Doris Kearns Goodwin's stories focus on presidential history
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
The power of the presidency raced at the speed of light during an energetic Newsmaker lecture by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center.
Goodwin is a best-selling author and political journalist whose book, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," reached the top of The New York Times best-seller list and was the basis for an Oscar-nominated feature film directed by Steven Spielberg.
Her "Wait Till Next Year: a Memoir," about growing up as a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was a Book of the Month selection. Despite her being a former Dodgers fan (when the team moved west, she revoked her allegiance, she emphasized), Bay Area audiences appreciate her love of the game and the crowd cheered moderator Steve Lesher's attempts to persuade her to become baseball's next commissioner.
Enthusiastic applause also greeted the evening's nonprofit partner, John F. Kennedy University. The Pleasant Hill-based institution operates three colleges on three Bay Area campuses, coupling education with social outreach in honor of its namesake.
"We'll be 50 years old in 2014," said Anne Marie Taylor, vice president of advancement. "We're tied and allied to President Kennedy's call for lifelong learning and community engagement. Every course is a service opportunity."
Goodwin, tapping into her professorial past as a Harvard instructor teaching government, delivered a pithy, 60-minute lesson in leadership. Describing her job as "spending day and night with dead presidents," she said people live on "so long as we tell and retell their stories."
Telling stories about past events that shape future lives is a deeply rooted practice for Goodwin. From the age of 6, when she greeted her father's return from work by recounting Dodgers games play by play, Goodwin has loved how language connects.
Her storytelling shifted from baseball to presidential history when Goodwin was a 24-year-old White House intern during Lyndon B. Johnson's time in office.
"I still remember dancing with him (at a government event)," she recalled. "I had just written a New Republic article titled, 'How to Remove Lyndon B. Johnson From the White House.' "
The irony -- alternative viewpoints, dancing in tandem -- was intensified by Goodwin's characteristic wry tone and her comic timing. Moments later, the subject found its way onto her list of traits shared by history's leaders.
Great presidents surround themselves with rivals, Goodwin claimed. Opposing voices help presidents learn from their mistakes.
The ability to remain motivated in the face of frustration was another vital component. From Lincoln, vowing to leave the world a better place for having been alive, to Theodore Roosevelt, who soothed his grief after his wife's death with long horse rides that triggered his land-loving National Parks efforts, pain did not diminish determination.
Emotional intelligence, self-control when angered and knowing how to replenish and relax were equally important. Goodwin said Lincoln's love of theater served recreational purpose, especially in the stories he liked to tell.
Communicating with beautiful language that appeals to the common man and knowing when and how often to speak are an art form Goodwin sees diminishing.
"FDR understood what our present-day presidents don't," she said. "Less is more.
FDR gave only 35 Fireside Chats during his 12 years in office. Goodwin said the bully pulpit is less potent with "Twitter, pundit popping broadcasts and attacks with less backbone than an éclair," the last phrase, a paraphrase of Theodore Roosevelt.
Answers to audience questions suggested the reasons Goodwin's books and speaking engagements draw a sellout crowd: she promises a rich blend of hard core facts, intimate insights and bountiful baseball anecdotes.