Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin (@DorisKGoodwin), a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, historian, and political commentator whose latest book Leadership: In Turbulent Times examines how the four presidents she’s studied most closely — Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and LBJ — found their footing. It was transcribed and therefore might contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors.
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Tim Ferriss: Doris, welcome to the show.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Glad to be with you, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: I have been looking forward to this conversation and also very intimidated by this conversation in my prep and in doing all of my homework. So, I’m going to apologize, in advance, to you and my listeners, if I embarrass myself with my lack of domain expertise, as we get into many different things. But I thought we could start with something that does not intimidate me, and that is some of your very early childhood experiences. I had read, in the course of doing preparation for this conversation, that your father was an optimist, and his optimism was perhaps the greatest, or one of the greatest, gifts that he gave you. Could you perhaps just set the scene and explain some of these circumstances and then, also, what that meant to instill optimism in you?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: No, I do, indeed, feel like it was the greatest gift he could have given me. He had a very difficult life, which I learned about, of course, when I was a little girl but never having met his parents or grandparents. The grandparents had come over from Ireland. And then, my father was orphaned when he was 10 years old. His little brother was hit by a trolley car, when my father was 10. The little boy was six. His mother was pregnant. He had a two-year-old sister. And the little boy died, finally, from the trolley accident. His mother had a child, died, another child. And his sister and he were then put out to other people. After his mother died in childbirth, his father committed suicide. I only learned this all later. So, here’s this man, Michael Francis Aloysius Kearns, 10 years old, goes to work very early, eventually becomes a bank examiner in New York State.
He’s great with numbers, something that he did not give me as a gift. But most importantly, he somehow, if you saw that man, you would never know that sadness that he had in his childhood. He had a twinkle in his eye. He loved life. He gave me that optimistic spirit telling me, if you like people, people will like you in turn. It’s been the way my life has been led since then, and it’s hard to imagine what better gift. There’s confidence that I think you get from your family. And I think I got that, too. But the ability to just get through adversities with resilience and to have that hopeful feeling that things are going to turn out all right, even though, sometimes, they don’t, you think they will again, it sustained me through my whole life.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any particular examples that you can think of or just approaches that you remember your father taking to coach you through difficult times or difficult experiences, when you were perhaps not at the peak of confidence, when you were suffering hardships? What approach would he have taken or did he take?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well, I think, in small and large ways, I remember once, I was in a concert at school. And we were singing Old Man River. And by mistake, instead of singing Old Man River, instead of saying he’s tired of living and scared of dying, I said he’s tired of dying and scared of living. And I was so embarrassed. And after I came out, he said that was much deeper what you said. He’s tired of living and scared of dying. And I felt great, and we went and had some ice cream. And then, of course, because I was such a huge baseball fan, I had to get through the failure of the Dodgers year after year after year, the Brooklyn Dodgers. And, again, he just said, “It will happen some year.” And he made me feel that wait until next year, it will happen.
But probably more importantly, my mother had had rheumatic fever as a child, so she had a damaged heart and really was an invalid for most of my childhood. And so, he saw what I had to go through and what he had to go through where she was not well. She had several small heart attacks. And, again, he just got her through it, got me through it. And it all sounds so sad what I’m saying, but my childhood, bizarrely, was not sad. And I think it had a lot to do with him.
Tim Ferriss: You also mentioned, and part of the reason, for people listening, that I’m asking these questions and I’m so interested in you as a person, is that you are such a keen observer, and that’s reflected in your writing, certainly reflected in your speaking as well. And I’m interested in the formation of your character and strengths and so on. Baseball, you mentioned baseball. I don’t know much about your background with baseball, but is it true, and I can’t believe everything I read on the internet, so I certainly stand to be fact corrected any time, that you were the first woman to be invited into the Red Sox locker room, is that true?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well, I don’t know about the first woman to be invited in, but I was the first journalist to be invited. I happened to be at spring training on the day that the order came down from the court saying that women journalists had to be allowed into the locker room to be able to do their job. So, the owners of the Red Sox said go in. So it happened that I was the first person to go in. And it actually is a Trivial Pursuit question in the New England Trivial Pursuit game. So, it’s a great pride to have done it. It wasn’t that exciting, to be honest. I didn’t see lots of guys in manners of undress, but I was there. I didn’t even have to interview them. I just had to say I was there. I’m okay.
