When she’s not consulting on films with Steven Spielberg or Ken Burns, talking legacies with Barack Obama, appearing on “Meet the Press,” or speaking before thousands of people, world renowned historian Doris Kearns Goodwin happily spends her days and nights with dead presidents.
She has Lyndon B. Johnson, America’s 36th president, to thank for that, Goodwin said during her spirited Presidents' Day talk at Rowan University.
Before a capacity crowd that included students, faculty, and scores of community members, Goodwin, a consummate storyteller, recounted how her position at age 24 as a White House fellow working directly for Johnson ignited her passion to learn about America’s presidents as real people.
“There’s no question my fascination with the presidency took root in the White House with Lyndon Johnson,” said Goodwin, whose rich-in-detail lecture kicked off a year-long celebration at Rowan of the 50th anniversary of the Summit at Hollybush.
“My time with Lyndon Johnson in those last months fired within me the drive to understand the inner person. I’m forever grateful to him,” added Goodwin, author of Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.
Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for history for No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, Goodwin also wrote Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, as well as The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.
Spielberg based his award-winning movie, Lincoln, in part on her book and has acquired the rights to her Roosevelt/Taft book. Her Kennedy book was adapted into a television mini-series. A sought-after television commentator, Goodwin has appeared in Burns’ critically acclaimed documentaries on the Roosevelts and on the history of baseball and has been a frequent guest on all major news networks and “Meet the Press,” among other outlets.
An ‘aging lion of a man’
Goodwin worked with Johnson in his last year in the White House and later assisted him with the preparation of his memoirs. It was a privilege, she said, to spend time with an always-in-motion “aging lion of a man”—a leader who was all at once brilliant and brutish, politically savvy and sentimental.
Johnson, Goodwin said, had extraordinary success domestically, successfully passing landmark legislation that “fundamentally changed the social and economic landscape of the country.”
A former elementary school teacher who taught children of poor Mexican immigrants in Cotulla, Texas, Johnson focused his efforts on civil rights and a war on poverty, Goodwin said.
“In his first State of the Union, he called for an unconditional war on poverty,” Goodwin said, adding that Johnson never forgot the children he taught and the struggles their families faced.
Among his administration’s domestic successes were the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid, the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the establishment of Head Start, and the Economic Opportunity Act, among other accomplishments.
In tumultuous times, Johnson, who took office after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, masterfully worked both sides of the aisle to get legislation passed, a show of bipartisanship that is lacking in today’s government, Goodwin said.
The HBO film All the Way details Johnson’s political genius as he successfully got the Civil Rights Act approved after a weeks-long Senate filibuster. As part of whirlwind Presidents’ Day celebration, Rowan students and faculty viewed the film, for which Goodwin served as a consultant.
“The very fact that Lyndon Johnson, after the Kennedy assassination, chose to give his first speech on Civil Rights shows political courage,” Goodwin said, noting that Johnson’s administration worked to pass 100 significant bills “any one of which would define a presidency today.”
Summit at Hollybush
In June of 1967, Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin met at the Hollybush Mansion on Rowan’s campus in an attempt to ease Cold War tensions between the two super powers. The institution’s leadership had just 16 hours to prepare the mansion—and the campus—for the visit from the two world leaders.
Johnson and Kosygin met in the library of Hollybush, which was the home of then-President Thomas E. Robinson and his wife, Margaret. The Borough of Glassboro became the epicenter of international news as Johnson and Kosygin spent two days at Rowan, then known as Glassboro State College, discussing conflicts in Vietnam and the nuclear arms race.
“A year later, the non-proliferation treaty was signed,” Goodwin said of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed by a number of countries, including the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Despite that progress, the United States’ involvement in the escalation of the Vietnam War during the Johnson administration was a “scar,” one that “cut his legacy in two,” Goodwin said.
From Obama to LBJ to FDR to TR to Lincoln, Goodwin spent much of her lecture sharing sometimes humorous, always entertaining stories that demonstrated the humanity of the nation’s presidents-- in essence bringing them to life. She shared a few her own stories as well.
Among her anecdotes:
- Well aware that she had penned an article for The New Republic opposing his foreign policy, Johnson asked Goodwin to dance at a party and decided to make her his aide.
- Goodwin married Richard Goodwin, Johnson’s former speech writer. Her husband wrote the president’s infamous “We shall overcome speech,” which he delivered to Congress in 1965--a week after Civil Rights activists were attacked during a march in Selma, Ala. The speech said in part, “Their cause must be our cause, too….it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” “In distant America,” Goodwin said, “it is said that Martin Luther King, Jr. cried. I could never imagine a day that I would marry the man who would write that speech.”
- When Medicare was signed into law, LBJ insisted that the signing be in Independence, Mo., at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. In 1945, Truman first proposed the legislation that provides a health insurance program for senior citizens. Johnson understood that the aging Truman needed to see that he was remembered and revered by the American people, Goodwin said.
- Because he was wheelchair bound, FDR turned the second floor of the White House into his own domain. House guests were frequent. When he finally figured out a name for the United Nations, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a guest. FDR burst in on Churchill, naked from a bath, to share his idea.
- First Lady Hillary Clinton invited Goodwin to an evening at the White House so that the historian could figure out where major historical figures slept. “I’d imagine those people tossing with their pillows at night. I kept picturing them in their bathrobes,” said Goodwin, who slept in the room previously used by Churchill.
- During his administration, Obama would bring a handful of presidential historians together, Goodwin included, to discuss leadership and presidential legacies. As his second term concluded, Goodwin interviewed Obama for a Vanity Fair piece dubbed his “exit interview.”
Art form of storytelling
While most of Goodwin’s books focus on presidents—“I spend my days and nights with dead presidents,” she deadpanned—her memoir, Wait Til Next Year, chronicled her childhood devotion to the Brooklyn Dodgers in the era of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella.
Her storytelling was honed in grade school, she said. Each day, she listened to Dodgers games, carefully keeping score. When her father came home from work, she recounted the game to him, pitch by pitch.
“I believe I learned the narrative art from those sessions,” she said. “I finally learned to tell a story from beginning to end.”
Goodwin’s visit to Rowan included a post-film question-and-answer session with students and faculty members, a reception and tour of Hollybush, and a book signing.
Freshman history and international studies major Ben Jones took the opportunity to ask her about the White House fellows program where Goodwin got her start. Founded by LBJ, the program gives top students the chance to work in the federal government.
“I would love to work in the White House or the State Department,” Jones said. “I definitely want to get there some day. I feel like if she can do it, maybe there’s a chance I could, too.”
Connecting with teachers
Goodwin met a number of education majors at Rowan.
“I’m so proud of meeting so many of you who will become teachers,” she said. “My high school history teacher, Miss Austin, made every difference for me.”
Emeritus education professor Janet Moss, who had Goodwin as a professor while in graduate school at Harvard University, reconnected with the historian during her visit.
“She made history come alive in a way that I had never had before,” Moss said of Goodwin. “I loved her passion for teaching. Her visit here is one of those absolutely Rowan proud moments.”
President’s Lecture Series
Goodwin’s appearance at Rowan was part of the President’s Lecture Series, which brings prominent speakers to campus on issues related to science, education, politics and additional topics. Her visit was sponsored by the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost, and the College of Humanities & Social Sciences.
Events planned for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Summit at Hollybush include panel discussions, a conference for historians and an open house in June at the Hollybush Mansion.
“It’s a very important year for us. I hope to see many of you on this campus,” Rowan President Ali A. Houshmand told the Glassboro community members in attendance. “I hope you always consider Rowan University as your home.”