Author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin passed through Los Altos last week, speaking at the Foothill College Celebrity Forum Speakers Series and signing books at Main Street Cafe & Books.
Goodwin described pausing amid sprees of presidential writing to pay ardent attention to her other great love, the Boston Red Sox. Baseball fans dotted the crowd waiting for a word and an autograph last week. But presidents still proved the primary draw.
During her decades as a public intellectual, Goodwin has heard readers pose questions about the past that reflect the anxieties and puzzles of the modern moment. Goodwin’s profile of Abraham Lincoln in “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln ” (Simon & Schuster, 2005) famously colored how we understand President Barack Obama’s appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. And the publication of her newest book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” (Simon & Schuster, 2013) comes in a parallel era of partisan divide.
“Everybody’s interested in why Roosevelt was able to get legislation through a recalcitrant Congress,” Goodwin said. “He mobilized the public through an extraordinary relationship with the press. Could you ever have as close a relationship with the press as Teddy did, here today? Would that even be OK?”
Her most recent book includes a tribute to the power of investigative journalism. She questions whether newspapers today support the sustained, expensive inquiry that helped shape public policy during Teddy Roosevelt’s reign.
Asked to identify some of contemporary stories most ready for a muckraking, Goodwin drew another historial parallel.
“The gap between the rich and the poor was there at the beginning of the 20th century, and here it is back again,” Goodwin said.
But even more important than the broad stretch of inequality, she added, is the shrinking mobility that now traps people at the bottom of the income distribution for a lifetime.
One of the great questions for journalism today, she speculated, would be, “What happens when the people born in the bottom fifth can’t make their way out?”
Goodwin said the next question in her own work will likely build on her five previous histories, focusing on a concept rather than a person.
“I can’t do another big president – that would take another 10 years. I might do a book on leadership, with my guys taken together,” she said, affectionately describing her presidential cast of characters. “As we look at leaders, we can learn from their struggles and triumphs. The qualities that make a good leader are pretty constant.”
And after that? Goodwin plans to write about a woman, but she’s still vetting candidates – not a president, regardless of who takes office in 2017. It takes a generation before we can assess a president, she said.
Doris Kearns Goodwin visits Main Street Cafe & Bookstore - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier