A packed crowd of Westmont College faculty, donors and supporters received a powerful lesson in history Friday morning from Doris Kearns Goodwin, author and historian.
Known for her series of presidential biographies, most notably “Team of Rivals,” which Steven Spielberg used as the basis for the film “Lincoln,” she gave a rousing and humorous lecture on four presidents for the 10th annual Westmont President’s Breakfast.
The event at Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort honors the speaker with the Westmont Leadership Award, and helps reach out to the community, with this year’s goal of placing undergrad students in internships all over Santa Barbara.
Ms. Goodwin served as a White House fellow to Lyndon B. Johnson during his administration. She was in her early 20s, out of Harvard, and a member of the anti-war movement.
Despite that, or maybe because of it, Johnson kept her close by and eventually she helped him write his memoirs. Throughout her lecture, she often returned to Johnson’s often profane quotes to illustrate a point.
Her other books include “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The American Homefront During World War II,” which earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1995; and her latest, 2013’s “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.”
Her lecture compared and contrasted the Roosevelts, Taft and Lincoln and the qualities that made them — not including Taft — great. She left out John F. Kennedy, on whom she also wrote a history.
Each of the four presidents had a burning desire for self-improvement and a vision of his legacies.
About Lincoln, “Leaving the world a better place became his lodestar,” Ms. Goodwin said.
Lincoln’s hardscrabble existence meant that any chance encounter with a book was a cherished experience. For Teddy Roosevelt it was countering his childhood asthma with a life of physical fitness.
Another quality was humility and compromise. Lincoln staffed his cabinet with three of his biggest opponents, not to hush them up, but to keep himself questioninghis choices. Teddy Roosevelt extended friendships
and correspondence to his harshest critics in the press, taking things in stride and with immense good humor, which was also a way of dealing with anxiety and doubt.
Lincoln had faith in a higher power that all he did was for a greater
good, but relaxed by telling humorous stories.
“He laughed so as not to weep,” Ms. Goodwin quoted.
FDR, on the other hand, relaxed with large cocktail parties where work was not discussed.
Each man was also shaped by the times they lived in and the great ones knew how to play to it. Lincoln wrote speeches he knew would be printed in full in the papers and in pamphlets.
“Teddy was ready for newspaper headlines” and spoke that way, Ms.
For FDR, the ubiquity of radio made his fireside chats essential listening, garnering 80 percent of the population at a time of war.
Knowing how to talk to their countrymen was balanced by a
need to hear from the populace.
Lincoln dealt with constituents in the morning, no matter how trivial.
Teddy Roosevelt took long train tours, where he spent hours waving at his fans. (He had poor eyesight, so sometimes he wound up waving at cows.)
Ms. Goodwin rounded off her lecture with a digest version of her latest
book, about the friendship and rivalry of Teddy Roosevelt and William
Howard Taft. Their rift would become a split in the Republican party itself, with Roosevelt’s progressives leaving the party for good and helping divide the vote to allow a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, to win
Ms. Goodwin closed off her lecture with an anecdote about her father’s
love of baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and how she would listen
to the game on the radio and then retell the game to her father when he
got home. At 6 years old, it was her first taste of writing history.
Now a Red Sox fan – she never got over the Dodgers’ move to the West Coast-she sees her sons as a link to her father. They did not know him when he was alive, but he lives on through her stories.
And that is what history means to her, Ms. Goodwin concluded, allowing
private and public figures to really live on, “so long as we pledge to tell and retell the stories of their lives.”