During the past ten years when historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was working on her most recent book about Abraham Lincoln, she was a frequent guest on national television news shows often being interviewed by reporters about the latest Washington scandal or presidential controversy.
“Through all of Bill Clinton’s problems and the presidential election of 2000 and then 9/11 and the Iraq War, I was constantly being interviewed,” she said in a recent phone call from her home in Concord, Massachusetts, “but despite all these current problems I always knew in the morning I’d wake up with Lincoln. That was a comforting thought for me.”
Goodwin received the Pulitzer Prize for “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt” (1994), which was an intimate portrait of the presidential couple’s successful partnership. Another bestselling book was “Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir” (1997), which was an account of her childhood growing up in Brooklyn and rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers with her father. She has also written about John F. Kennedy, and she wrote the official presidential biography “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” (1976).
Originally she wanted to focus on Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd in a similar way that she had focused on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, but she found that during much of the time Lincoln was in the White House his most important relationships were with his colleagues in the cabinet.
“This was the first book I ever wrote in which I could not interview anyone who knew the person I was writing about,” said Goodwin, “so I had to rely on primary sources like diaries and letters. There weren’t many sources I could use which shed much information on Lincoln and Mary, but there were many between Lincoln and his rivals who ultimately made up his cabinet.”
What Goodwin found fascinating was how Lincoln was able to win over his rivals, men such as William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates, who were all nationally known political figures of the age. “These men all expected to be the president,” said Goodwin, “only to lose to Lincoln in 1860, and still Lincoln asked them to be influential members of his cabinet. Only an extremely self-confident person could do this.”
With all the 24 hour cable news networks of today Goodwin doesn’t believe it would be possible for a president to do this in our age. “From reading all the letters it was shocking to discover how brutal these rivals could be to one another,” said Goodwin, “but Lincoln had this amazing ability to form friendships with these rivals, to put past grudges aside and even to share credit with them.”
Her long awaited book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” (754 pages, $35, Simon and Schuster) has just been published. On Tuesday she will read from her new book at 8 pm at Page Hall located at 135 Western Avenue on the University at Albany’s downtown campus. Earlier that day she will present an informal seminar at 4:15 at the Assembly Hall in the uptown university’s Campus Center.
“Despite all these modern problems,” said Goodwin, “I spent just about every day these past ten years with Lincoln, who came to feel like a trusted friend to me.”
What impressed her the most about Lincoln was his magnetic personality and his life-affirming sense of humor. “These pictures of him always make him seem so sorrowful,” said Goodwin, “but he possessed a marvelous sense of humor and he was a great story teller. He was the one who sustained everyone, all his colleagues, during the darkest days of the war.”
After having written so much on some of our more recent presidents, Goodwin discovered some similarities they had with Lincoln. “LBJ was similar to Lincoln in his ability to work with Congress. JFK was a great speechmaker like Lincoln, and FDR had Lincoln’s uncanny ability to sense the mood of the country and know exactly how to steer the nation in the right direction.”
From all this research Goodwin was able to separate Lincoln the man from Lincoln the myth, and she also explored in depth his rivals, who would all become Lincoln’s trusted friends. “During this age politics was an abiding passion in the country,” said Goodwin. “It was similar to the way many of us feel today about sports. People would travel many miles to watch a good debate, and sometimes 10,000 people would show up.”
Goodwin also came to a realization that people went into politics at this time not just for power but because of a civic duty to serve the public. “Our best wanted to go into politics,” said Goodwin, “which isn’t necessarily happening today.”
It was also a learning experience for her to discover that this was an age when most men did not have an easy relationship with their wives. “Men of this time formed strong relationships with other men,” she said, “and women also formed strong relationships with other women. I think this came about because so many of these men left their farms and were lonely till they met other male friends, who filled all sorts of emotional needs. Many of the letters I read between one man and another were extremely intimate and flowery, but I don’t believe any of these men were ever sexual with each other.”
Stephen Spielberg has already optioned the film rights to the book and Liam Neeson is expected to star as Lincoln. “He optioned the rights even before I was finished with the book,” said Goodwin, “and it was fun to work with some of the screenwriters who saw the book in a much more visual way than I saw it. Apparently Spielberg has always wanted to make a Lincoln film.”
These are good days for Doris Kearns Goodwin. Her Lincoln book has received excellent reviews and is selling well. Her beloved Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, and most importantly her son, who just recently made captain in the army, will be discharged and return home on December 18th. “I’m proud of my son,” said Goodwin. “He joined up after 9/11, and after serving in Iraq is now in Germany and soon will be home.”
Both of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s talks are free. For more information call the New York State Writers Institute at 442-5620.