Tim Ferriss: Have you always been, as long as you can remember, an aficionado of baseball? How did that develop?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think, in so many ways. My love of history came from my love of baseball. My father had grown up in Brooklyn and then, moved to Long Island just before I was born but still loved the Brooklyn Dodgers. So, when I was only five or six years old, he taught me that mysterious art of keeping score while listening to baseball games, so that I could record for him, on a summer afternoon, the history of that afternoon’s Brooklyn Dodger game. And then, he would come home from work on the Long Island train at night. And I would recount for him, with all of my miniaturized symbols, the K for strikeout, getting the guy around the bases, I could tell him every play of every inning of the game that had taken place. And he made me feel I was telling him a fabulous story.
So, it makes you think, even as a little girl, there’s something magic about history to keep your father’s attention for so long. In fact, I’m convinced I learned the narrative art from those nightly sessions with my dad because, at first, I’d be so excited, before I went through this huge rendition, I would say the Dodgers won or the Dodgers lost, which took the drama of this two hour telling away. So, finally learned, you have to tell a story from beginning to middle to end. He made it even more special for me, when I was six. He never told me then that all of this was actually described, in great detail, in the sports pages of the newspapers the next day. So, I thought, without me, he wouldn’t even know what happened with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
So, it really did, I think, teach me the importance of telling a story. In fact, much later, I read an essay by my heroine, Barbara Tuchman, and she said, “Even if you’re writing about a war as a narrative historian, you have to imagine to yourself you do not know how that war ended. So, you can carry your reader with you every step along the way from beginning to middle to end, not being an all knowing person that says oh, they won this war. What’s the drama, if you already know that?” So, I learned that just trying to keep my father’s attention and telling him the story step by step of what happened to the Dodgers that day.
Tim Ferriss: For those who don’t know, who is Barbara Tuchman?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Barbara Tuchman is a female historian. And I only mention female historian because she was a very important, early, female, Pulitzer Prize winning historian. And I read a book that she wrote, Guns of August, when I was in college. And it was so beautifully written. But more importantly, for me, she was writing about battles and military stuff and things that you don’t imagine that sometimes a woman might be so adept at. But, more importantly, she was just a beautiful storyteller and writer. So, I met her later, but she became a mentor in my imagination, I think, when I was in college.
Tim Ferriss: No, the point at which history enters the scene, as such, labeled as such, even if baseball and your experiences with your father perhaps introduced you to crafting this narrative arc, did that start in high school? I had read, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I had read that you had a fantastic history teacher, in high school, who I think won an award for best history teacher in New York State or something along those lines. Was that a very influential period for you, when you were, specifically, in that class? Or did history somehow enter the picture prior to that?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well, I think, beyond baseball, the other experience that led me to love stories from the past is because my mother had had rheumatic fever and had this damaged heart, I loved to listen to her tell stories. I kept saying to her, mom, tell me stories about you when you were a young girl, like me. I somehow thought, if I could keep her mind talking about days when she was young before her illness set in that her mind would control her body and this premature aging process we were witnessing would be stopped in its tracks. So, I was constantly saying, “Mom, tell me a story about you, when you were my age,” not realizing how peculiar that was, until my own three sons never once said to me, “Mom, tell us a story about you, when you were our age.” But I think, again, it instilled in me the idea that stories from the past can bring people who are different alive, when they were younger.
And then, of course, when I ended up studying dead presidents trying to bring them to life. So, these two roots, I think, of my father’s love of baseball and my wish that my mother could be younger, and I could imagine her running up the steps two at a time led to my interest in the past. But then, I think, when I got to high school, a wonderful high school in Long Island, Southside Senior High School, this teacher, Miss Austin, was the head of the Social Studies Department. She made you feel, when she was telling…I remember about FDR’s death, as if she were experiencing it. Her eyes filled up. And she did, indeed, win an award as the best history teacher in New York State. So, all of us benefited by having that chance to see history come alive.
I love history so much now, and I just wish that every kid in school would have a teacher with that kind of passion because, whenever I hear kids say oh, it’s boring, it’s just a bunch of facts, and I keep thinking, no, it’s about people who lived before. They had drama in their lives. They went through tough times. Our country went through tough times. And the more you can learn from that perspective, just like learning from your parents or grandparents, you’re learning from generations ago. And if I could just have a Miss Austin in every school in America that would be my dream.
