Commentary Magazine

The Rise and Rise of Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin knows how to pick winners, the perennial favorites with a significant part of the American public: Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedy family, Franklin and of course Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt. And she knows how to give them just the treatment that pleases both the crowd and those who know, or more precisely, those who know the same things she knows even before she tells them. Wisdom such as this has carried her far beyond the confines of the merely bookish. The author’s note on the back cover of one of her books calls her “a political analyst for The McNeil/Lehrer News Hour, Nightline, Today, Good Morning America, and CBS Morning News.” Television talk, however, is just a corner of her domain. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005) did not simply hit the publicity jackpot; it sold 1.3 million copies even before a new paperback edition issued in 2012 featured a gold banner that read: “Now a Major Motion Picture—Lincoln/From Steven Spielberg.” A few inches below those words gleams a little medallion featuring an encomium from a personage almost as dazzling as Spielberg: “A remarkable study in leadership.” —President Barack Obama. Upon the publication of her latest book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, Spielberg announced that he would be turning it, too, into movie magic. How much higher can Doris Kearns Goodwin go?

Doris Kearns started her career already in a privileged perch that few enjoy, among the presidents she likes to call “my guys.” In 1967, as a 24-year-old Harvard graduate student in government, she was named a White House fellow. During a flirtatious dance after the induction ceremony, she so charmed President Johnson that he told her she would be an assistant on his personal staff. A week later, however, the New Republic ran an article she co-authored with the title “How to Remove LBJ in 1968.” The Vietnam War did not meet with her approval, the villainous warmonger had to go, and she did not hesitate to say so. The press seized on the article and made her something of “a heroine of the peace movement,” as she put it. Johnson was not amused, and while he did not rescind her fellowship—she feared he might extinguish the whole program—she would begin her tenure not as his assistant but as a functionary in the Department of Labor, assigned to improve the lot of black youth.

Soon enough, at an informal presidential audience with the fellows, the president went on and on, as she remembers it, about the justice and necessity of the war. Then he whirled upon Miss Kearns and demanded her opinion. She leapt to the occasion, and right down his throat: “Don’t you understand—how can you possibly not understand—how deep and serious the country’s opposition to the war in Vietnam is?” All the dazzling ardor and moral superiority of young Harvard met with an unintelligible growl and a diabolical glare. Once again Miss Kearns thought she was through. But presently it was LBJ who announced that he was through: He would not run for reelection.

Four days later, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, and cities burned. The president thought it was high time to address Congress, and he enlisted the secretary of labor to produce a speech. Miss Kearns was a member of the group that proposed a heroic undertaking to make black slums more suitable for human habitation. The project was to be financed by cutting defense and highway funding and by raising taxes on the rich. LBJ thought not.

When Miss Kearns met the president some weeks later, he asked how she was doing. She answered by detailing what he really ought to have said in the speech he had not given. The next day he summoned her to the Oval Office and, she feared, to the woodshed. Unexpectedly, he told her that in the time left him he was going “to do and say all the things that should be done and said simply because they’re right,” and that here on in she would be working directly with him. He would teach her the truth about America that is not taught at Harvard.

By her own account, Miss Kearns became the president’s invaluable confidante, and what she learned from him was not exactly what he had intended to teach her. Formidable, commanding, gracious when he chose to be, yet also peevish, importunate, emotionally rickety, baffled by the popular outcry against the war he believed essential to American interests and consecrated to freedom around the world, the man she got to know was, in her view, precisely the wrong man for the times. He had come to believe Miss Kearns was precisely the right person to help him explain himself to the American public that had rejected him in the end. She joined the retired president on his Texas ranch, to work on his memoirs on and off for four years, even while she was teaching at Harvard. Eventually work on LBJ’s memoirs gave way to work on her own biography, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976).

The great theme of her account is the ambition for power above all else, a pitiable compulsion with its roots in the unmet childhood need for unconditional parental love:

There was no place to rest so long as love and the self-esteem based on love depended on another’s approbation. So Johnson plunged into ceaseless activity, always searching for the one thing external success could never provide: the reassurance of being loved for who he was rather than for what he was doing.

This gnawing desire could serve noble ends, such as Johnson’s Great Society. According to Miss Kearns, the president’s most celebrated achievement of liberal compassion was grounded in his essential need to win the people’s love by tending to their own essential needs. With the Vietnam debacle, however, Johnson’s neurosis got the better of him. His character flaws led him into one misstep after another, and eventually landed him way over his head in the Big Muddy:

America fought in Vietnam to prevent the otherwise inevitable onset of World War III. It was an aspect of Johnson’s own dimension, the size of his personal needs and his huge ambitions to satisfy the needs of all others, that only the largest cause of all—to forestall world-wide destruction—could justify actions that were now so threatening to the public’s admiration, his life as a public man, and his capacity to lead others, in their own interest, to accept his grandly benevolent intention.

