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Few individuals possess more knowledge of the U.S. presidency and the people who comprise it than noted historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin. In sharing this knowledge with a packed audience at the UNF arena on October 17 at 7:30 p.m., she admitted with a chuckle that this knowledge may come back to haunt her.
“When I am dead, I fear that I may be confronted by all the presidents that I have studied, and they may all tell me that I said something wrong,” she said, to laughter from the audience.
Throughout the lecture, titled “Former U.S. Presidents and their Mark on the World,” Goodwin had nothing to fear from the audience, as they attentively listened to her personal experiences with noted former U.S. presidents, explaining the time that she spent with noted figures such as Lyndon Baines Johnson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
She started her speech by reminiscing about her time spent with LBJ, noting that he found her particularly interesting due to her “willingness to listen to his tall tales.” She then recalled a particularly humorous moment when he arranged to spend some private time with her at a lake. Here, he even provided wine and cheese, romantic trappings that initially led Goodwin to think that LBJ had other thoughts on his mind.
Those thoughts were immediately set aside once LBJ spoke to Goodwin.
“Doris, more than any other women I have ever met, you remind me of my mother,” recalled Kearns, to laughter from the audience.
That unusual moment aside, Goodwin expressed fondness for the time that she spent working under then-president Lyndon Baines Johnson.
“The older I have gotten, the more I realize what an incredible privilege it was to have spent so many hours with this aging lion of a man,” she said with pride, while also recalling some of his key legislative accomplishments, which included three great civil rights laws, as well as Medicare and aid to education.
“He opened up to me in ways that he never would have, had I known him at the height of his power,” she added.
Goodwin then pointed out to the audience that her experiences with LBJ inspired her to understand the person behind the presidency. This drive would lead her to learn about other presidents, and she focused throughout the event on Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, men that she praised for their leadership abilities during crisis periods in American history.
Goodwin noted that a key aspect of leadership is being able to motivate yourself in the face of frustration and being able to withstand adversity.
“The world breaks everyone, but afterward, many are strong in the broken places,” she said, quoting Ernest Hemmingway.
Referencing Abraham Lincoln, she praised his early love of learning and desire to read, qualities regarded as anathema in a time that emphasized physical labor and regarded such pursuits as laziness. Despite this, he loved reading and saw literature as an escape from the daily struggles of his life.
These struggles included him losing those closest to him, including his mom and first love; his mother’s final words simply emphasized that should would never return to him once she closed her eyes. It was this realization, Goodwin noted, that allowed Lincoln to realize that once a person’s life is finite and will mean nothing once they leave the earth. However, as he grew older, he tempered this thought to where he believed that if you could accomplish something greater, people would remember you for it.
This latter thought was the rationale that Lincoln took as he pursued public office; he simply wanted to leave the world in a better place than the way he found it.
When she referenced Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she spoke about the challenges he faced when dealing with polio, the fallout that reduced him to being a paraplegic.
“The paralysis crippled his body but expanded his mind and capabilities,” she noted.
This expansion, Goodwin noted, would allow him to better relate with others and empathize with their struggles.
“FDR now reached out to know people, to pick up their emotions, to put himself in their shoes. No longer belonging to his old world in the same way, he came to empathize with the poor and underprivileged, people to whom fate had also dealt an unkind hand,” she said.
These challenging times, Goodwin pointed out, helped in shaping the characters of both Lincoln and FDR and greatly influenced their leadership methods going forward.
Continuing this character study on these two former presidents, Goodwin also praised their emotional intelligence of both men, a trait that allowed them to set aside grudges and show willingness to accept praise and criticism with equal measure, as well as credit others even if the situation did not warrant it.
Goodwin noted that Lincoln always found a way to praise his Cabinet members, even if they did not always deserve any credit for their work. This was also true for members of FDR’s cabinet as well; in fact, she noted how Francis Perkins, FDR’s Labor Secretary, praised him for renewed confidence after entering the meeting feeling overwhelmed about the responsibilities of her position.
As the event continued, she continued to praise the actions and exploits of these two individuals, before taking the time to answer questions about the event. In speaking with the audience, she expressed her interest in learning about the trials of Theodore Roosevelt, observing how many of the concerns that were a part of his era, such as workers’ rights and anti-trust suits, are now commonplace in our time as well.
As she concluded her speech, she emphasized the nobility of politics and that it is still a worthwhile endeavor, despite the polarization that is present in our current society.
“Politics is still an honorable vocation; as tough and rough as it may seem right now, I still think that there is nothing like it out there. The feeling that you have made people’s lives better and the curiosity of meeting so many people is unmatched,” she said.
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