Tim Ferriss: When did you decide that you wanted to explore biography as one of your many explorations of literature and as a writer? When did that first come onto your radar or did you first think of it?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: No, I think where biography came from was Lyndon Johnson. When I was in graduate school and in college, I was really interested in the supreme court and thought I might actually go to law school rather than graduate school. But I did end up going to graduate school. And I had a great teacher at Harvard Graduate School who taught the history of the Supreme Court. So my PhD thesis was on the Supreme Court. So I might have been studying these guys in their robes rather than my dead presidents were it not for the fact that I got a White House fellowship and a wonderful program that still exists today, which takes people from 23 to 48 or 50 perhaps and brings them to Washington for a year hoping that you’ll get a sense of the government and then, go back to your private life having been enriched by that experience.
And I was at the young end. I was only 24 when I was chosen and ended up, in a peculiar way, working for Lyndon Johnson and then, helping him on his memoirs the last years of his life, and then, writing my first book on Lyndon Johnson. So, that’s what sent me into presidential history. That’s what sent me into biography that random experience. Chance plays a role in so much of our lives, I think.
Tim Ferriss: I, in the course of prepping for this, read that you had some doubts about whether you would remain in the White House. And I’m paraphrasing here. I’m pulling from memory, which isn’t always my strong suit, because you had written an anti-war piece. And I guess, at the time, the president decided to keep you around. And then, if he couldn’t convert you, nobody could. And I’m just wondering A) if you could flesh that out a little bit, and B) why he would make that type of decision.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Yes. What happened is, when we were chosen as White House fellows, there was a big dance at the White House. And he did dance with me that night. Not that peculiar. There were only three women out of the sixteen White House fellows. But as he twirled me around the floor, he whispered that he wanted me to be assigned directly to him. But it was not to be that simple, for in the months prior to my selection as a White House fellow, like many young people, I was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and had written an article with a friend of mine that we had sent to the New Republic weeks before and had not heard anything back on, the need for a third party candidate to challenge Lyndon Johnson. So, it came out with the title two days after the dance in the White House, How to Remove Lyndon Johnson from Power.
Well, oh, my God, I was certain he would kick me out of the program or, even worse, he might destroy the entire program. But instead, surprisingly, he said, “Oh, bring her down here for a year. And if I can’t win her over, no one can.” So, I was not assigned directly to him and the White House though. I think I was too incendiary for that. So, I was assigned to the Labor Department under Willard Wirtz who was a wonderful mentor. And then, Johnson withdrew from the race, in March of 1968. And right after he withdrew from the race, he called me to the White House, and he said, “Well, you said I should be removed from office. I’ve now removed myself. Now, you have to work for me the rest of the time.” And so, I did. I went to the White House.
And then, as I say, he asked me, when the White House fellowship and the year working for him came to an end, to help accompany him part time to his ranch to help him on his memoirs. He wanted me to come full time, but I knew enough about Lyndon Johnson then that, if you were completely in his sway, it was really hard to keep your own sense of balance. So, I asked him if I could just go part time and go back to Harvard to start teaching, which is what I wanted to do. And at first, he said no, all or nothing, all or nothing. So, then, the last day, when he was in the White House, and he was going to leave the next day, he called me back and just said, okay, it’s all right. Come part time. And then, he just got to me. He said, “It’s not so easy, when you’re not in power in the same way to get what you want. I won’t forget that you’re doing this. But just don’t let those Harvards poison your feeling about me.”
So, that was the extraordinary experience. I stayed at the ranch much of the time I was there, got to know Lady Bird, got to know him very well, and felt a great deal of empathy for him, even though he never changed my mind about the war. I did see extraordinary success that he had had in the Great Society and in civil rights. And I saw him struggle with how he would be remembered, in those last days and last years of his life. So, it was a very emotional experience, led to my first book, Lyndon Johnson. And then, from there, I became a presidential historian somehow. It wasn’t that I set out to become one.
