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Doris Kearns Goodwin Talks With AARP Bulletin

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[AARP] [Real Possibilities] [Historian and presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin chats with the AARP Bulletin] [Doris Kearns Goodwin] Well, you know, the interesting thing is that when I look back on history now, the reason I think I've chosen the people that I've written about— whether it was Lincoln during the Civil War or FDR during World War II, or Lyndon Johnson in the '60s, or Teddy in the Progressive Era is, those were eras when the people cared about public issues— when they were mobilized to have the big public issues of the time cut across their private life. When people in universities, people in settlement houses— young people felt they were a part of something larger than themselves. And it's interesting, because in the Teddy Roosevelt era, McClure, the editor of the great McClure's magazine, "In the end," he said, "In the end there's no one left but all of us." And that's still true today— somebody—if I were younger, I would be out there trying to get a constitutional amendment on campaign finance to undo the restrictions that have now been taken away— it just makes no sense, the amount of time that all of our Congresspeople and Senators are spending raising money and not doing the public business. So that's why, for me, it has been such an honor, in a way, to spend my life looking at those eras, which I deliberately choose, where I can be happy again. I mean, it's bizarre to say you were happy during the Civil War. But nonetheless, it was a generation that knew that they were changing history, as was Lincoln, as was that generation in the Congress. And I think one of the great things at the Civil Rights time with LBJ is—I think Hubert Humphrey may have said something about, "Your children's children will remember this day," when the Civil Rights Act passed. And then the great thing about LBJ is that even after the Civil Rights Act passed, he then says, "We're going for voting rights the next year" And everybody says, "You can't— the country has to absorb the Civil Rights struggle," and he said, "No. "Voting rights is the meat in the coconut." He had this great way of talking. And, "I'm going for it." And then he put it in the State of the Union message— but then, again, that great partnership with the outside movement, when Martin Luther King and the Selma demonstrations took place, he decided at the very last moment, "I'm going to a joint session of Congress," on a Sunday, when the demonstrators were being beat up, he decided on Monday night to go to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965 to call for voting rights. And my husband, Richard Goodwin, worked for LBJ at the time and was involved in the writing of that great We Shall Overcome speech. I still think it's one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century. And Johnson delivered it perfectly. You know, "History and fate meet at a certain point, at a certain time— "so it was in Lexington and Concord— so it was Appomatox— "so it was in Selma, Alabama. "This is not a Negro problem, it's not a white problem, "it's an American problem. It's going to be difficult, but we shall overcome." And when he used the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement— which, again, is a movement pressuring him, too, from the outside in—it meant that, for a moment, they were one. And that's—that's the night I remember. I was a graduate student at Harvard— we were watching that speech. And if I had ever imagined that night when I watched that speech that I would eventually meet my husband, Richard Goodwin, and he would be the one who had helped LBJ on that speech, it would have been impossible to imagine. And just—I must say, in adding, that one of the reasons why I'm so glad to be able to talk to you is to watch this turn for LBJ in history means everything to me. I mean, I knew him so well when I was in my 20s, and it all started in this crazy way when I was selected as a White House fellow. And I was 24 years old— we had a dance at the White House— and he did dance with me— not that peculiar, there were only 3 women out of the 16 White House fellows. But as he twirled me around the floor, he whispered— he wanted me to be assigned directly to him in the White House. But it was not to be that simple, because in the months leading up to my selection, like many young people, I had been active in the anti-Vietnam War movement, and had written an article against him, which unfortunately came out in the New Republic 2 days after the dance in the White House. And the title of the article was How to Remove Lyndon Johnson from Power. I was certain he would kick me out of the program, but instead, surprisingly, he said, "Oh, bring her down here for a year, and if I can't win her over, no one can." So I did end up working for him in the White House, and then accompanied him to his ranch to help him on his memoirs the last years of his life. And he was the most formidable, fascinating, frustrating, incredible character I've ever met. And because he was lonely in those last years of his life, he opened up to me in ways he never would have. If I'd known him at the height of the power, he would never have had time to talk to me. But he talked to me, and he was particularly worried about how history would remember him. And for me to still be alive now to see this 50th anniversary of his Civil Rights legislation— not just the Civil Rights Act of '64, but voting rights, open housing, eventually Medicare, Education Head Start, Public Broadcasting— I mean, it's astonishing what he did. And we took it for granted for a while. And now we see this dysfunctional Congress, you realize how extraordinary it was that he got done what he did. And when I was down in Austin—just there— and there's President Obama, and President Clinton, and President Carter, and young President Bush singing his praises, I just wish he'd been alive to see that happen. But his family is, and Luci and Lynda Johnson— you could feel the pride and the enormous sense of happiness they felt— that we're watching right now— it takes a while for history to catch up with people, and the war will always be a problem for him, but his domestic accomplishments were gigantic. And I think the country now is beginning to realize that. And I will bet you that, years from now, historians are going to bring him up on that historians' ranking of—way beyond where he is now. I hope so.

Video Details

Duration: 5 minutes and 56 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Views: 39
Posted by: aarp on May 28, 2014

The famous historian and biographer shares insight on why she chose the people she wrote about.

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