Along the leafy road that leads to Doris
Kearns Goodwin's home in Concord sits Minute Man National Historical
Park, where colonists fired the shot heard round the world and, in the
public mind, American history began. Nearby are the one-time residences
of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and
Henry David Thoreau. (Of the town's bicentennial celebration, Goodwin
says, “We think it's the only one in the country where they've had
banners for authors.”) The old-fashioned turret that rises from the
northwest corner of Goodwin's house only adds to the impression that
she, too, lives somewhere in the fabled past, as if America's most
prominent popular historian does her research in person, just by
walking around and chatting up the neighbors. Taped to the front door,
however, is a stark reminder of the present: the triangular insignia of
the First Armored Division, with which her son Joseph, an Army
lieutenant, served in Baghdad.
That familiarity with the intersection of the patriotic then and the
patriotic now is what has secured Goodwin her station as America's
Mother History. In books both prizewinning and bestselling, she has
detailed the private lives of great Americans, uncovering a humanity
obscured by their chiseled likenesses on the National Mall. Those
volumes have afforded her a regular perch on TV news shows, where she
assures the country that its heroism is not behind it, that today's
challenges connect us to the triumphs of yesteryear.
For a moment during the history scandals of 2002, it seemed
Goodwin's reign as storyteller in chief might meet an inglorious end.
On the heels of Stephen Ambrose's exposure as a serial plagiarist, an
anonymous informant sent letters to reporters that detailed Goodwin's
misappropriation of several passages in her dynastic biography, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. During the ensuing spate of unflattering stories, PBS suspended Goodwin from her gig on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The Harvard Crimson called for her removal from Harvard's board of overseers. But the outrage faded with time. When, later that year, the Los Angeles Times found “nearly three dozen instances” of too closely paraphrased passages in No Ordinary Time, Goodwin's biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, a pro-Goodwin backlash arose.
Leading up to the publication of her latest book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Goodwin was warmly accepted back into the sorts of middlebrow venues—from the Smithsonian to Meet the Press —that
once briefly deemed her tarnished goods. Steven Spielberg is moving
forward with plans to make a movie based on the Lincoln book, with Liam
Neeson cast as the lead. Today, even those who frown upon her
insistence that “plagiarism” not be used to describe her errors—that
word applies only to intentional word-stealing, she says, not to what
she insists were merely sloppy research methods—may approve of the
lifting of her cultural probation.
Asked if she feels that the stakes for her Lincoln biography are
higher than those for her previous efforts, Goodwin deftly eludes the
question, suggesting only that she took comfort in the work that went
into the book. “I guess the only thing I could say is that I'm really
thankful this project became such an important one to be working on,
and to feel so good about it as it's coming out.” Goodwin's confidence
is understandable: Her entire publishing career has been a procession
of showstopping second acts.
In person, Goodwin is as charming as she comes across on television.
In e-mailed directions to her house, she conveys the maternal guidance
(“look left as you merge”) and childlike enthusiasm (“You can't miss it
for it has a tower!”) that make her punditry and books so appealing.
Her tiny stature contributes to the desire, described repeatedly by
those who have met her, to protect her. “Everybody adores Doris
Kearns,” wrote Sally Quinn in the Washington Post 30 years
ago, before the then 32-year-old Harvard professor had married her
husband, Richard Goodwin, an aide to presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
“There is no one she cannot win over if she wants to, nothing she
cannot achieve, nothing she cannot have.”
The relationship between personality and power has fascinated
Goodwin ever since Lyndon Johnson handpicked her, as a young White
House Fellow, to be the confidant to whom he would relate his memories.
Goodwin turned what she learned while listening to Johnson during his
retirement at his Texas ranch into Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.
Before finishing her manuscript, she returned her $20,000 advance from
Basic Books and sold a new version—with her husband tentatively on
board as coauthor—to Simon & Schuster for $150,000, causing a mild
stink in both academic and publishing circles. Ultimately, she put out
the book under her name alone. A New York Times reviewer called it “the most penetrating, fascinating political biography I have ever read.”