Tim Ferriss: What an incredible opportunity. I wonder, and I’ll ask you, if in an alternate universe, I were able to ask him directly why he asked you to help him, what do you think he would say? He could have reached out to any number of people. What did he see in you? Or how would he answer that question, do you think?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well, he had a number of other people that were working on the memoirs with him. But I think, to some extent, because I was young, and he knew that the audience he wanted to reach were those young people because he felt that they hadn’t understood him, even though he liked to believe he had done so much for them, which he had, except for this huge thing, the Vietnam War. I was a woman, so maybe it was easier to be able to talk to me as a woman. And he knew that I loved listening to stories. And he was a great storyteller. I mean, fabulous, colorful, anecdotal stories. There was a problem with these stories, I later discovered, that half of them weren’t true, but I loved listening nonetheless. So, I think part of my attraction for him was that I loved listening to his tall tales.
There was also a moment when I worried that part of the reason he had me there was because I was a young woman. But everything was perfect. I kept talking to him about steady boyfriends, even when I had no boyfriends at all, until one day, he decided to have a discussion about our relationship, which sounded ominous. When he took me nearby to the lake, called Lake Lyndon Baines Johnson, there was wine and cheese and a red checked table cloth. All of the romantic trappings. And he starts out, “Doris, more than any other woman I have ever known,” and my heart sank, and then, he said, “You remind me of my mother.” It was pretty impressive, even with what was going on in my mind. But nonetheless, I was there.
We used to walk on the ranch. I talk about this, actually, in the epilogue of my new book because I tried to bring all four of my guys, Lincoln, Teddy, Franklin, and LBJ to the whole question of how they wanted to be remembered over time. So, I describe a lot of the scenes of walking with him every day where his mind was just going back over the happier parts of his life and also, the sadness of knowing that, hopefully, the sadness of knowing that the Vietnam War had cut his legacy in two but hoping that what he did on civil rights would receive some sort of bounty in the time to come. And it certainly did, and it has. But he died before knowing that for sure.
Tim Ferriss: When you mentioned earlier, and I’m paraphrasing here, but referring to your decision or your priority of working with him part time, you said something along the lines of, when you were fully in his sway, it was hard to maintain balance, so I decided to or asked for part time. What does that mean, if you could elaborate on that?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think what it means is that he was so powerful that you had a feeling sometimes that you couldn’t get away from him. He wanted me to be there every moment. Even when he took a nap, he would want me to be sitting in a chair right outside the closet, just in case something happened to him or just not wanting to be alone. And this was a man who needed company. And I felt, in some ways, like at 24 years old, am I going to be able to say no, I want to go to the movies tonight, or I just need some time, or I want to read, even though it was an extraordinary thing to be in his presence. I remember one time, in particular, it just sparked this memory, which I haven’t thought about, when he would have visitors to the ranch, he would take them in his car and show them the jumping antelope, the blue bonnets.
He’d narrate the whole beauty of the ranch to them. And when I was first working down there, I’d be in the front of the car with him. It would be an important person in the back like Dean Rusk or something. And he’d say to me, “Look, Doris, look at the jumping antelope.” But then, I remember one weekend, I didn’t go to visit him at the ranch, and I think he was mad that I hadn’t gone because I had stayed at Harvard. So, the next time I was down, I was in the back of the car. And he’s saying to whoever is in the front of the car, “Look, look at the jumping antelope.” I felt like I was in Siberia. Then, I thought what is the matter with me? I don’t even want to be in this car. I’ve seen these jumping antelope a thousand times. That was one of the times I think I knew that a small thing could be transferred into an arc of power.
And at least I had enough sense to think, as long as I’ve got myself back at Harvard, and I can come on weekends, I can come vacations, it really was perfect. And I also wanted to be back teaching. That’s what I had been preparing for. I got my PhD, and I couldn’t wait to teach. So, it was a balance, I think, between the two, but it worked out really well.
Tim Ferriss: Why couldn’t you wait to teach?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think I always talked, ever since I was a little person, telling stories. And I knew that, if I could teach now the kids at Harvard, it was later than getting them in high school or elementary school, but at least then, if I could make them love history just as I had, I would be doing something meaningful because I thought, in passing on that passion, and it could be one or two or three or five kids in the class that might end up really loving history, even if they didn’t go into it maybe for the rest of their lives, they’d be reading history as their avocation, not their vocation, that I would do something that mattered to me. So, and I really loved teaching. I only stopped teaching when I got married and had my kids and couldn’t teach and write and be with the kids at the same time.
