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American Stories

Doris Kearns Goodwin

     ... historian, writer and political analyst, won the Pulitzer Prize for No Ordinary Time and won America’s heart with her memoir Wait Till Next Year. Her bestselling books about the Fitzgeralds, Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson compliment her work as a political analyst on network television and as a regular on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer . Between earning her PhD at Harvard and returning there to teach, she served as a White House Fellow in the Johnson Administration. She now lives with her husband and three sons in Concord, Massachusetts.


What do Franklin Roosevelt and PeeWee Reese, captain of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s, have in common? The greatness of leadership, according to Pulitzer Prize winning historian and baseball fanatic Doris Kearns Goodwin. Ultimately, we can never completely understand the mystery of leadership, but we can learn from the stories of those whose greatness we can now see. Roosevelt had a genius for letting people release their energy, feelings, and emotions for a common cause. Reese’s personal acceptance of Jackie Robinson, organized baseball’s first Black player, helped America’s baseball fans accept Robinson, too.

The subject here is much more than celebrity. The subject is nothing less than how does one release the energy of individuals -- whether in a family, an organized sport or in the big world -- for a greater good? Dictators just can’t release that energy -- not at home, not at the office, home plate or on the world’s stage. The subject, it turns out, is democracy. Which takes us back to baseball and politics. Both are about how people cooperate over time. Both create a bond, provide the energy required to make things happen. Both require one to think, to resist getting caught up in frenzied activity. And both politics and baseball were at their best when they empowered people, a condition which is diminished today in both sports.

Goodwin is convinced we’ll never fully understand how great leaders attain their greatness, but that does not diminish her fascination with their human-ness. The Roosevelts, Fitzgeralds, Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson and the men who filled the starting lineup of the Brooklyn Dodgers through most of the 1950’s were regular, ordinary human beings with failings and flaws and domestic troubles. And they were leaders at the same time. Goodwin works to understand the mixture.  The answers to many of her questions, she believes, are buried in the details of everyday life. Hence, her meticulous historical searches.

What’s today’s challenge? To draw people together without the artifice of war, to make people feel their public actions are part of their private lives, to find ways for people to feel connected. Goodwin is an optimist (remember, she was a Brooklyn Dodgers’ fan.) And it is her sense of history that gives her hope. Goodwin believes great leadership will return.

Known for her savvy political analysis, Goodwin offers us America’s stories -- in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt -- and she’s confident we can recapture our connectedness. Still mesmerized by how the ordinary and extraordinary come together to create great leaders, you won’t be surprised by her next book: the life and times of Abraham Lincoln and those around him who came to measure themselves by him.


By their stories shall ye know them.


[This Program was recorded November 21, 1997, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Doris Kearns Goodwin shares her love of stories and history with Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. She describes the origins of that love, setting the stage with stories from her childhood when baseball and storytelling were central. She recalls a transforming childhood moment in Franklin Roosevelt’s study when she understood the power of stories, “if you get it right.”

Conversation 2

Ms. Goodwin describes what led her to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the times in which they lived. She describes the process by which she wrote No Ordinary Time, the resources from which she drew and how she fit the pieces of the puzzle together. She uses Rose and Joe Kennedy as examples of how historians gather information and tells stories of how differently people understand (or fail to understand) their place in history. With Abraham Lincoln (the subject of Ms. Goodwin’s next book) providing examples, Ms. Goodwin describes the historian’s hope of recreating a time which is inaccessible to most of us, the process by which that historian puts together the pieces gleaned in research to create a larger sense of what actually was going on. She salutes the power of details and stories with examples from her youth.

Conversation 3

Writers and historians often have a stronger connection to baseball than to other sports, according to Ms. Goodwin who shares her theory for why that is.
She tells stories about how Franklin Roosevelt used history to free the energy of a free people.  She goes on to celebrate the strengths democracy has over dictatorships. She uses the 1960's as an example of how political leaders must be aware of where opinion is in order to move people forward, wishing that today’s political leaders would throw away all the polls and go with their instincts. She tells why she is optimistic real leadership will return. She recalls Franklin Roosevelt’s confidence in himself and America and suggests current leaders of all kinds would do well to emulate Roosevelt’s ability to resist frenzied activity.

Conversation 4

Ms. Goodwin makes her points about both the mysteries and the art of leadership with baseball tales.  She describes how baseball took its place in the American psyche in an earlier time and the powerful good sports can do. She relates sports to the political arena and our connections to our leaders.  The role of the press is examined in this context. Ms. Goodwin is optimistic we can restore balance to the relationship between our leaders and the press, concerned about the high price we pay for our current lack of perspective. She worries about the diminished lack of connection Americans have to each other and to being American.

Conversation 5

Ms. Goodwin uses examples from baseball and from today’s political scene to assert the importance of people cooperating over time. She describes our current challenge to gather the energy required to fire collective hopes when we have so much competition for our attention. She compares Abraham Lincoln’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s challenges with what faces today’s leaders.  Democracy’s enormous power to release the energy of great masses of people is contrasted with the apparent efficiencies of dictatorships. Ms. Goodwin describes her concerns about mobilizing people in democracies where there is no war, then cites great historical figures who did so.

Conversation 6

Ms. Goodwin recounts her great nightmare of meeting the presidents about who she has written. She shares what most interests her as she recreates the daily lives of great leaders when the ordinary and the extraordinary merge.  Ms. Goodwin recounts her great nightmare of meeting the presidents about who she has written. She shares what most interests her as she recreates the daily lives of great leaders when the ordinary and the extraordinary merge.


Ms. Goodwin was as generous with her time and attention as she is meticulous in her work. The gathering she occasioned in The Pub of The Commerce Club of Atlanta was special. We thank her.

Patty Zugami at Simon & Schuster went well beyond the call of duty to assure that our visit with Ms.Goodwin would be memorable. It was.

Related Links:

Wait Till Next Year and No Ordinary TIme are published by Simon &  Schuster.

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