A Conversation with Doris Kearns Goodwin

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of several distinguished works on the great progressive presidents, including Team of Rivals, on Lincoln and his Cabinet; No Ordinary Time, on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and World War II; Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream; and The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner talked with Goodwin about presidential leadership. They spoke at her home in Concord, Massachusetts, near the spot where the American Revolution began.

Robert Kuttner: You've written extensively about the great transformative presidents, Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, and the promise of John Kennedy. Considering all the damage that has been done to the very idea of a collective good, the task facing the next president will go far beyond the normal challenge of finding the votes to legislate. For progress to be made, this would have to be one of those periods of transformation in how public opinion views America. How should the next president think about this enterprise of leadership?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: History suggests that unless a progressive president is able to mobilize widespread support for significant change in the country at large, it's not enough to have a congressional majority. For example, Bill Clinton had a Democratic majority when he failed to get health reform. When you look at the periods of social change, in each instance the president used leadership not only to get the public involved in understanding what the problems were but to create a fervent desire to address those problems in a meaningful way.

I'm working on a new book on Teddy Roosevelt and the muckrakers. He faced a conservative Congress. But the muckrakers created, in the middle class especially, an understanding of what had to be done in conservation, in food and drug legislation, in the regulation of the railroads. They revealed in long, factual, investigative pieces the way in which Standard Oil and the trusts were constricting opportunity for smaller, independent businesses. Then, with an aroused public, TR was able to pressure the Congress to do something. Similarly, in the early days of the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt used the power of the bully pulpit in his famous fireside chats to drive home to the country at large the need for significant federal legislation in a wide range of areas to ease the problems of the Great Depression.

RK: The public has been trained for 30 years to think that there's really nothing great the government can do, except perhaps to prevent attacks. Where do you start? How do you change public opinion so that you can then change legislative direction?

DKG: The next president has to be able to express a sense of what America can be, what America has been in the past, and what it is not now. It has to be overarching; it cannot be just "we need this program and this program and this program." He or she has to remind us what made people come to this country in the first place -- the belief that here, as Lincoln famously said, we had formed a government "whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men -- to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life." The first and the most difficult task for the new president will be to remind people what made America so special in the first place, to create an emotional desire on their part to bring our performance closer to that ideal, to make clear the wide array of artificial weights that still prevent far too many people from having a fair chance in the race of life, and then and only then to propose the legislative programs or executive actions that will address these shortcomings.

RK: What about the assault on the Constitution and the false framing of liberty and security being at odds with each other? Does the new president criticize what Bush and Cheney did, in the same way that Franklin Roosevelt criticized the economic royalists? I fear that the Democrats have been so traumatized by the fear-mongering that they may want to prove that they're just as tough as the Republicans are. How would you have a Democratic president lead on that set of issues?

DKG: What's important, again, is to educate the country about the importance of protecting liberty even in times of crisis. Justice Thurgood Marshall acknowledged that the "grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure," but that is when they need most to be protected. Franklin Roosevelt's decision to send the Japanese-Americans to internment camps was one of the greatest violations of civil rights in our history. It began with a false assessment by the military that the Japanese-Americans were a substantial threat to national security. Racism further fueled the claim of "military necessity." Eleanor Roosevelt thought the Japanese internment and the failure to bring more Jewish refugees into the country were two significant stains on the otherwise extraordinary presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. When Lincoln issued the suspension of habeas corpus, he did so with sadness. He explained why it had to be done, and he confined it to the single route where the Union troops were being blocked by secessionists in Maryland from reaching Washington, D.C. He explained that the Confederate insurrection had subverted the "whole of the laws," and asked, "Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?" In other words, unless the troops could defend the Union in Washington, the entire Constitution would be subverted.

The president has to look philosophically at this whole question of liberty and security over time, to see when security had to take an upper hand and when the subversion of liberty was unnecessary. People have to grow into an understanding again about these issues. We have to re-educate them, in a certain sense, about why that liberty is so important.

I don't think it's going to be that helpful to simply investigate what went on in the Bush administration because people lose patience with that, though it's important to make sure that ongoing violations of liberty are changed. Lincoln liked to say that time is precious. He didn't have time to retaliate for things that had hurt him in the past so long as he could correct them in the present. When he lost his temper, he would immediately follow up with a kind letter to the person, assuring them that he didn't have sufficient time to keep his temper up. The Democrats don't have sufficient time in the first couple years of a new presidency to spend it looking backward. They have to re-educate the country and explain how liberty and security can exist together, that they must exist together. At the Democratic candidates' debate in Las Vegas they were asked for a one-word answer to the question: "Which is more important, security or human rights?" It was ridiculous.

