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Pulitzer Prize-winning Historian Offers Perspectives
on Presidential Libraries and Leadership

Speaking at the Tate Distinguished Lecture Series and an afternoon student forum January 16, presidential historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin talked about the value of presidential libraries and expressed support of SMU as the possible site of the George W. Bush Presidential Library.  “They are of enormous value,” she said at the evening lecture. “The only way to learn about history is to understand when things went wrong and when things went right, and I think it would be an enormous tribute to all of you here to have that library."

Doris Kearns Goodwin at SMU on 16 Jan 2007
See a video of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin
at the Turner Construction Student Forum

At the Turner Construction Student Forum, in response to a question, she elaborated:

“There’s nothing I love more than presidential libraries. The great thing, when you go to these libraries, is that you really can immerse yourself in the papers, documents, pictures, video and audio resources, and imagine yourself back in another period of time.

 “When I was working on the Johnson memoirs, they were just creating the library…. When I was working on the Roosevelt book, the library in Hyde Park is right next to the house where he grew up.  There’s something about going through a house someone lived in, where you can feel their presence, and the next best thing to that are these presidential libraries, and they are getting more and more technologically sophisticated. I think they¹re important place for scholars and the public. You can go to those places, with everything accumulated there, and you really can re-create the presidency and that period of time. It’s a really special thing.”

Speaking about her research for such books as No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The American Homefront During World War II, Kearns said, “It really does take time to sink in on any president. We need the memoirs of the people who were there, the inside story of who was making what decisions … that’s why it’s more fun being a historian looking back than a pundit trying to figure it out at the time.”

Goodwin, whose other books include Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream; The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys; and her latest, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, answered other questions from SMU and area high school students at the student forum.  Here’s a sampling of the discussion, which was moderated by senior Gabe Travers.

How far removed do we need to be from a presidency to get a good perspective on its legacy?

Presidents go through different responses to their presidencies as time goes by.

For example, I worked with Lyndon Johnson at the end of his life and lived on his ranch, and at the time of his death, he felt that the Vietnam War had cut his presidency and legacy in two and that history wouldn’t give him a fair shake. And yet just recently, the Atlantic Monthly did a poll of historians about the 100 most influential Americans, and he came out at 55.

He would’ve been so happy to know that. …

He is now being given his due because of his great achievements in civil rights, desegregation, voting rights, Medicare, aid to education -- all of that is being balanced with the problems of the war in Vietnam.

What past president would have good advice for the current president?

The one thing I keep wishing had happened after September 11 was for more of an awareness of what Franklin Roosevelt was able to do during World War II. I wish President Bush had understood that if you’re going to war, you need to mobilize the entire spirit of the country behind you.

What Roosevelt realized when he had World War II in front of him was that you couldn’t be a partisan leader. … To be fair, that war was very different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Presidents’ choices are under such pressure at the moment, they don’t have the long view of the past to help them figure them out.

How do you get friends and family members of presidents to share their stories?

Doris Kearns Goodwin at SMU on 16 Jan 2007
Doris Kearns Goodwin

You have to try to have conversations with them, not simply go and ask a whole bunch of questions. That means you read about them as much as you can. After a while, if people feel you’ve been fair in your work, your reputation helps. …

When I was working on the book on the Kennedys, I couldn’t get Rose Kennedy, who was in her 90s at the time, to tell me anything different from what she’d told thousands of interviewers. But in the papers at the John F. Kennedy library were her report cards from high school -- I noticed she’d gotten 96s and 98s -- so I brought her a copy, and that opened everything up for her.

If you’re trying to get people to open up or are talking to grandparents, show them a picture or document; that gets memories started.

How did that translate with Team of Rivals, about President Lincoln?

Truthfully, when I started Team of Rivals, I was scared because that was the first book I was working on where I couldn’t talk to anybody. With Lyndon Johnson, I had these hours of conversations. With the Kennedys, my husband worked in the White House and had been close friends with Bobby Kennedy. And with the Roosevelts, there were dozens still alive who had worked with them. 

 But the great thing was that in Lincoln’s period, everybody kept diaries and letters, and there’s nothing more exciting for a historian than reading a diary handwritten that night or a letter that a Cabinet officer has written to his wife.

Who do you think is the most compelling president and the most underrated president?

For the most compelling president, Lincoln clearly wins for me. … His ambition from the time he was young was huge, but it wasn’t just for office, power, celebrity or fame, but for substantive accomplishments, which meant he had a set of principles that guided him.

He was also so much more fun than I realized. He lightened everyone’s spirits, and he was a great storyteller. …

Until recently, I would say Harry Truman was one of the most underrated, but now he’s up in the polls and in the popular mind because some important books have been written about him. I might even argue that Lyndon Johnson will take that role as time goes by -- that his ratings will go up and more books will be written about him.

Time will tell about the underrated ones. … I sometimes have this image that in the afterlife there’s going to be a panel of presidents, and each one will tell me everything I got wrong, and the first person to yell out will be Lyndon Johnson: “How come that damn book on the Kennedys was twice as long as the book you wrote about me?”


Learn more about Doris Kearns Goodwin on her Web site at www.doriskearnsgoodwin.com and more about The Willis M. Tate Distinguished Lecture Series at smu.edu/tateseries.

 

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