Historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin speaks at The Agnes Irwin School
Offers thoughts on the Trump/Clinton race
RADNOR » Doris Kearns Goodwin is a raconteur.
And that’s a good thing since she’s the Pulitzer Prize –winning author of six bestselling books, including her latest, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.”
The well-known presidential historian spoke Wednesday at The Agnes Irwin School, touching on her life, stories about presidents, including President Obama who she recently interviewed for “Vanity Fair,” and how she got her start at the White House when Lyndon Johnson was commander in chief and the Vietnam War was raging. She also touched on the current contentious campaign
for the White House and took questions from students at the conclusion of her talk.
Her work with Johnson on his memoirs “fired within me the drive to find the inner person behind the public figure,” she said. She’s gone on to write about Lincoln, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Kennedys.
People keep asking her, “What’s going on in this election?” she said. “What is going on with Donald Trump? Has history ever seen a candidate like Mr. Trump, a man who has never held public office, never been a leading been a leading military figure, a man who has harnessed popular desires, anxieties to the point where he now has a shot at becoming president?”
“Not really,” she said, but there are similarities to the turn of the last century when the industrial revolution shook up the economy, and there was increasing global trade, immigrants were pouring in, when cities were replacing towns and a gap had developed between the rich and the poor. Changes in our political system and social media have “created the Trump phenomenon,” she said.
Previously party leaders chose the candidates. Earlier in this campaign the talk was about Jeb Bush versus Hillary Clinton, but the Republicans had changed their rules to move away from party leaders choosing the candidate toward primaries, while the Democrats kept a system of super delegates in place that
favored Clinton over challenger Bernie Sanders. A coalition of former President Bill Clinton and President Obama supporters backed Hillary Clinton, she said, because she had served in the Obama administration as secretary of state.
Now, in the general election Obama is “taking the most active role of a president in a century to ensure that his choice, Hillary Clinton, becomes his successor.” Obama recently told a group of African Americans that he would consider it “a personal insult” if they didn’t vote for her, said Goodwin.
Goodwin said she might have played a small part in Hillary Clinton’s rise because after her book, “Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” came out, Obama, and then running for president, called her to talk about Lincoln, who had appointed some of his political opponents to his cabinet.
“The night before Obama’s inauguration I was down there for NBC and I saw Hillary at a party,” said Goodwin. “She came over to me and in a teasing way said, ‘You are responsible for my being secretary of state.’ Not me, of course, again, but Abraham Lincoln.”
She recounted that Teddy Roosevelt and his handchosen successor William Taft, battled after Roosevelt decided to run for a third term against Taft in 1912, who was then the sitting president.
Roosevelt claimed that Taft had capitulated to business interests, but he also had loved being president and in the limelight, Goodwin said. His daughter, Alice, had said that her father “‘wanted to be the baby at the baptism, the bride at the
wedding and the corpse at the funeral,’” Goodwin said. The contest between Roosevelt and Taft “grew vicious,” said Goodwin. With Roosevelt saying Taft had “the brains of a guinea pig” and Taft saying that Roosevelt would be a dictator. While Roosevelt won most of the few primaries held in about 11 states, Taft had the backing of party leaders and became the GOP candidate. Roosevelt then ran as a third-party Bull Moose candidate and split the Republican vote, allowing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win. Primaries fell out of use again until the 1960s, when more and more delegates in each election began to be chosen in primaries and caucuses instead of by party leaders, she said.
Another change has been what aspects of a candidate’s private life are made public, she said. The rule used to be that private lives of public figures were relevant only in respect of how those private issues affected their ability to perform their duties in office. She wondered how the country would have fared without FDR’s leadership if his affair with Lucy Mercer had been reported or if news photographers would have photographed him in a wheelchair.
“That unwritten rule that protected the private lives of our public figures lasted through JFK’s term, when as we know he entertained a lot of young women in the White House,” she said. “It lasted through the the 1970s. It lasted until 1988, when rumors began to spread about Gary Hart’s womanizing.” Hart challenged the reporters to follow him and the result was a photo of the married Hart with a young woman, Donna Rice, in a boat aptly
named “Monkey Business.”
Later, Bill Clinton benefitted from the earlier Hart scandal when his affair with Gennifer Flowers became known. The press was concerned about being criticized for “trivializing” the campaign and the public wanted issues about the economy to be addressed, she said.
“So Clinton got a free pass from the press but as we well know he didn’t learn from this,” said Goodwin. But the question remains, whether this sort of scrutiny keeps the “best people” from going into politics, she said.
“The picture of Hillary Clinton leaving the 9/11 ceremony then stumbling as she got into her car, images from cell phones, raised criticisms of a lack of transparency,” said Goodwin. “Shortly afterwards both candidates released their medical records.”
This wasn’t always the case. When Grover Cleveland was in his second term a cancerous growth was discovered on the roof of his mouth, she said. He had a secret surgery on a yacht and recovered and the public at that time never knew. When Woodrow Wilson had a stroke and was paralyzed on his left side, his condition was kept from the public by his wife and the White House staff. While people knew FDR had polio, they did not know that he could not walk on his own and reporters had “a code of honor” not to report it, she said. When Roosevelt fell at the 1936 Democratic Convention, what was reported was his acceptance speech not the incident, said Goodwin.
Another change has been “the increasing importance of televised debates.” When then Vice President Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy ran against each other in 1960, television audiences thought that the photogenic Kennedy won the debate while radio audiences believed the debate was a tie, she said.
After that debate cheering mobs began to greet Kennedy’s motorcades in the streets and he became a celebrity candidate, she said.
This phenomenon “has been repeated today with the frenzy surrounding Donald Trump’s appearances,” she said.
After the Nixon/Kennedy debate no candidate was willing to debate until President Gerald Ford agreed to debate Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Now the debates were the centerpiece of this year’s primary that led to the nomination of Trump, she said. And gaffes, which used to sink candidates, did not apply and “somehow he moved steadily forward.” Goodwin credited social media and Trump’s use of Twitter for this.
“Never before had a candidate been able to call into a television show and have his little picture on the show without actually being on the screen but the television people knew that they would get bigger audiences, better ratings so there he was,” said Goodwin. “The more the pundits critiqued his statements, the more his support seemed to grow.”
What the effect of the first Trump/Clinton debate will be remains to be seen, she said.
“Can he keep his mojo?” she asked. “Or will he retreat to a defensive mood? And similarly, for Hillary the overwhelming
majority of pundits say that she was better prepared, that her answers were broader she was better able to connect but even more important than her debate performance is that she may get her mojo back.” In the last months, the email controversy has not gone away and there have been concerns about her health, said Goodwin. After her debate success, Clinton may become less “defensive” with the press and “the tone of her campaign may change, she said.
The fifth change, Goodwin said, has been the increasing use by politicians of “negative attacks and personal invective.” She listed the taunts and jabs that Trump made against his opponents during the primary.
Goodwin wished for the days of kinder and gentler discourse, when songs were written about candidates, such as, “Get on a raft with Taft” and “I like Ike” that was written by Irving Berlin.
Goodwin also cited the increasing importance of public opinion polls, which have greatly improved since the days when polls predicted that Thomas Dewey would beat President Harry Truman.
In answering questions from students, Goodwin said, that in the 1960s it was exciting for young people to get involved in politics. The first time they go into the voting booth they will realize it’s “still pretty special” and they will know their vote counts, she told the kids. Also, involving young people is “important for the future of the country,” she said.
Author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin speaks at The Agnes Irwin School.