Goodwin 'lived' with presidents

by Andrew Allport | 2/18/99 6:00am

Doris Kearns Goodwin has lived with some of America's most influential leaders -- she has spent days with Presidents Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and now, she wakes to find herself with Abraham Lincoln.

For Kearns Goodwin, writing about these figures translates into spending nearly all her time with them, trying, as she said yesterday, to imagine herself in their life and times.

Goodwin, whose television appearances have included commentary on "Nightline," "Today," "Good Morning America," "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and "CBS Morning News," described her new project on Lincoln's presidency as "the perfect book." She said part of the challenge was approaching the much-written about president from a new angle.

"There've been more books written on Lincoln than anyone except Christ and Napoleon, I think," Goodwin said. "That was a frightening part."

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer said she chose to concentrate on the lanky Indiana senator's presidency, instead of on his entire life -- the well-known humble beginnings and log cabin that have become part of American folklore. Specifically, Goodwin said her interest was piqued by Lincoln's relationship with his Cabinet.

"They went in there thinking they were smarter and more well-known than Lincoln; that they could control him. In the end," Goodwin said with a smile that admitted her affection for the great president, "it was him who had them figured out."

Like Lincoln, figuring other people out, especially politicians, is Goodwin' specialty. After working in the Lyndon Johnson White House, she authored a book on the life of the tragically flawed Johnson titled "Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream." Next came a book on the Kennedy families, which grew out of a suggestion by her husband, and was helped by the discovery of over 250 cartons of letters and other private documents stored in an attic.

After having so much luck with research -- actually being in contact with Johnson, the access to unreleased Kennedy materials -- Goodwin said she "felt a certain amount of guilt" at her good fortune.

"I wanted to be a regular historian," she said.

Her next book however, was anything but regular. After starting as a book on the World War II home front, the book transformed into the relationship between a wartime president and his wife. "Franklin and Eleanor" went on to become a best-seller and winner of the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for history.

The four- to five-year period of writing each book is not only one of work, but also of discovery -- about her subjects and the entire time frame in which they lived. For each trip in time she makes back to Washington she said, there are differences she has to imagine -- from the Packards in the streets for FDR's time to the muddy roads and horses of Lincoln's era.

Explaining her choices in biography, Goodwin said simply that she picks "subjects I want to know about," or "a person I want to understand."

Another, almost equally consuming part of Goodwin's life is the national pastime, a sport she grew up with as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Her input in Ken Burns' documentary "Baseball" and extensive writing on baseball in her new memoir (aptly titled "Wait 'Till Next Year"), both reveal the tremendous amount of expertise and outright love Goodwin has for the game.

In fact, in an incident mentioned in nearly every biography of the biographer, Goodwin was the first woman allowed in the Boston Red Sox locker room. "They make it sound idiotic, like a streaker," she said.

In fact, the epithet became "forever emblazoned," as she said, because she happened to be in the right place -- the Red Sox training camp, at the right time -- when a Sports Illustrated reporter won a lawsuit which granted reporters of both genders access to interview players.

"I was standing next to the owner when the order came down," she said. "He said, 'go in, might as well open this thing up.'" She did, forever securing a space in baseball history and Trivial Pursuit.