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Web Feature Posted May 11, 2016

Election 2016: Presidential Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin Weighs In

Speaker at SPU’s Downtown Business Breakfast offers lessons from history

Interview by Dusty Henry | Photo by Mike Siegel

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin
The public was invited to hear Doris Kearns Goodwin in a discussion moderated by Professor of History Michael Hamilton (right) the evening before the Downtown Business Breakfast.

If there’s anyone who can give Americans greater historical context to understand an oftentimes absurd presidential election cycle, it’s historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The Pulitzer Award-winning author has documented the lives of our nation’s leaders, including Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson, and recently spoke at Seattle Pacific University’s Downtown Business Breakfast in April. Following her lecture, she spoke with SPU’s Response magazine to discuss the election and the lessons we can draw from history. Here are some edited excerpts from that conversation.

Response: What do you think the average student needs to know about history to be an informed voter?

I think the most important thing is to understand that there are roller-coaster parts of history, and that it’s taken a combination of good leadership and a mobilized public to get us through those times. When you look back at history, the times that we treasure were when the country came together for a common mission. Whether it was the North in the Civil War, or the progressive era at the turn of the 20th century, or World War II, or the ’60s when the civil rights movement mobilized the country. It’s important to know that when things seem really bad in history, there have been other times that have been equally bad, but somehow that combination of public mobilization and leadership brought us through. We have to be looking not just for a leader, but for an informed citizenry to help us get through this complicated time.

A lot of this election season has been marked by a narrative of political insiders versus outsiders. Clinton versus Sanders. Trump versus everybody. What kind of impact do you think outsider candidates have?

It is an unusual mark against the political system in the last 20 years, that a lot of people feel it is broken and that the people inside have not been able to take care of business and can’t even talk to each other in Congress. So outsiders have a special allure. I think even though they’re so different, Trump and Sanders, are harnessing the energy of groups of people who feel like the system is rigged against them.

The real key for an outsider is whether or not they really can become a movement. I mean, that’s what Sanders had hoped to do, to create a movement for income equality. I’m not sure what Trump’s movement would be, maybe an anti-immigration movement.

But sometimes it seems like when you get to these elections then after the election is over, that energy goes away. I mean, we thought when Obama won in ’08 that a whole progressive movement had formed that would continue, just like the civil rights movement had done, or the women’s movement. And somehow despite that enormous spirit among the young people in ’08, in the midterm elections they didn’t come back in the same numbers. So it’ll be interesting to see with the young people who are so passionate about Bernie Sanders, if he doesn’t win will they stay active in public life? They’ve had that excitement and spirit of being part of a campaign, which doesn’t always happen every four years. That there’s that sense of passionate attachment.

How do you suggest keeping that passion alive?

What gives people a good feeling is that they are working together to change things, and they feel buoyed by the other people that are there. So even if it’s not going to be on as big a scale as a presidential campaign after this campaign is over, you would hope that on particular college campuses, where there’ve been Bernie Sanders supporters, that students can come together to mark the concerns that they have about the unfairness of the economy, or what they hope about college loans or free college. They can fight for that cause on a local basis in their own community as well as on a national basis.

There’s been a lot of talk about political revolution on both sides. Is such a drastic idea possible within our two-party system? And would it look as drastic as it sounds?

When you look at the Republican party, it has been split even in these last 10 years. As the Tea Party came in, and the established leaders weren’t able to deal with them, that’s part of what created the blockage in Congress. So either those wings have to come together, or it’s possible that something different could come out of it.

It’s not as drastic as it seems. We’ve had third parties that become part of the two-party system. The Populist party at the turn of the 20th century was its own party. It didn’t win. But then all of its ideas got taken up really by the other two parties. Again going back to Sanders, I think there’s no question that the problem of middle-class squeeze, that income inequality, and lack of mobility in this technological age has now struck a chord among a lot of people. And whether it becomes part of the Democratic party or becomes something on its own pushing in from the left, it’s captured a lot of attention.

You’ve talked about in your research going through old letters and recorded phone conversations to kind of get inside the heads of the presidents and what the presidency is like. But now we live in this social media era where it’s a constant stream of consciousness. How do you think historians of the future will look back on the way this campaign was conducted?

I think it’s going to be much harder for historians in the future. On the one hand, they’re going to have much more stuff about us. They’ll see how we walked and talked. They’ll watch us live. When we were working on the Lincoln movie, the only way we knew that Lincoln had a high-pitched voice rather than what you might expect, a baritone voice, was because somebody said, listening to him, that he had a high-pitched voice. In big rallies, his voice could go above the crowd because it was high pitched, whereas Stephen Douglas’s voice would get stuck in the middle. Lincoln’s voice could carry to the back of these crowds.

The only way we knew how he walked was because somebody described that he walked like a laborer coming home at the end of a hard day, so that’s the way Daniel Day-Lewis walked. Whereas 20 years from now they’ll watch us walking and talking, and watch the expressions on our faces, and maybe they’ll be looking at tweets that get saved, or emails. But it’s not the same as those emotional descriptions that letters and diaries provided as to a real window into the world of the people that you’re trying to write about.

I used to feel when I was reading letters that I was actually looking over the shoulder of the person writing it. For example, William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, wrote 5,000 letters because he and his wife were often separated, and he would describe everything that happened during the day, because she stayed in Auburn, New York. She didn’t like Washington. And he would describe what Lincoln did, how he felt, and write things like, “We’re seeing the same moon.” It just makes you feel like you know them.

We used to save handwritten letters no matter what they said. I have boxes from camp that I sent to my father. I’m not sure that that insight into the emotional lives of the candidates or presidents will be as available despite knowing so much more. And even as your question suggested, how are you going to sift out all the stuff which we have?

Do you think social media has been detrimental to this campaign at all, or has been eye-opening for the public?

I think what it’s done is to not let us focus on anything because, something happens and then somebody, especially Trump, will make a tweet and then that becomes the story of the day and you forget the story that was there the day before. It’s so immediate. It’s also probably allowed the candidates to say harsher things about each other than they would say in front of each other. It also makes people respond so quickly. And sometimes people are doing it without thinking, or so it seems.

If you think there’s going to be one big takeaway from this election, what would it be?

The most important thing is to realize that the tenor of the campaign has to be conducted on a different level than this one has. When you think about however many Republican candidates there were at the start, if you asked people, what could they say about what those candidates stood for? And how much did we know about what kind of a leader those people had been before?

It’s fine to have people from another field coming into political life, but it’s really hard to be president if you’ve never run for political office anywhere. We’ve had generals become presidents, but they are already public leaders when they’ve been leading armies.

And we’ve had Wendell Willkie who ran for president as a businessman in 1940 and was a great guy. And luckily for Roosevelt, Willkie was an internationalist, because the Republican party was pretty isolationist, and Roosevelt needed the support of Wendell Willkie who went for Lend-Lease and all the allies. And they became good friends after that. But there are very few examples of people getting to this high level, like Trump, with no political experience at all. I think that says something about our political systems.

And I think we had some honorable people in the Congress and the Senate, like Lindsey Graham, who didn’t have a chance because they were insiders. One of the things we have to take away from this campaign is, as frustrated as we are by the people in public life, normally they are the people that run for office. What does it say about what our political system has become, that the insiders were systematically excluded one by one from this process?

It shows that something wasn’t working, and it may mean that it’s telling both sides they have to compromise more and get things done so that the role of a politician can be honored again. The takeaway has got to be that the political system needs to work better, the two sides need to work with each other, or people are going to say, “a plague on both your houses.”

Read more about the 20th annual Downtown Business Breakfast with Doris Kearns Goodwin.