And it was scary to think of myself as suddenly becoming a writer when I was much more sure of my ability to teach. So I left Harvard. I had two kids immediately after I was married. My husband already had a son from his first marriage. His first wife had died. So, all of a sudden, I have three boys. And I was finding myself hardly able to get through the day much less get anything done. So, I had to make a choice. Will I continue teaching, or will I try and be a writer? And so, I had, luckily, by that time, finished the first book on Lyndon Johnson and was going to be working on my next book and had a contract. But even then, it took me 10 years to finish the next book. And I remember being at a cocktail party in Cambridge, at one point, where somebody said, “Whatever happened to Doris Kearns anyway, did she die?”
I wanted to hit the person. I have three boys, that’s what’s happened to me. But it was able to – I was able to balance, I think, being a writer better with having the kids than I could have, if I were teaching and writing and having the kids. But every now and then, when I lecture, and it’s a 45-minute lecture or 50-minute lecture, I think, yes, this is what it used to be like.
Tim Ferriss: 45 minutes is a nice self-encapsulated beginning, middle, and end compared to perhaps 10 years. Were there times when you didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, or weren’t sure if you were going to finish? Did you have any moments of self-doubt over that 10-year span? That’s a long period of time.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: No. In fact, each of my books have taken such a long period of time that there are, certainly, moments where you just think what am I doing. A book about Franklin and Eleanor and World War II took longer to write than it took the war to be fought, which is really embarrassing. And the book on Teddy and Taft took seven years. And the book on Lincoln took nearly 10 years. The reason it’s not as scary as it might sound is that I always sort of have an outline of knowing what I want to do before I start. It’s sort of the lay person’s. I don’t know that much about the person. So, I want to know what do people want to know about them. I’m not that much of an expert on the person when I start. And then, I start building the book, usually chronologically, if not from their childhood, wherever I’m starting. So chapters get done.
So, it’s not like I spend five years researching and then start writing. Again, Barbara Tuchman, my heroine, said you’ve got to start writing as soon as you can because, otherwise, you’ll really feel this massive material is unable to be worked on. So, yes, sure there were times. But, on the other hand, it meant that I could have my own hours. My husband was a writer, and we both wrote at home. I didn’t have to travel anywhere to go and do what I was doing. I didn’t have faculty meetings at night. I could be with the kids. I could go to the Little League games. And I really appreciated that I was now in a profession that allowed me to balance as much as I could, even if it meant I wouldn’t produce 40 books. I sometimes think what if I had been a man living in another time, and I wasn’t involved with the kids? It’s a sad thing to think about.
Maybe I would have produced more books. But I would never trade it.
Tim Ferriss: I think you’re doing spectacularly. I have, as I was mentioning earlier, such an incredible level of respect for the work you’ve done. It’s very intimidating, on some level –
Doris Kearns Goodwin: It’s just fact. I’m not sure it’s intimidating, but it’s fact. Someone who was teasing me who read the Bully Pulpit, which was a very long book, actually, 900 pages that she was reading it at night in bed. And she fell asleep, and it broke her nose. Luckily, my new book is shorter than any of those. So, nobody’s nose is going to be broken.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s talk about some of your guys. And perhaps we’re going to bounce around quite a bit, and we can take this in just about any direction. But I’d love to perhaps start with a question about Lincoln. And I’ve read that you’ve said what’s perhaps most striking about Lincoln was his emotional intelligence and temperament. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Absolutely. I think, when we look at the quality of empathy, which I think is a critical quality for any leader, I think, for some people, it’s inborn. Others can develop it over time. But for Lincoln, even as a child, when his friends would be putting hot coals on turtles to watch them wriggle, he would stop them and say, “This isn’t right. We can’t do this.” Or there were times when he found somebody drunk in a pit hole, and everybody was walking by the person, and he ended up going back and picking that person up and bringing him, carrying him, to a home. And you can see that in him as a child. But it’s more than that. I felt, living in his presence, that I could become a better person. I don’t always think that. I have great respect for the people that I’ve written about, but there was something about Lincoln’s – and even forgetting how it made him a great leader, which it did, he just refused to let resentments fester.
