A Personal History of America’s Chief Historian


It’s a windy early spring day, but Doris Kearns Goodwin is looking forward to walking around downtown Boston. For her, the city is a living example of the belief that has come to define her life: that history shapes the present. “When I look at all the monuments here,” she said, pointing to a new sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr., “I feel proud to be in Massachusetts.”

Over the past half-century, Goodwin, 81, has written award-winning studies of Lyndon Johnson, the president responsible for passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who led America through the Great Depression and World War II. , Theodore Roosevelt, a confidence booster and environmental advocate, and Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. These are four former presidents whom she calls in her conversations, with her characteristic vivacity, “my guys “. Rivals Team, his 2005 doorstop about Lincoln and his cabinet, also served as the basis for Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film, which captured the autodidact Lincoln’s erudition as well as his penchant for dirty jokes and earned Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar. Goodwin has mastered the art of weaving mountains of historical detail into vivid narratives, a skill that has earned her the nickname “America’s Chief Historian” and won her a Pulitzer Prize for her dual biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

As a fellow biographer, I can only marvel at the fact that she changed the course of presidential history. In 2008, his lifelong fan, Barack Obama, decided to nominate Hillary Clinton, his former rival for the presidency, as secretary of state. Obama, who met with Goodwin in Washington while he was still a U.S. senator, agreed with his assessment that to improve the effectiveness of the executive branch of government, Democrats needed to include voices representing a variety of perspectives. As a former opponent but also a Democrat, Clinton, Goodwin advised, could strengthen the new administration.

In Goodwin’s latest book, An unfinished love story: A personal story from the 1960s, she focuses on her own maturity. Mining 300 boxes of archival materials, containing letters from major players of the era, including first lady Jackie Kennedy, and early versions of iconic speeches saved by her late husband, Richard Goodwin, known as Dick , the memoir explains how they each found their voices during this tumultuous decade. In 1969, Doris Kearns, who was an undergraduate at the start of the decade, was teaching political science at Harvard while moonlighting as President Johnson’s confidante and official chronicler. And as a speechwriter first for President Kennedy and then for President Johnson, Dick was in the room when many consequential events occurred. The new book breaks no new ground, and Goodwin eschews any personal reflections in order to place her husband center stage, but it does provide an undeniably compelling eyewitness account of key moments of the 1960s.

I meet Goodwin, who is wearing a black leather jacket, for a stroll around the Boston Common, to see some of the sites marking the trajectory of American democracy that have special meaning for her. Our first stop is the park’s newest monument, “The Embrace,” which commemorates the partnership of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, who first crossed paths in Boston in the early 1950s. Dedicated in 2023, the bronze sculpture, integrated into a huge circular square, presents four interlocking arms and hands.

She tells me that her own life took a dramatic turn after attending the 1963 March on Washington, where MLK gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. This August day features prominently in the book. “I was an intern at the State Department,” Goodwin says. “I felt for the first time this feeling of belonging to something bigger than myself. It was a transcendent experience. When she returned to college the following fall, she changed her course of study from international relations to domestic politics.

Looking straight ahead, we face the Massachusetts State House, which sits atop the hill and is crowned with a copper dome. She enthusiastically notes a time Kennedy spoke there. “The president-elect told Dick he wanted the speech to have the same rhythm as the one Lincoln had given in Illinois just before heading to the White House a century earlier. But JFK asked Dick to put less God into it. She recounts in the book how, on that cold January day, Kennedy used Dick’s words to promise that his new administration would be guided by the recognition of John Winthrop – a 17th-century governor of Massachusetts – that “we will be like a city on a hill – the eyes of all are upon us.”

We head to a restaurant on Charles Street, the main thoroughfare of the Beacon Hill historic district. Her first date with Dick, she tells me between bites of vegetable omelette and sourdough bread, took place 52 years ago in a local French restaurant. Researching and writing this book was also a process to better understand their marriage. Going through the boxes of materials together even helped bridge a gap. “Dick remained closely allied with JFK, whom he considered a hero. And my loyalty was to LBJ,” she said. For decades, they argued over which president was more effective. But as the couple realized, the skills of both presidents were necessary to achieve the progressive goals they shared. And she and Dick “were both idealists, who wanted to change the world for the better.”

For Goodwin, although the 1960s were marked by devastation, the decade can also be a source of hope and inspiration. In the book, she recounts how JFK and LBJ ended up working together to concoct landmark legislation on civil rights, voting rights, healthcare and education.

“Right now, many of us are wondering if we can count on a peaceful transfer of power, which is the cornerstone of our democracy,” she says. But according to her, American history has been filled with turbulence. She ticks off the other periods she has studied: the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II. “I think it’s important to remember that the people living in each of these periods also didn’t know how it was going to end.”

What made the 1960s special, she points out, was that ordinary citizens felt determined to fight for political change. “In a famous speech delivered in 1838 – when he was just 28 years old – Lincoln explained that the best way to combat threats to democracy was to remember the ideals of the founding generation, which were then forgotten. I feel the same way about the 60s now. Every change in the country has come from the bottom up. It’s up to us.”

“An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal Story from the 1960s” by Doris Kearns Goodwin is published by Simon & Schuster. Joshua Kendall’s titles include “First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama.”

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