This sort of psychobabble was the accepted profundity of that time and place. Miss Kearns’s approach toward LBJ was anything but sensible and disinterested. Her premise was the irredeemable wickedness and folly of the Vietnam War, and she proceeded headlong to declare that the president’s belief in its justice and wisdom could stem only from some dire psychic malignancy: The whole awfulness was based in an ineradicable mommy-and-daddy problem.

It is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s self-regard, the unwavering confidence in her own righteousness that is the dubious benefit of believing what everyone else in her charmed circle believes, that deforms the body of her work, which went on to encompass The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (1987) and No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (1994).

To write her family biography of the Boston Plantagenets (which goes up to John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 but does not treat his presidency), Doris Kearns once again won privileged access to her sources. She had married Richard Goodwin, a speechwriter for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and archives in the John F. Kennedy Library over which the family retained the strictest control were opened exclusively for the trustworthy wife of the stalwart friend of the clan. Such privilege had its price. Although she takes pains to note that the family let her roam through mountains of uncataloged papers “without ever asking to see a page of what [she] had written,” one cannot but suspect that they granted her this freedom because they knew she would produce a hagiography qualified with just enough ugliness that it would not seem to be a ridiculous hack job.

Some ugliness was unavoidable. Joseph Patrick Kennedy, the patriarch, was the epitome of naked, soulless ambition, with an unfathomable craving for wealth, power, distinction, sexual pleasure, and the creation of a dynasty in national politics. Goodwin is obliged to record some part of his predatory grasping as financier and as womanizer, his quite extravagant anti-Semitism, his disgraceful indifference to the menace of Nazism during his tenure as FDR’s ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, his willingness to fill with coin certain outstretched palms that would help to hand his son Jack a Senate seat and then the presidency.

But there remained truths that Goodwin evidently preferred not to tell. She stops well short of acknowledging just how far John F. Kennedy’s rise to the top was bought and paid for (a tale well told in Ronald Kessler’s 1996 biography, The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded). She fails to mention the very public distaste of her particular heroine Eleanor Roosevelt for this Kennedy purchasing power. On ABC television in December 1958, Mrs. Roosevelt observed that “Senator Kennedy’s father has been spending oodles of money all over the country and probably has a paid representative in every state by now.” The senator pressed her repeatedly to admit she was misinformed. Mrs. Roosevelt assured him that she was not.

Another Democratic eminence Goodwin overlooks, Tip O’Neill, recounted how a delegated Kennedy pal from Boston spread the wealth in the key 1960 presidential primary state of West Virginia, where Catholics were customarily less than welcome and Hubert Humphrey was expected to win big on his way to the nomination. Five grand down to the local big wheel and the rest when the vote was delivered, the sums multiplied many times up and down the state, and Jack overcame the unfortunate religious prejudice and the odds.

Odd that Goodwin neglected such unseemly facts. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph on December 4, 2013, she insisted, with all the sanctimony of a true virtucrat, “There’s going to have to be structural change in this country,” where election campaign finance is “the poison of the system” in American politics. Except that, when it was her time to tell the story of the case in which a tycoon’s dollars arguably did purchase a presidency, she did not do so.

Since honesty and integrity are the subjects, one must not pass over in silence a certain misappropriation on Goodwin’s part, not of anything as gross as cash, but rather of other writers’ thoughts and words. Goodwin has been shown to have plagiarized Rose Kennedy’s Time to Remember, Hank Searls’s The Lost Prince, and Lynne McTaggart’s Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times. Not long after Goodwin’s Kennedy book appeared, McTaggart’s lawyers contacted her to threaten suit for “serious copyright infringement.” A private settlement was reached by 1989, mandating the addition of extensive endnotes in subsequent editions, and what McTaggart told a Weekly Standard reporter in 2002 was “a substantial monetary settlement, many times more than what is usually the case for this kind of thing.” McTaggart felt obliged to speak to the press because Goodwin had taken to denying that she had plagiarized at all, or that her sole accidental transgression, hardly worth mentioning, was a few missing footnotes. McTaggart rejoined that there were “dozens and dozens” of pilfered phrases and a number of paragraphs in which only “a few words had been changed.”

No Ordinary Time, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994, is a rousing tribute to the incomparable wartime genius of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. One is treated to the shrewd charm of Franklin at the Tehran Conference, where he breaks through Joseph Stalin’s suspicious hauteur by poking fun at Winston Churchill, that old-fashioned imperialist with his pestilent cigars and fuddy-duddy aristocratic ways. “Suddenly Roosevelt and Stalin had become a twosome, with Churchill, rather than the marshal, the third man out. ‘From that time on,’ Roosevelt exulted, ‘our relations were personal…’ ” [Goodwin’s ellipsis]. What larks, as the chums who had found each other at last closed out the conference “with a wide-ranging discussion of postwar concerns, including the need for an international body to keep the peace, the fate of the Baltic states, the borders of Poland, and the dismemberment of Germany.” Poor antiquated Churchill had to give way before the irresistible power couple who embodied all the promise of the future.

