World-renowned presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is traveling to the University of Maine on April 18 as the keynote speaker of Leadership Week, a celebration for the inauguration of Paul W. Ferguson, the 19th president of the university.
Her speech, free to the public, is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Collins Center for the Arts.
“Each generation feels they are starting from ground zero,” Goodwin said in a recent phone interview from her home in Concord, Mass. “But there really are conflicts in the past that are similar to today. People had to deal with leadership struggles, building teams, all sorts of challenges that aren’t that dissimilar to problems we face today. The human nature qualities in leadership are universal.”
Goodwin is the author of several best-selling books on U.S. presidents, including “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The American Home Front During World War II,” awarded the Pulitzer Prize in April 1995.
The great leaders she has spent her life studying — Abraham Lincoln, William Taft, Lyndon B. Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt and the Kennedys — have a few things in common, she said. All of them gathered people around themselves as confidants to question and argue, allowing for diverse points of view. In addition, leaders have the rare skill to put their vision in a nutshell and deliver it to the public.
“Lincoln, his speeches have lasted forever because he could communicate his vision in a way that people can remember and act on,” she said.
Goodwin plans to arrive on campus by 2 p.m. for a question-and-answer session with students. And after a dinner at the president’s house, she’ll head to the colorfully lit CCA to deliver her speech.
As with many writers, she finds it natural to speak in stories.
“I believe that the stories from the past, really studying what people before us did — their triumphs, losses, how they get through adversity, how they dealt with it — has lessons for how to plan for the future,” she said. “I have to believe that or everything I do doesn’t make any sense.”
And Goodwin has some fascinating stories to tell.
Of all her extraordinary accomplishments, nothing quite matches up to the honor and value of having been a 24-year-old White House intern, Goodwin said.
“That experience of being young and working in the White House with a character of such dimension as LBJ, it really created my desire to study presidents,” she said. “In Harvard, I was actually studying constitutional history, but then I went down to LBJ’s ranch and helped him on his memoirs part time — nothing compares to that.”
President Barack Obama referred to her book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” (2005) during his 2008 political campaign. In fact, he was so moved by her words on Abraham Lincoln’s political philosophy that he gave her a spontaneous phone call.
“What happened is, one day, when he was still running for the nomination, I picked up my cellphone, and on the other end a person said, ‘This is Barack Obama. I just finished ‘Team of Rivals’ and we have to talk,’” Goodwin recalled. “Over time, I got to know him. There have been three different dinners at the White House of historians. We have dinner and talk to him of lessons of the past. Most recently, he invited us to the dinner the queen [of England] gave at the Buckingham Palace … It was an adventure.”
The history revealed in Goodwin’s writing not only has the ability to inspire the leaders of the nation, it also has the ability to entertain.
Stephen Spielberg picked up “Team of Rivals” and ran with it — or rather, acquired the rights to develop a feature film based on the book. “Lincoln” is set to be released in December 2012, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln.
“I’ve seen scripts all along the way, and they really care about historical accuracy and all sorts of details of what even minor characters looked like,” Goodwin said. “When I was down in Richmond [watching a filming session], the White House set was a warehouse building. It was so amazing when I walked in. It was what the White House would have looked like in the 1860s. It was like being taken back to that time, from the wallpaper to the rugs.”
Paired with her life as an author, Goodwin appears regularly on network television programs and was an on-air consultant for PBS documentaries on Lyndon B. Johnson, the Kennedy Family, Franklin Roosevelt and Ken Burns’ “The History of Baseball.”
Born and raised on Long Island, New York, Goodwin grew up a Dodgers fan, inherited from her father. For more than two decades, she reported on baseball, and she was the first female journalist to enter the Red Sox locker room — due to a lucky circumstance, she said, adding that it makes for a good New England trivia question.
“We go to tons of [Red Sox] games, more than makes sense,” she said of her family. “We’ll be there opening day and again on April 20th for the 100th anniversary.”
It was through the common love of baseball that she met Stephen King, both serving on a baseball panel. More recently, King and his wife Tabitha joined Goodwin for dinner in Boston to discuss historical details in his November 2011 novel, “11/12/63,” about a man who time travels back to the time of Elvis and JFK.
“We talked about the whole process, what would have happened if Kennedy hadn’t been killed,” Goodwin said. “It was really good. He gets a lot of the detail of what it would have been like in that earlier era … He’s a character. So is his wife.”
Aside from her familiarity with Maine’s celebrated horror novelist, Goodwin has several additional ties to the state. She received her B.A. from Colby College, where she claims to have learned from some of the most knowledgeable and inspiring professors she has met to this day.
“I remember walking out of night seminars of constitutional law, right near the Miller Library, and I could feel the exhilaration of learning, and I could bring that to graduate school,” she said.
When Goodwin met her husband, Richard N. Goodwin — a presidential advisor and writer who worked in the White House under both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson — he owned a house in Kingfield, Maine. The couple now has three grown sons, Richard Jr., Michael and Joe, who is currently running for the Massachusetts State Senate.
“We kept that house [in Kingfield] until the kids were four or five years old,” Goodwin said. “He still loves Maine. We spend every Thanksgiving in Maine because my husband’s best friend, Michael Rothschild, a writer and sculptor, lives in Strong, Maine. We go to his house every Thanksgiving and have a 50-pound turkey and about 10 pies. It’s fabulous.”
When home in Massachusetts, Goodwin has a writing ritual like most every author. She wakes up early, eats breakfast with her husband, then they both get to work writing in their own studies on opposite ends of the house.
“If I had to say what I’m proudest of, it’s being able to balance work over these years with a really close family life,” she said.
She’s currently writing a book on the progressive era: the great friendship and falling out of Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft and the golden age of journalism. She aims to have the book published by fall 2013.
“The book on Franklin and Eleanor [‘No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The American Home Front During World War II’] took longer to write than World War II took to be fought,” Goodwin said. “And the Civil War took twice the time it took me to finish ‘Team of Rivals.’ I’ll never write 40 books, and I’m fine with that.”