RK: If a new Democratic president decided to give a very bold speech or series of speeches coupled with executive actions to transform the way Americans think about global warming, or universal health insurance, or about reclaiming the Constitution and redefining the connection between liberty and security, do you think public opinion today can be dramatically moved?

DKG: I think it's the only answer. It would have to be something very large, framed philosophically, like a speech to a joint session of Congress. There's still something about getting the whole government together and seeing the Supreme Court justices there, the Cabinet, the House, the Senate. The country watches, and that may be the equivalent today of Roosevelt's fireside chats, because nothing else can mobilize the people to focus. Even with all the fragmentation of cable television, there remains the ritual of those big Joint Session moments. I think you're going to have to do a few of those.

RK: Do you think recent Republican presidents have been better than Democrats at using the ritual power and the symbolism of the presidency, and at winning points for gumption even from people who don't agree with the particulars?

DKG: Well, certainly Reagan was. Reagan was brilliant at symbolism and making the country feel that he had their interests in his heart, and he transmitted a contagious optimism that allowed him to move public opinion in his direction. Somehow his ideology of reducing government's intrusion came across as patriotic. You think about the flags that constantly surrounded him and the reassurance of his voice and the fact that he wasn't just ranting about the opposition. He created a generation of young conservatives, in part because he captured the symbolism. I think Democrats have not been as understanding of the importance that ritual and symbolism play in making people feel connected to the country and connected to what the leader is saying.

RK: We've steadily lost ground for 30 years in using government as an instrument of public purpose. How do you win back public opinion on that?

DKG: Teddy Roosevelt had to persuade people that the government should be the steward of the public welfare. Prior to his presidency, you had three decades of mostly Republican rule, with an ideological belief that business always acted for the benefit of the country. TR had to put forth the presidency as a balancing force. He personified what government could accomplish for the public good. And then obviously FDR went way beyond what Teddy Roosevelt was able to do in making people feel that the government was their friend. Letters would come in to the White House saying, "My roof fell off, my wife is mad at me, the dog ran away, but you're in the White House so I'm going to be OK." People really felt a sense that he was acting to protect their interests.

It's important to remember that before Lyndon Johnson secured his historic legislative victories on civil rights, Medicare, and federal aid to education, he gave very powerful speeches. Dick Goodwin, my husband, was involved in many of those speeches. Those speeches talked about not just what government's role was, they talked about what America's possibilities were and what we owed to our citizenry not just in civil rights but in terms of natural beauty, in terms of educating people. If you look back on them, those speeches are much more philosophical than most of the speeches have been in the last decades.

But then after Reagan, progressives have been fearful of talking big about the role of government. Clinton famously declared that the era of big government was over. I remember I was so disheartened by that. Obviously there will always be inefficiencies in bureaucracy, obviously some tasks are better handled by the private sector, but we have to believe again in collective responsibility. There's a balance, of course, between individualism and collective responsibility, but we have to understand that when we operate as a community and when we work collectively together, that's when great things get done. We'll feel enlarged by that, and the country will be the country that we had hoped it would be in the beginning.

RK: Democrats, going back to Jimmy Carter, seem to have gotten stuck in a small-scale incremental mentality that doesn't really inspire anybody. It's not just a product of divided government because Carter had a big Democratic majority and Clinton started with a Democratic majority. Is there a risk that this habit of settling for small-scale incremental gains that aren't transforming people's lives, that aren't inspiring, will spill over into how the next Democratic president thinks about his or her job?

DKG: It's been four decades, really, since we've had a belief in transformative policies. It's partly because, when they get in office, the pollsters say to them, "You need to have a success quickly." It's almost like the equivalent of the business quarterly reports. Supposedly, you build on that little success, and maybe you'll get the next one. But that's not the way it works. At this critical period in American life success has to come from transforming attitudes toward government, transforming attitudes toward the relationship of liberty to security, transforming what responsibilities we owe to the citizens who are struggling, why the growing gap between rich and poor is such a problem. Presidential leadership has to mobilize people to want something more from their country. It's also a question of timing. A great leader has to understand that when the country is mobilized, then you can decide which program you go for, instead of going for the program first. It's almost like they have it backward.

