Season finale of 2013-2014 Boston Speakers Series breathes new life into figures familiar mainly from textbooks
Thursday, May 01, 2014
With a rapid-fire delivery, Kearns Goodwin strafed the audience of the final lecture of Lesley University’s 2013-2014 Boston Speakers Series with colorful anecdotes about the men she calls “my guys”: late Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and, of course, Abraham Lincoln.
“I would just ask him to tell me a story,” she said, responding to an audience question about what question she would ask any of the notable subjects of her bestselling presidential biographies. Even though she would be curious about how the Great Emancipator would have handled post-Civil War Reconstruction had he not been assassinated, she said his thigh-slapping stem-winders, and the joy with which he delivered his humorous yarns, would have been impossible to resist.
The historian and diehard Red Sox fan (she grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, until owner Walter O’Malley moved them to Los Angeles) lingered on Lincoln’s paradoxically risible nature despite having suffered profound poverty, a troubled marriage and the loss of many loved ones, including his eldest son.
America’s 16th president, she said, was “haunted by death,” yet he, like both Roosevelts, triumphed over adversity and found a way to “motivate self in the face of frustration.”
Kearns Goodwin spoke of how the bookish and inquisitive Teddy Roosevelt combated his childhood asthma by, as his father suggested, building his body through a grueling regimen of strength and endurance activities, becoming the “exemplar of the strenuous life.”
In contrast, his cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt continued to sharpen his mind when the onset of polio in adulthood robbed him of his ability to walk, and “emerged completely warmhearted and with a deep humility of spirit,” which informed the New Deal.
This ability to overcome reversals of fortune is but one of the traits the three men shared, characteristics that made them great leaders, Kearns Goodwin said. They also had the confidence to surround themselves with advisers who would challenge them, and some of them — as in the case of her “Team of Rivals” subject Lincoln — included political adversaries.
Such wisdom was also espoused by LBJ, for whom Kearns Goodwin was a college-age intern (“It used to be a badge of honor to say you were a 24-year-old White House intern,” she said to prolonged laughter from the audience.).
Quoting Johnson’s trademark plain speaking, Kearns Goodwin said, “It’s better to have your enemies inside the tent, pissing out, than outside the tent, pissing in.”
She also related tales of a nude, freshly bathed Winston Churchill encountered by FDR during one of the wartime British prime minister’s stays at the White House, a favorite tale about the corpulent 27th President William Howard Taft getting stuck in the bathtub, and Lincoln’s maladroit dancing.
The eventual author of the Gettysburg Address spotted a young Mary Todd at a function and “wanted to dance with her in the worst way.”
Kearns Goodwin also talked about the presidents’ ability to acknowledge and correct their errors, their ability to be “sensitive to public sentiment,” their ability to communicate worthy goals in approachable ways and find “a deep sense of purpose and fulfillment” in the presidency.
Not all presidents displayed the sense of enjoyment of the job that Lincoln and the Roosevelts possessed, she said. Clinton might have come close to that, had it not been for the Monica Lewinsky scandal, she said. The author added that President Obama seems to thrive in front of crowds, but constant policy battles with Republicans have clearly taken their toll.
And George W. Bush? “He seems so happy now,” she said, eliciting laughter by saying the world’s probably better off now that the two-term Republican president has found a passion for painting and has stayed out of the political fray. “He doesn’t seem to miss it at all.”
Kearns Goodwin said she wished everyone shared her own passion for history, which transcends even her love of baseball (though she said she became a historian by recounting Brooklyn Dodgers games to her father after work). To instill a love of history in children, she suggested, “If you can, take the kids to the places where the history took place.” Even if they grumble at being carted around to various historic sites, presidential residences and battlefields, they are likely to absorb the lessons of history, which will help them in any career. Kearns Goodwin’s passion for the presidents — some of whom she surprisingly found she was related to after having her genealogy done — made her a favorite of the audience, which was buzzing about her lecture as they left the hall.
Lesley University President Joseph B. Moore, speaking briefly at the beginning of the night’s program, talked about how fortunate series subscribers were to be able to hear from the historian, as well as the 14 speakers who have taken the stage since Lesley began presenting the series two years ago.
Praising Lesley’s series media partner, WGBH, Moore said, “I know you share our commitment to the very direct and simple proposition that has been a part of the history of this city and this region for many, many years: that public, respectful, incisive and occasionally uncomfortable discourse is a key element of a democratic society.”
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