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If you like Doris Kearns Goodwin's story, you might also like:
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David Herbert Donald,
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David McCullough
and Neil Sheehan

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Doris Kearns Goodwin in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Justice & Citizenship
Freedom and Justice

Doris Kearns Goodwin's recommended reading: Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox

Related Links:
Doris Kearns Goodwin.com
Poynter Fellowship

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Doris Kearns Goodwin
 
Doris Kearns Goodwin
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Doris Kearns Goodwin Interview (page: 3 / 9)

Pulitzer Prize for History

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  Doris Kearns Goodwin

Do you think that you were always destined to be an achiever in this field, or did it come as a surprise to you, your success in writing presidential biographies?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I certainly don't think I thought of myself as a writer early on. In fact, in high school, I used to mistakenly leave essays until the last minute because it was so hard to write. I thought if I didn't start writing it until ten the night before it was due, at least it wouldn't be paining me for too long. I would not recommend that to people. But I don't even think in college that writing is what I thought of. I thought of myself more as going actively into public life, into politics itself. That desire to go to Washington in the summers when I was in college and graduate school was partly seeing if I could enjoy public life.


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 I think is what I think I'd always dreamed of. At the time, my little kids were one and two years old and eight years old. There was no way in the world that 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, "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." There was this great silence at the other end, as if they were saying, "Oh my God. Thank goodness this woman didn't take the job. What's the matter with her anyway?"


I've realized that might have been a turning point in the road because I didn't take that job. I've gotten involved to some extent with the Clinton White House, I'm on a commission on campaign finance reform, but now I want nothing more than to be a writer. I've chosen to be a commentator and an analyzer of politics, rather than an actual doer of it. I think it could have gone the other way, but I'm not sorry that it didn't, because this made it easier to be home with my kids and to spend time with them. Writing you can do right in your house. You don't have to go anywhere.

You've had many forks in the road. What do you consider the biggest decision you've had to make in your career?


Doris Kearns Goodwin: I decided when my two little kids were one and two years old, to give up being a professor at Harvard. Harvard had been an identity. When you are connected to a university -- and especially one like Harvard -- you go places and you say, "I'm a Harvard professor." They know who you are. I had written my Lyndon Johnson book, but I didn't have the same confidence that I could be as good a writer as I thought I was as a teacher. So it was scary to give up that umbrella in a certain sense. But... I knew that if I could spend the time writing and being at home with my kids, that if I could do that, it would give me more satisfaction, because I wouldn't feel torn in a million directions, as I was feeling. Luckily, it really did work out, because I don't think I would have had the chance to write the book on the Kennedys, to write the book on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, if I was also trying to teach. I think I would have been doing things sort of half well all the way through. It wasn't so easy at that time.

[ Key to Success ] Courage



I remember when I was writing the Kennedy book, after I gave up the teaching at Harvard, and I was at a cocktail party. 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. I remember wanting to hit them and say, "I've had three kids, that's what happened to me!"


It all has worked out. I couldn't ask for more than the kind of recognition that I've had as a historian. I didn't know that at the time, when I gave up something that was of value to me. I had to do it, because I wasn't happy trying to be moved in a million directions at the same time.

What do you think you learned from writing these thorough biographies of the presidents? Do you admire them? What do you feel after you've written about them?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: That's a good question, 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.

Doris Kearns Goodwin Interview Photo
As I said, I think with Lyndon Johnson, the most important thing I learned was that he never had the sense of security that comes from inside. It always depended on other people making him feel good about himself, which meant that he was always beholden, continually needing to succeed. He could never stop. There was such a restlessness in him. I think some people who go into public life, if they go in needing the applause of thousands, they're never going to work out successfully in the end, because they don't know who they are apart from the crowds. I think that was the lesson I learned most from him.

You can be enormously effective for a period of time, because it's almost like there's an engine in you that needs to keep going, and you have a greater drive than other people -- who may be more happy and balanced in life -- because you have to keep going out and proving yourself over and over again.


He (LBJ) 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 that Lyndon has gone from us." That is 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. 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 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. 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. 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. I opened it up, and inside was the largest electric tooth brush 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!"


Doris Kearns Goodwin Interview Photo
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. 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.

In the Kennedy situation, what was so interesting about studying the Kennedy family was that my husband had worked as a speech writer for John Kennedy and was very close to Bobby Kennedy, was 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, they had a sense of connection to one another. Especially now, when people are spread all over the country and they don't see grandparents and parents, this family bonded together. I got 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? It was a mixed story.


I think John Kennedy had a great deal of confidence that came from his personality, but always in his family he felt that 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. I think he always had to show up this older brother. When the older brother died in World War II, then suddenly there was an opening for John Kennedy to become something. 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 what Rose and Joe Kennedy, Sr. were able to do to make these kids. Even place in family was so important in something like that. Usually, the children of wealthy people, famous people, celebrities, have a tough time making their own way in the world. 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.

Joe Kennedy's kids -- when you look at Teddy and Bobby and Jack Kennedy, and the girls, Eunice Shriver and the Special Olympics -- they have 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. That's what interested me most about that.

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This page last revised on Sep 22, 2010 09:16 EDT