficult times in your own married life and still form this extraordinary partnership, I think is what I took away from that book.

00:19:26 ALICE WINKLER: Now back when Doris Kearns Goodwin had this conversation with the Academy of Achievement, Bill Clinton was president and Hillary Clinton the first lady. Hillary found a lot of inspiration in Eleanor Roosevelt and apparently went through an exercise where she imagined conversations with her predecessor. When the press got wind of it, some stories were printed. Doris Kearns Goodwin says that she was happy to learn she wasn’t alone because, like Hillary, she also talked to Eleanor regularly, and Franklin as well, for that matter.

00:19:58 She said, during the research for her book, she practically had séances with the Roosevelts.

00:20:04 DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think the most important thing that I wanted to say at various times to Franklin and Eleanor was that it seemed so sad to me that — I really believe they loved each other and had a great deal of affection but because of that early hurt in their marriage, there was a certain kind of distance from then on until their deaths, actually. And at times, one would reach out to the other to try and break that distance, and then the other one would pull away, and another time the other one would reach out.

00:20:28 So at times, I just wanted to push them together and say, "Come on, you guys. I know you love each other. This is crazy." Because I could see, as I read their letters, as I did interviews with people, that they both wanted the other one but there was too much pain and hurt to fully get back together again. So I think that's what I would have talked to them about.

00:20:43 ALICE WINKLER: But her greatest pleasure in studying Franklin Roosevelt was the contrast that he provided to Lyndon Johnson. Roosevelt was able to create a rich private life to layer underneath that public life. He had loads of friends, hobbies, interests, a love of mystery movies, stamps, poker games. During the Depression and the war, Doris Kearns Goodwin says, Franklin Roosevelt was able to exude the absolute confidence he had in himself, so that when he spoke during his “fireside chats” and said, "It’s all going to be okay," the American people believed him.

00:21:22 DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Indeed, the central aspect, I think, of his leadership during World War II was his ability to completely relax at the end of the day so that he could replenish his energies to get new thoughts for the day ahead. Indeed, in order to facilitate his ability to relax at the end of the day, he actually invited his closest friends and associates to live with him in the White House during the war, which meant that the White House was almost like a hotel during the war, with permanent residents, fabulous people, living right on that second floor of the White House. Including, of course, Eleanor, probably the most extraordinary first lady we’ve ever known, a voice for people without access to power, the first first lady to ever hold press conferences.

00:21:58 Indeed, she made a rule that only female reporters could cover her press conferences, which meant that every newspaper in the country had to hire often its first female reporter...

00:22:06 ...simply because of Eleanor Roosevelt. Well, in addition to Franklin and Eleanor, his secretary, Missy LeHand — who in many ways was his other wife, taking care of him when Eleanor traveled — lived in the White House. A beautiful princess from Norway, Princess Martha, came and spent the weekends. His closest aide, Harry Hopkins, had a bedroom right next door to his. And the incomparable Winston Churchill actually spent weeks and months at a time in the White House during the war, bringing his habits with him, which included his stewards, his servants, and his habit of starting to drink from the moment he awakened in the morning until the moment he went to bed at night, somehow saving England in the process of all of that.

00:22:40 Well, I found myself so intrigued by the thought of all these fabulous people gathering at night in their robes and what wonderful conversations they must have had that I kept wishing I could see the second floor of the White House once again. I had seen it when Lyndon Johnson was president, but I never thought, at 22 years old, of asking, "Where did Eleanor sleep? Where was Franklin? Where was Harry Hopkins?" I mentioned this on a radio show in Washington, and it happened that Hillary Clinton heard me, so she invited me to sleep overnight in the White House, and she said we could then wander the corridors and figure out where everyone had slept 50 years before.

00:23:10 So two weeks later, my husband and I went to a state dinner, after which, between midnight and two, President Clinton and my husband and Mrs. Clinton and I went through every room up there and placed who had been there during the Roosevelt White House, and the best part is that we realized we were staying in Winston Churchill’s bedroom. So the whole night, I could hardly sleep. I was sure he was sitting in the corner, drinking his brandy and smoking his cigar. In fact, the best part of it all was that there was a great story that took place during World War II in that very bedroom, our bedroom, which was that on January 1, 1942, Roosevelt and Churchill were set to sign a document that put the Allied Nations against the Axis Powers. But the Allied Nations were calling themselves then the Associated Nations, and no one liked the word. It just didn’t have a rhythm or a ring to it.

00:23:51 So early that morning, Roosevelt had awakened with a whole new idea of calling themselves “United Nations,” and he was so excited, he had himself wheeled into Churchill’s bedroom to tell him the news. But it so happened that Churchill was just coming out of the bathtub and had absolutely nothing on.

00:24:05 So Roosevelt said, "I’m so sorry. I’ll come back in a few moments," but Churchill, with his incomparable ability to speak at the moment, said, "Oh, don’t worry. The Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the President of the United States."