RK: Would you be happier if the Democratic candidates and the eventual Democratic nominee were talking more like this as a part of the campaign?

DKG: Absolutely. The debates don't give them much chance to do that, but even during the debates I keep wishing some of them would talk about the country and what it is that has made this country so great in the past, what its problems are, where this enormous gap is between our promise and the reality of what's happening to so many of our citizens. The way that questions get framed in these debates; they're talking in smaller and smaller dimensions. Driver's licenses for immigrants took up almost four weeks of discussion -- that's precious time being lost. The media just gets stuck on one issue, so it's a hard thing for the candidates to fight against whatever is being discussed that week.

RK: Historically, who has used the occasion of the campaign to motivate voters and move public opinion in a potentially transforming direction?

DKG: Kennedy in 1960 wasn't all that specific about what he wanted to see changed, but he created an atmosphere where citizens wanted the country to get moving again on solving its problems. Programmatically, that seemed to mean solving the problems that had been left unsolved in the '50s, like civil rights, medical care for the aged, or federal aid to education. He created a yearning to solve these problems and then helped create an activist generation. The civil-rights movement had as much to do with it as anything. That was beginning to build in the late '50s, but Kennedy provided a legitimacy and a welcoming to it. When he announced the Peace Corps in a speech at the University of Michigan, suddenly thousands of people were signing up for a nonexistent Peace Corps. So something was already out there, but there was an appeal to that generation to want to be more involved in their country's problems, as he said of course in his inaugural. And then in '64 Lyndon Johnson laid out a sharp difference between what he wanted to do and what Goldwater was suggesting.

RK: One of the conceits among the pundits is that the country is sick of partisan bickering and needs a kind of new centrism -- as if the arguments between liberals and conservatives did not involve principled differences. I think historically the great progressives got some Republicans to do their bidding, not by splitting the difference with them but by leading.

DKG: Exactly. Roosevelt brought Henry Stimson and Frank Knox into his War Cabinet, which was a great thing to do, but these were progressive Republicans who believed in internationalism, who believed that Hitler posed a great threat to the country. And similarly when Lyndon Johnson persuaded the Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen to come with him on civil rights, he was not making some sort of a centrist compromise. On the contrary, Johnson said to him, "Dirksen, come with me on this bill. Help me break this filibuster. I need your Republicans, because there aren't enough Democrats to do it given the split in the Democratic Party in the South." So first, Johnson promised Dirksen everything under the sun, the whole state of Illinois would be filled with public works projects. But then he said to him, "Dirksen, you come with me on this bill, and ninety-nine years from now the NAACP will be flying your banner," and finally, "Dirksen, you come with me on this bill and two hundred years from now school children will know only two names: Abraham Lincoln and Everett Dirksen." So he appealed to Dirksen's best interests and made Dirksen feel that his own legacy was on the line. I think you have to find those Republicans who can be persuaded that where you are trying to take them is where the country needs to go and that they will feel proud to be part of that forward movement.

The search for consensus at all costs can be paralyzing. Lincoln understood that absolutely. He listened to all different points of view, for example, on Emancipation, for months. And there were fiery arguments inside the Cabinet with the conservative members saying, "If you issue an Emancipation Proclamation the South will never come to the peace table, the war will go on much longer, you will lose the border states." And meanwhile there were radicals saying, "Do it immediately without worrying about the consequences." So he listened to all these arguments, but eventually he came to the decision himself in July 1862 that he was going to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. So he called his Cabinet together and essentially said, "I have resolved to do this. I am no longer asking your advice on the decision itself, but I'll listen to your suggestions on its implementation and its timing."

The desire for bipartisanship should mean the desire to have the president listen to opinions from all sorts of people, to bring in different points of view, to create an environment where people can disagree without fear of being marginalized. But then, in the end, the president's convictions have to be what governs the day. The tactical question becomes: Can you bring along people from the other side of the aisle because you've educated them, too? That's the breaking down of excess partisanship that our country needs. It's not a matter of just saying, "Well, let's find the common ground where everybody agrees," because that's not how true leadership works.

