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If you like Doris Kearns Goodwin's story, you might also like:
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Doris Kearns Goodwin's recommended reading: Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox

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Doris Kearns Goodwin
Doris Kearns Goodwin
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Doris Kearns Goodwin Interview

Pulitzer Prize for History

June 28, 1996
Sun Valley, Idaho

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  Doris Kearns Goodwin

Dr. Goodwin, tell us a bit about your early years, your background, where you came from and where you went to school.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I grew up in Rockville Center, Long Island. My family originally came from Brooklyn, but moved out to the suburbs in the '50s, as so many other people did. It was that time after the war, when having that first home of your own meant a lot to our parents. I went to public high school in Long Island and then went on to Colby College in Maine and then to Harvard where I got a Ph.D. But I've often thought that my love of history was rooted in this experience:

When I was six years old, my father taught me that wonderful and mysterious art of keeping score, so that when he went to work during the day, I could stay home and record the history of that day's Brooklyn Dodger game, play by play, inning by inning. And at night when he would come home, and you're only six years old, and he tells you, "You're doing great as a miniature historian." I think in some ways, that made history have a magic that it still holds for me to this day.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

So you were inspired by your parents and that experience?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think so. I think it was the combination of my close relationship with my father.

My mother was very sick from the time I was born, and died when I was 14. So I think my love of books in some ways came from knowing that she was pretty much bound to the home, and read all the time as a way of learning about other worlds that she would never be able to experience, because she couldn't travel very much because of her heart condition. So books took on a certain kind of magic for me, just as the baseball scores did. So between those two experiences, somehow history and reading became a very important part of my childhood.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Was there a period of history that particularly interested you at that time? What do you think further piqued your curiosity about it?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: As so often happens, there was a teacher in my high school. She actually went on to win an award as the best history teacher in all of New York State. She taught 20th century American history. I'm not sure that it was the subject. I think no matter what she taught me, I would have loved it, had it been medieval history or renaissance history. But she just made it come alive, and I think that was the beginning of a young adult's love of history that carried through later in my life.

Then there was one in college. There was a teacher in college who made you feel that if you could understand everything he was saying, that somehow you'd understand truth, justice, everything. Later, I got to know him very well and he was always somewhat obscure. When I said to him, "If we could only figure out what you say, we would have understood everything". And he said, "Did you ever realize that I just might not have been clear, that I myself didn't know what I was saying?" I said, "Of course not. We just thought we weren't smart enough to figure out what you were saying." But he had that magical ability to make you want to understand things that were beyond your comprehension at that point. Those two teachers were really what did it for me.

Do you remember their names?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Absolutely. Louise Alston was the teacher in high school and Al Mavernack was my teacher at Colby College. I went to Harvard Graduate School, got a Ph.D., taught at Harvard for ten years, but there were never better teachers in that august institution than I had in those two schools. It just shows that there are great teachers in all levels of institution all over the country. So many kids think unless they go to one of these great Ivy League schools, which I was lucky enough to go to later, that they won't get the same kind of learning. But I learned just the opposite lesson; that my best teachers were not at Harvard University.

Do you feel that you had good preparation for your chosen field through your academic studies?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think the most important preparation was, first of all, just loving it, loving to read history. Whatever it is that you do, if you have that passion and desire for it, that's the most important thing. And then...

What I tried to do all through college and graduate school was to go to Washington every summer, so that I could have an actual experience of government. I knew I was interested in American history and government, so I thought, instead of just reading about it I'd better find out about it in practical terms. So one summer I worked in the House of Representatives; another summer I worked in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare; and another summer I worked in the State Department. And then eventually I became a White House fellow and worked for Lyndon Johnson. And that probably was the single most important experience in orienting me to want to do presidential history, because I got to know this crazy character when I was only 23 years old.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

What are your memories of President Johnson in those days?

Doris Kearns Goodwin Interview Photo
Doris Kearns Goodwin: He's still the most formidable, fascinating, frustrating, irritating individual I think I've ever known in my entire life. He was huge, a huge character, not only standing six feet four, but when you talked to him, he violated the normal human space between people. He would be right on top of you. You'd be sort of looking up into his chest. He had an enormous voice. He was a great storyteller. The problem was that half his stories, I discovered, weren't true.

There was this great time I was swimming with him in this pool that he has at his ranch. It's an amazing pool that he created so that it could be a working pool. So at every moment when you're trying to swim in it, floating rafts came by with floating telephones on top of them, other floating rafts with floating desks and notepads.

I had read an article that day by Hugh Sidey, a reporter, who had said that Johnson had given a great speech to the troops who were going to Vietnam in which he talked about patriotism. And in this speech, he mentioned that his great-great-grandfather had died at the Battle of the Alamo. And Hugh Sidey said it was a wonderful speech. The only problem was that he didn't have a great-great-grandfather who died at the Alamo. He just wanted to have one so much that he kind of made him up. So I turned to President Johnson. I said, "How can you do that?" and he looked back and me and he said, "Oh these journalists, they're such sticklers for details." And it was then that I realized that I could only believe half of what he told me.

But the stories were so much fun and he loved politics. Even though his presidency was in many ways scarred forever by the war in Vietnam, and destroyed in a lot of ways, he -- as a character -- was even larger than his presidency. I worked for him the last year in the White House and then helped him on his memoirs for the last four years of his life before he died, spending summers and Christmases and every other weekend at the ranch. So being able to get to know him well, that firsthand relationship with this large character, I think is what drew me to writing books about presidents. My first book was on Lyndon Johnson, and then the Kennedys and the Roosevelts came after that.

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