Despite the success of the Johnson biography, Goodwin's reputation
was diminished somewhat by her failure to win tenure from Harvard. She
cleansed that blot with her acclaimed The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, a book shaped by 150 cartons of previously off-limits family papers provided to her by Ted Kennedy. (As it happened, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys
also inappropriately borrowed material from a book on Kathleen Kennedy
by Lynne McTaggart, with whom Goodwin later quietly reached a financial
Goodwin wrote her next book, 1994's No Ordinary Time,
without benefit of the insider status she'd had in her two previous
projects. Before its release, she suffered a bout of prepublication
jitters. “This is the first time I went at a subject with no special
access and no particular knowledge of the people—just doing it as a
historian, like everyone else does,” she told the Boston Globe after the book hit shelves. No Ordinary Time would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Goodwin's relationship with Johnson informed her historical method—as she writes in the introduction to Team of Rivals,
she seeks “an intimate glimpse of a monumental figure”—and that may
have been his most lasting gift to her. As part of her effort to remove
Lincoln from his marble throne, Goodwin portrays him in Team of Rivals
as a surprisingly conventional politician. Rather than the
inaccessible, melancholy figure to whom we're accustomed, Goodwin's
Lincoln is a gregarious backslapper. He's also a centrist who
triangulates among his party's factions and at times comes across as
Dishonest Abe, a politician whose careful, even Clintonian, parsing of
language fools enemies and allies alike.
In Goodwin's telling, 19th-century politics can appear remarkably
similar to those of the 21st. The present never intrudes more in Team of Rivals
than during Goodwin's description of Lincoln's opposition, as a young
congressman, to the Mexican War, launched in 1846 after President James
K. Polk accused Mexico of invading the United States. Lincoln
“challenged the president to present evidence” justifying the war,
which Lincoln later called “from beginning to end, the sheerest
deception.” The press responded by calling Lincoln a “Benedict Arnold”;
he defended himself by “arguing that although he had challenged the
instigation of the war, he had never voted against supplies for the
soldiers.” (It comes as a relief that Lincoln did not assert he voted
for the supplies before he voted against them.) Goodwin, who is very
proud of her son's Army service, remains ambivalent about the American
enterprise in Iraq. But her treatment of Lincoln's antiwar stance
“obviously had echoes to the whole Iraqi war. . . . There's a part of
you that would like to stop and say to the reader, 'Aha! Look at
Though Goodwin intends for such connections to be apparent, she
never spells them out, for fear of breaking the narrative thrall. Even
if she had, it's not clear what readers should take away from the
analogies. By the end of Team of Rivals, we understand
Lincoln, which is no mean feat. But we don't understand how to choose
more leaders like him. If Goodwin makes the statues of past centuries
seem more like the flesh-and-blood politicians of our own age, she also
remythologizes her subjects. The presidency begins to appear as a job
the good ones are born to, based on their temperamental inheritance.
Perhaps Lincoln's magnanimity toward his political enemies and rivals
could be learned by less naturally gifted pols. But that seems
unlikely. That's not to say that Goodwin's judgment of Lincoln is
wrong—only that it's disappointing.
Team of Rivals is extraordinarily generous with its use of
quotation marks—at times placing them around lone words and mundane
phrases—and acknowledgments of other historians' contributions. Sitting
in her library, a former garage she renovated to house her shelves of
Lincoln books, Goodwin demurs at the suggestion that she's changed her
style in preparation for the increased scrutiny. “Even if nothing had
ever happened,” she says, “you want to have the best primary sources
that you can.”
If the book is received as effusively as early press indicates it
will be, Goodwin will find herself redeemed yet again. What will she do
next? She doesn't know. She might write about a major event, or maybe a
woman. “I'm certainly not just going to go do Millard Fillmore or
Franklin Pierce just to keep doing presidents,” she says. This time,
Doris Kearns Goodwin doesn't have a second act in the works. Perhaps
for once she doesn't feel she needs one.