RK: What I admire about Reagan and even about Bush, if I can use the word admire in the same sentence with Bush, is they were willing to say, "Polls be damned, I'm going to spend some political capital on what I believe, and I'm going to move public opinion in my direction and people will admire me for standing for what I believe" -- the opposite of what many political scientists teach about elected officials seeking the median voter. Do you think the next Democratic president is capable of saying: "Polls be damned, I'm going to be a leader?"

DKG: He or she has to understand that the poll is just a static representation of where people's opinions are at that moment, and the job is to move those people forward. When you think about speeches in the last three decades, some of them may have been charming, some of them may have been interesting, some may have even been moving, but the important thing is: Did they mobilize people to do anything? Roosevelt once said it's a terrible thing to look behind you when you think there's a parade following you and see no one there. That was after he gave his speech in 1937 on the need to "Quarantine the Dictators." Many people in the Congress were so upset to think that he was entangling the country in Europe's problems that he was threatened with impeachment. He didn't stop moving forward, but he understood that he had to move one step at a time in educating the country to where he could take bolder actions. And step by step he moved, so that even before Pearl Harbor, he had made his destroyer deal, secured a peacetime draft, and created the Lend Lease Program.

He took risks with each of these actions, but with each step he shaped public opinion more and more toward understanding that Hitler was not simply Europe's problem. At the start of the debates on Lend Lease in Congress the majority of the people were against it, and by the time the debate finished they were for it. And that's when FDR said the decisions of democracy may be slowly arrived at, but when they come, they are spoken with the voice of millions rather than one man. That's what these candidates and potential presidents have to be willing to recognize, that their major job is to establish a connection with the citizenry. That's where the qualities of empathy, authenticity, and willingness to really stake your positions and then move people toward them are really going to be critical.

RK: It seems that great leaders are creatures of their time. Not that every critical time produces a great leader, but every great leader you think of is a leader during a time of crisis.

DKG: Lincoln gave a famous speech when he was a young man in which he lamented the fact that his generation didn't have the challenges that the Founding Fathers had. They had won their deathless names, they had mountains and rivers and streams named after them, for they had created the government, and he feared there was little left for his generation but modest ambitions. Maybe a seat in Congress, maybe even a presidency without purpose.

RK: This is what year?

DKG: In 1838. Then of course the slavery issue created that momentum, and his generation faced challenges even greater than the Founding Fathers'. A century later, in 1930, the Depression was there as a major challenge but Hoover was not able to rise to the challenge, though he had almost three years to do so. Franklin Roosevelt did. Obviously, September 11 was such a moment for a president. I've often thought had Bush really understood what FDR did at the time of World War II, there was so much opportunity for him. Number one, if you're going to have a long-sustained war, FDR understood you had to mobilize the citizenry in every possible way. So he had civilian defense corps in the cities. Suppose we had such people in the cities today, and then Katrina happened, there might have been a citizenry already prepared for handling emergencies. Suppose he had asked for an expansion of the Public Health Service because we were worried about biological attack; it would have been a great good in itself. Suppose he had asked for a tax -- in every other war taxes were raised -- instead of a tax cut. And what if he had brought in, as Roosevelt did, like-minded Democrats into his inner circle? There would have then been a wider range of opinions when the time came to wage war on Iraq.

And if the president had openly challenged our factories to produce the weapons that were needed, we wouldn't have had soldiers riding around in unarmored Humvees. At the beginning of World War II, it took 365 days to make a cargo ship. By 1943 it took one single day. The factories worked three shifts around the clock, they had day-care centers, and they produced a prodigious outpouring of ships and tanks and guns and weapons. The idea we couldn't produce the kinds of vehicles and protective devices that our soldiers need in Iraq is incomprehensible.

And if only the president had asked for more people to join the armed forces, I believe there would have been a great response. I think you know our son joined right after September 11. He had graduated from Harvard that previous June and had given no thought to the army until the terrorist attack. Many others joined at that same time, but I believe tens of thousands more would have volunteered had a presidential appeal been made. But the DOD wanted a smaller, more mobile army, which has led to the serious deficiencies we face today where the National Guard troops are having these second and third tours of duty. It's just not fair. At least for our son Joe and people like Joe, who entered knowing they were giving four years, they knew what they were getting into.

RK: Is he home?