00:24:16 So amazingly, Churchill sits there dripping from the tub, Roosevelt tells him the idea of the United Nations, and Churchill then has the presence of mind to quote an entire poem where the words “united nations” had been used. Now that’s greatness. Now, after the President and Mrs. Clinton left...

00:24:31 All I could do, really, was to get in the bathtub and truly feel that I was in the presence of the past.

00:24:39 I think there's something about that White House that is such an extraordinary, simple, beautiful place in our nation's history — and when you're there — for example, right across from the room where we were staying was the room where Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And so you think, "Oh, my God, he was in there, in that room," and then you'll see the tree that Andrew Jackson planted. It's an extraordinary piece of our history because it's the one thing that binds our country together. We don't have a king, obviously, but we have this president, and the fact that almost all of them, except the early presidents, have lived in this same place and so much history took place in those rooms, it really — you can't help but feel awe-inspired by being there.

00:25:17 ALICE WINKLER: It’s been one of the great rewards of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s career, but not the only one, for sure.

00:25:24 DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think the greatest reward, I feel, is that I love getting up in the morning, going into my study, and knowing that this profession that I've chosen is one that is open-ended, that I can keep learning. I keep thinking that I can still do it when I'm 90 years old. It's a wonderful thing to not feel that, unless some mental infirmity comes about, even if I can't walk anymore, I could still sit there reading. I mean 90% of the six years that I spent on the Roosevelts was reading about World War II, reading about these fabulous people, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. There are so few other fields where so much of what you do, your mind is being expanded. You're just learning, and you can sort of justify reading anything.

00:26:01 I was reading novels about World War II. I was reading about the Air Force. I could read about battles, you know, and you can all say, “This is all a part of it.” So you read it with an intensity that, when you're just reading generally, you might not do. And I think there could have been a lot of other things I might have done and enjoyed. I might have liked to be a lawyer. I might have liked to be a public servant, and I might well have gone other paths, and it still might have been okay. But if you find something that you do love, and if it keeps deepening with each new experience in it, then just stay with it, and you can just know — and if I can produce another three or four books before I die, on presidents, that's all I'd ask.

00:26:33 Maybe even two. I mean it doesn't have to be 25 books, especially because they take me five or ten years. There's no way I'd be able to do that. But it isn't even the book, in the end; it's the process of knowing that every day I like what I'm doing. And I feel like I'm learning something new, and I can talk about it to people and enjoy it and share it, both in lectures and in the books themselves, finally, that makes it so worthwhile.

00:26:52 ALICE WINKLER: Whether she’s relaying the details of a Dodgers game — with every strike, catch and homerun — or recounting tales about some of the most pivotal people in our nation’s history, it’s that passion for her work, and her love of learning and storytelling, that make Doris Kearns Goodwin’s books such a gift to the American story.

00:27:15 DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I'd like to think that what my style of writing is, is an attempt not so much to judge the characters that I'm writing about, to expose them, to label them, to stereotype them, but instead to make them come alive for the reader with all their strengths and their flaws intact, so that there's not a way in which, when I start the book, I say, "I'm going to make Franklin great," or "I'm going to get Franklin Roosevelt." But rather, I want to render him as he lived day by day. For example, I found an usher's diary at the Roosevelt Library that recorded what Franklin and Eleanor did every day.

00:27:47 “Awakened at 6:30, had breakfast with Henry Stimson, had lunch with Joe Lash,” or whatever. I could then go to the diaries of the people they had lunch or breakfast with to record what they said at breakfast or lunch. Eleanor wrote 25 letters a day to her friends. I got every single one of those letters and figured out what her mood was like on that day, made a huge chronology before I even started the book, of 1940 to '45, the years I was covering, so that I could recreate every day, in a certain sense, in their lives. Eleanor wrote a column every day, which often reflected what she was feeling that day.

00:28:16 And for the reader, what that meant — not that the book went every day from '40 to '45, because you'd have themes in the book, in terms of civil rights or battles of the war. But I tried to ground every issue in a day experience so that the reader could feel what it was like to be Franklin and Eleanor at that time, which means that if they made mistakes, you could at least understand why they did. If they did something admirable, you could feel it with them. So your emotions would go on a roller coaster as you were reading the book. At times, you'd feel great about Franklin. At other times, you'd be mad at Eleanor and vice versa.

00:28:46 But it's not a question of coming at it from the start as if I'm out to get them or out to praise them. I just want them to come alive again. That's all you really ask of history, to make them come alive without an agenda.

00:28:57 ALICE WINKLER: That’s Doris Kearns Goodwin in conversation with the Academy of Achievement. Earlier in this episode, you also heard excerpts from a talk she gave to students and luminaries from around the world at the Academy’s Summit in 1996. If you enjoyed this podcast, please take a moment to post it, email it, tweet it — you get the idea. Our Twitter handle is @WhatItTakesNow. I’m Alice Winkler, and this is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement.

00:29:31 To the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, thank you, as always, for supporting What It Takes.


What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.