Goodwin’s Eleanor is unmistakably Franklin’s moral and intellectual superior. Already in May 1940, as she addressed a meeting of old Communist friends, Eleanor enticed the audience toward good American liberalism with her own comprehensive program for national defense, which, Goodwin writes, “included, in addition to arms, more and better housing, expansion of the health program, and continuation of work relief until everyone had a job.” Goodwin cannot contain herself in praising Eleanor Roosevelt’s advocacy for female wartime factory hands and for her particular brainchild, “the spectacular day-care center” at an Oregon munitions plant, which featured “a head-start program a quarter of a century ahead of its time.” These marvels command considerably more attention in this book than, say, the postwar world that Stalin shaped, or Eleanor Roosevelt’s slow-dawning concern that the Jews of Europe were having an especially rough time under Hitler—though she didn’t really know what to do about that.

With Team of Rivals, Goodwin found her first Republican hero. Of course Abraham Lincoln is just about the only Republican 21st-century Democrats will condescend to admire. Goodwin acknowledges her man’s imperfections, but she eloquently details his gradual emergence into the light, and his leading his countrymen toward the light. She honors the ever-growing nobility of his ambition, which elevated him well above the other Republican aspirants to the presidency—the very men whom he gathered around him in his Cabinet. Goodwin extols the “political genius” that not only knew to select the best subordinates but also “impress[ed] upon them his own purpose, perception, and resolution at every juncture.”

This example famously impelled President Obama, who has called Lincoln his favorite president, to name Hillary Clinton, once his principal rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, to the foremost post in his Cabinet, secretary of state. Naturally, Goodwin cannot get enough of the Clinton magic. She has publicly mourned the boundless lost promise of Clinton in the snare of the perfidious Lewinsky person, who gave anilingus by underling to superior a bad name. Time and again she has regaled college-commencement audiences and TV talk shows with tales of her special friendship with Hillary, and she gave at least one interviewer the impression that Mrs. Clinton might be the subject of her next biography.

Presidents can make heroes of writers, and writers can make heroes of presidents. Thus reads the lesson of Goodwin’s latest tome and screenplay rough draft, The Bully Pulpit. Even a Republican president who is not Abraham Lincoln can amount to something if he heeds the instruction of progressive journalists. Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed the singular good fortune of having his peerless energy directed by “the prodigiously gifted writing staff” of McClure’s magazine, including Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, and William Allen White. Variously devoted to what Goodwin calls “the crusade against special privilege” and “struggling to discover remedies for specific ills,” these heroes of the populist vanguard sought to right the wrongs with which the new industrial order was infested.

The McClure’s crowd populated the American landscape with big-business ogres, and President Roosevelt, who corresponded with these writers and welcomed them to the White House, took to mowing down the evildoers. The legendary trust buster continued to distinguish, however, between big business that fleeced the public and big business that did well by it. And the president came to resent the growing popular impression that he was the instrument of writers so much wiser and more virtuous than he. Roosevelt had a particular animus toward socialism, for which Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair carried the torch; and the radicals who scorned presidential reforms as too slight and slow-moving enraged him. Speaking on two occasions in April 1906, Roosevelt blasted the “Muckrake Man” who sees only human vileness, writes “sensational, lurid, and untruthful articles,” and thereby furthers the advance of evil. The president was widely seen as having turned on the progressive associates who had guided him toward the light. Theodore Roosevelt remained progressive enough, and vain enough, that when his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, failed to uphold the Roosevelt standard on business regulation and wilderness conservation, and seemed to give deliberate personal offense besides, the retired president founded the National Progressive Party, or Bull Moose Party, and ran for the highest office in the land again in 1912. The Republican rupture cleared the way for the victory of the Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and none too soon.

Goodwin has labored to restore to the word muckraker its visionary gleam. She is not alone. An odd amalgam of drinking club, activist hub, and online chotchke store called Tarbell: Cocktails and Conspiracy has opened in New York, declaring itself a “political salon that honors the spirit of Progressive Era muckrakers and brings together a new generation of writers, artists, and troublemakers.” By day, Tarbell is a hotbed of militant passion and ingenuity; by night, it is a bacchanal of “revolutionary leisure.”

Best of all, the Tarbell store offers Chocolate Muckrakers, sweets embossed with the visages of the movement’s illustrious forebears. The Ida Tarbell chocolates are bigi-flavored (with lemon, cognac, and Aperol), the Lincoln Steffens treats taste of Black Velvet (Guinness and cognac), and the Upton Sinclairs exude Pimm’s chocolate ganache. A box of one dozen chocolates is only $30 plus shipping: For revolutionaries who take their leisure seriously, it’s a small price to pay.

The sort of people who have made Tarbell what it is are Goodwin’s ideal readers: terribly serious in their own estimation, dreamy but doctrinaire, entirely disinclined to consider facts that violate their fantasy. Goodwin would see the progressive fantasy stretch on and on and on. Hillary’s coronation awaits; can Michelle’s be far behind? Of the writing of slavish biographies of progressive presidents who are bound to get it absolutely right, there will be no end. Doris Kearns Goodwin may be 71, but she has only just begun.

About the Author

Algis Valiunas is a longtime Commentary contributor and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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