He refused to let himself get jealous of people. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the normal human emotions of jealousy or envy or anger. But he said, “If you allow those to fester, they’ll poison you.” So, there would be times when I might be jealous of something or envious of something, and I just remember, I’d say, “Lincoln would tell me this isn’t doing you any good. You have to stop.” There’s this extraordinary story of Stanton who becomes his war secretary, and they had met, when they were in the law practice together in the 1850s. Stanton lived in Cincinnati. Lincoln, of course, is in Springfield, Illinois. But Stanton had a very national reputation and had a big case to be tried in Chicago. So they thought they needed someone of counsel in Illinois.
His partner came and looked at Lincoln, thought he’d be fine. Lincoln was so excited at the thought of working with this extraordinary lawyer, Stanton. But, at the last minute, the case got transferred from Illinois to Cincinnati. So they didn’t need Lincoln anymore. But they forgot to tell him, so he kept working on his brief. He went to Cincinnati all on his own. He met up with Stanton and Stanton’s partner on the street corner, and he said in his typically gregarious way, “Let’s go up to the court house together in a gang.” Stanton took one look at Lincoln, he had a huge stain on his shirt, his hair was disheveled, his arm sleeves were too short for his long arms and legs, and he turned to his partner, and the partner said this later, and said, “We have to lose this long-armed ape.”
Awful, right? And Lincoln was humiliated, and they didn’t open the brief he had painstakingly prepared. But the amazing thing is he stayed and watched the entire trial for a week because he could see that there was some brilliance in Stanton. And he wanted to learn from him. And he went back to Springfield, Illinois, and he said, “I still have to learn how to become a better lawyer.” So, he would stay up later at night. He’d get up earlier in the morning. He taught himself Euclid when he was on the circuit in Illinois. But much more amazingly, after his first secretary of war has had to resign, everybody comes to him and said the only person that can mobilize the north and mobilize the War Department is Edwin Stanton. He’s tough. He can be a bully, at times. He can be insensitive, but he’s your guy.
And somehow, Lincoln was able to put that past hurt behind him and give Stanton that most incredibly important job. And Stanton came out, eventually, loving Lincoln more than anyone outside of his family. Now, that’s a story that just tells everything you want to know about him. He said, “I don’t care if somebody disliked me or liked me in the past. If somebody has been guilty of ill treatment or abuse of me, if they’re right, at this time, in this place, they’re the right person for the time, I trust that I’ll be able to bring out the best in them,” and he did.
Tim Ferriss: It’s really incredible to hear these types of stories. And I think that it’s worth digging into perhaps more examples. And I’d love to get your definition or how you think about temperament because I’ve read you describing temperament as the greatest separator in presidential leadership. And maybe we could scratch presidential from that phrase. I don’t know. But and I think it was, let me get this right, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who said about FDR –
Doris Kearns Goodwin: You got it.
Tim Ferriss: Right? “He has a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” What does that mean to you?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think what temperament means really is your basic stance toward people, toward the world. If you have the kind of temperament that’s got a certain base of confidence in it, so that you can surround yourself with people who can argue with you and question your assumptions, do you have a temperament that allows you to share credit when something goes well, to take the blame when something goes badly? Do you bring out the best in other people? Do you make them want to work because you have a common sense of mission? All of these are the basic way you treat other people. I suppose it is encompassed in emotional intelligence, but I think you’re born with a certain temperament, but you also can develop a certain temperament over time. And I do think Oliver Wendell Holmes was right.
I don’t think he was right that FDR had a second-rate intellect. I think that’s defining intellect by academic excellence. And he was a mediocre student at Harvard and a mediocre student at Columbia Law School. But he had an incredible problem solving mind. And he had the ability to bring people around him, experts in all of the academic fields. And he’d start out these evenings, these brain trust evenings, where they’d just relax and tell funny stories and have a couple of drinks. And then, he would start questioning them. And he was an incredible questioner. And he could bring out – it was almost as if he was excavating their brain. And whenever he heard by verbal thing, he could remember. People remember in very different ways. Lincoln remembered when he read.
He had an extraordinary memory that, if he read something over and over again, it would stick in his brain like a poem or a piece of Shakespeare’s drama. FDR learned by listening to other people. And once he had the story in his own mind, he could then tell it to somebody else. So, that’s intelligence of a different sort, I think, than just doing well on a series of exams when you’re in school.