DKG: Yes. He won a bronze star and came home. It was an extraordinary experience. He had a year of combat in Baghdad, where he was a platoon leader. His experience in some ways was a metaphor for the war because he got there soon after Saddam's statue was pulled down, right after the mission was presumed accomplished, when there was still hope that the mission could be one of peaceful reconstruction. He would e-mail us saying that he was going into Iraqi homes, and they were having discussions about free will and determinism. He, as an American, trying to teach them that fate doesn't have to define your life. But then as soon as these insurgencies started, there were no more dinners at the Iraqi homes, no more peaceful missions. Instead his platoon was involved in checkpoint duty, weapon searches, and nightly patrols making themselves a target to flush the insurgents out. But even with all of that, the experience of being with those soldiers in his platoon and growing through that hardship is something he wouldn't have changed.

September 11 was a presidential moment, and anything could have been possible. I don't hear the candidates talking about that either. They bash Bush, but they should be showing what might have been possible. You have to give people a sense of what might have happened. There was a turning point when the citizenry was simply asked, as we all know, to shop rather than to do any of these things, to contribute in any other way.

RK: You just weep thinking of what a great president might have done with 9-11. Instead, Bush is bequeathing to his successor such an unbelievable mess. What kind of a burden does that place on the next president, assuming that the next president does have the potential to be a great leader?

DKG: Maybe in a perverse way if the president were able right up front to acknowledge how deep the problems are that we're facing, deeper than we faced for a long period of time, and show how interconnected they are -- what's happened in Iraq, with the opinion about us in the world at large, what's been spent in Iraq in terms of the deficit, what needs to be done at home. If he can acknowledge to himself and to his inner circle and then figure out how to transmit to the country at large that this is a very, very challenging time for America, that many things are intertwined right now, that if they don't go right we're on a downward path.

If the president were able, right up front, to recognize the magnitude of the situation, but at the same time recall -- and this is where history can come to bear -- that our country has seen problems this deep before. We saw it in the Civil War, in the Depression, in World War II, we saw it in the early days of the civil-rights movement. You have to show that with presidential leadership and active citizenry, we were able to come through those. As president, you almost have to tell yourself that this is a crisis of that magnitude, and then that would play into the ambition of wanting to be a great president in order to deal with the crisis. Instead of defining it in programmatic ways, define it as one of the more difficult situations that any president has faced for decades.

RK: We've had presidents like Hoover and Bush, and I would add Carter, who faced moments of great challenge and failed to seize the moment. Other presidents like Roosevelt or Johnson or Lincoln faced deep crisis and rose to the occasion. It reminds me of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune." But if you fail to catch that wave, you are stuck "in shallows and in miseries." Does the leader make the event, or does the event make the leader? Do you see that spark of greatness in any of the contenders?

DKG: You know, even in 1860 Lincoln wasn't perceived as the Lincoln we have come to know. Indeed, it was said that he was a fourth-rate lecturer who couldn't even speak good grammar. Those who knew him saw that he was unique, but the country was just getting to know him. Before his presidency, FDR was seen by many as a charming person but as something of a lightweight. And Lyndon Johnson -- certainly people would never have guessed he would have been the champion of civil rights. No one fully saw that spark of greatness. Part of the problem is that we haven't had a platform for today's leaders to exhibit their talents on. The way our system is now working we don't really get to see the larger dimensions of the candidates. They're forced into these artificial debates, artificial sparring back and forth with one another. And wherever they've come from, the House or the Senate, there hasn't been that chance for large pieces of legislation to give honor to their name or even serious arguments about big issues.

RK: Given the stupidity of polls and the mindlessness of the questions being asked during the debates, do you think that a candidate with the potential for greatness can transcend that?

DKG: I think it's been a huge mistake to have these debates week after week. It just means that the vital energies of the candidates are forced into this narrow framework, rather than really trying to assemble a team that can help them think about the problems largely and how they want to appeal to people in the larger sense. Each debate somebody is said to win or lose, and then they change course depending on what they want to do the next time. It's not broadening them.

The hope would be that the primary elections decide the candidacies early; that the nominee will realize that it's not enough to just simply win this election and have a presidency without much purpose; and that they begin the process right then of educating the country during the campaign. My hope is that the nominee will appreciate that they're going into an entirely new arena with the chance to be president, not just a continuation of the primaries, to recognize that the whole game is only worth it if you're going to be able to leave something behind that you can be proud of.

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