Q&A: Team Of Rivals Author Doris Kearns Goodwin

Before her Dec 2 appearance at Manhattanville College as part of its Castle Conversations series, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin chatted with us about her favorite presidents, the craziness that is today’s election cycle, and how baseball helped spark her love of history.

Q: How did you become so passionate about history? 

A: My high school history teacher, Miss Austin, had an enormous impact on me. I can still remember when she was talking about Franklin Roosevelt dying, she actually cried. The idea that a teacher could allow her emotions to become part of the story she was telling made me feel, This is pretty great! But I also attribute my love of history to my father teaching me the mysterious art of keeping score in baseball games—that was a miniaturized historical lesson. 

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Q: Do you have a favorite president among the ones you’ve studied?

A: Probably Lincoln. There’s something about Lincoln’s humanity and goodness as a person, that emotional intelligence he had so deeply. I spent 10 years writing my book on Lincoln. And then [went through] the process of getting the movie made with [Steven] Spielberg: working with [Tony] Kushner on the script, watching Daniel Day-Lewis become him…that whole experience and spending so much time on Lincoln was extraordinary.

Q: How do you explain your popularity with the general public when academic history books don’t typically carry mass appeal?

A: In the last 30 or 40 years, there’s been a number of historians who’ve made that crossover. I think all of us share the desire to tell [history] to the reader in a way that they, too, get caught up in the story and care about whoever the main characters are. I think the story is what captures people.

Q: It seems the typical American today is poorly informed on history, especially political history and the inner workings of our government. Why do you think that is?

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A: The world today is so present to the younger generation that the attention span—not just for history but for almost anything—has been diminished. The distractions of being on Facebook, the Internet, Instagram…take away everybody’s ability to really sit down and read and absorb information. Also, in the old days, politics was the main spectator sport. People would go to political events…and would listen to debates that might go on for four hours because it was part of the political culture. 

Q: Let’s talk about the 2016 presidential election. It’s been a wacky campaign season already. Can you share any predictions for what else we should expect?

A: It’s a two-sided coin: On the one hand, we’ve seen enormous popular interest in these debates. Millions of people are watching. But is that because they became “events,” with the celebrity status some of the candidates have? Or is it because people are really interested this early in the election? I think what you really need to happen during this primary process is to understand what kind of leaders the candidates might be.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals served as the main source for Steven Spielberg’s hit film Lincoln. Goodwin is pictured at the film’s premiere, in 2012, in Los Angeles.

We should be looking at the kind of leadership they have shown wherever they were: in Congress, in a hospital, in a business. Did they inspire their staffs? Were they willing to admit error? Were they able to manage their emotions? Did they keep people around them who could question them? We’re talking about their stands on issues, and that’s fine as long as they can mobilize the country and the Congress to get those issues dealt with.

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Q: As a historian, and also a woman, are you excited about the possibility of Hillary Clinton as president? 

A: There’s no question that America is long behind other countries in having a woman president. I think we’re ready for her, and if she loses, I don’t think it will be because she’s a woman. 

Q: We have such a fractured political climate right now. Will historians look back at this time as particularly bad, or is it all just part of politics?

A: I do think the last 30 to 40 years have been tougher than before. Even in the 1960s, when you look at the extraordinary bipartisanship that produced the Civil Rights Bill and Medicare, the political culture was different. Republicans and Democrats weren’t going home every weekend to raise money. They used to stay in Washington on weekends and drink together and play poker together; they knew each other’s spouses and kids, and so when a tough issue came up, they weren’t enemies. Democrats and Republicans were just people with different points of view, and they could compromise. The whole political culture has been diminished, and that’s what needs shifting, not just who’s in Washington, but what they’re doing when they’re there.

Q: How did the plagiarism charges you faced back in 2002 change the way you approach researching and writing? What did the experience teach you?

A: I think you just learn that you’re going to spend as much time making sure that the attributions and the quotes are as accurate as they can possibly be. Every experience, if you learn from it, can help you in the future rather than hurt. And that’s certainly been true.

Q: Do you have a next book on the horizon?

A: I’m working on leadership. I’m taking my four guys—Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson—[and studying] how they identified themselves as leaders. How did they communicate? How did they manage their emotions? It’s a way of gathering all the knowledge and insight [I’ve accumulated about them] over these years and putting it together in book. 

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