Tim Ferriss: And if we’re looking at, say, attributes versus skills that are developed through the nature versus nurture aspect of some of these abilities or the temperament, as you mentioned, if we look at say, and I think I’m getting this right, the Lincoln quote, “Your opponents today may be your allies tomorrow,” was he always that way? Or was that something that he developed over time and became better at?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: No, I think he did develop it over time. In fact, I think most of these, there are attributes that may be inborn that are perhaps like intelligence or maybe even people skills. Empathy, as I said, may be inborn. But the ability to communicate, in some ways, but you can develop all of these, as time goes on. And I think that’s the important thing for leaders to understand. But in his case, I think, when he was younger, he had an extraordinary sense of humor. And he could really take down an opponent by making fun of him. And he did that on a couple of occasions. And there was one time, when the audience loved what he was doing and making fun of the opponent. And he saw the opponent leaving the audience, and with tears in his eyes, and he just said to himself, this isn’t worth it. This is not the way you do it.
So, he learned from the experience of feeling guilt at taking down an opponent that way that, if it were possible, to bring him on your side eventually. Obviously, when he’s in the middle of a war, the Confederates are his opponents. But even there, when you look at that second inaugural, what is he doing in that second inaugural weeks before he dies but saying both sides read the same Bible? Both pray to the same God. Neither’s prayers were fully answered. Where he’s acknowledging that the north had had problems with slavery just as the south had. And then, with malice toward none and charity for all, let us bind up the nation’s wounds. That’s the words that say it. But what really says it was that night when he’s elected president in 1860, he knows he’s had at least much less experience than any of his three rivals.
They were more celebrated, more educated. They had been governors, they had been senators, Seward, Chase, and Bates. And he realizes I need their help. The country is in peril. These are the strongest and most able men in the country. I need them by my side. He’d bring them into the top three positions in his cabinet. Some of his friends say, “Why are you doing this? You’re going to look like a figurehead having these strong people around you.” And he said, “I need them, and I’ll be fine.” And, at the beginning, some of them thought they were more important than he was, Seward in particular. His secretary of state thought he was running the show and that Lincoln would be like a figurehead. But then, at a certain point, Lincoln saw what Seward was doing. He knew he needed him, but he put him in his place.
He said, “I am the President, and I will do this.” And they, too, became great friends. And Seward ended up admiring him more than anybody else. So I think he had an internal confidence that he could bring these opponents into his midst. But it wasn’t easy. It meant holding hands with a lot of them. It meant having to chew them out, when they started bringing their anger towards each other out in public. And he had to keep going at it. It’s much harder than if you have the same people around you who are all in the same direction. You may not have as many arguments and as many troubles, but he was able to contain those factions within his cabinet. And then, he was containing it in the country at large because they each represented a certain segment of the population, whether it was radical, moderate, or conservative.
So it’s an extraordinary way to do it. But the interesting thing is, when I’ve talked to business leaders, a lot of them said they were able to, maybe not in that extreme way having those kinds of rivals with you, but to understand the importance of bringing people near you who really can argue and question your assumptions. There’s a moment, the same thing with FDR. He’s in a room with a bunch of generals before the war had even started, the second World War. And he’s describing some pet project that he loved. And all of them are shaking their heads as if that’s wonderful. And he looks over at George Marshall who eventually, of course, becomes Chief of Staff, and he says, “George, you’re not shaking your head. What do you think?” And he said, “Well, Mr. President, I don’t agree with you at all.”
And the room came to a silence, and everybody left. And they thought that’s it for George Marshall. And then, he appointed him, not long after, bringing him up like 14 names on the list or more to be the head because he wanted that kind of person around him. So it’s that strength, I think, that inner confidence, that allows you to do that that’s a critical question in all leadership capacities.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have any people you surround yourself with who you know will speak truth to you or who have wildly divergent opinions or political perspective? Is that something you have practically built into your life? Or did you just have people already surrounding you who offer those opportunities to hear dissenting opinions?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: It’s a really important question. I think, in my work, so I’ve had a woman who has been my research assistant for the last 35 years, and she’s still working for me. Beth, who is my manager, my best friend, my partner in a lot of things that we do together, lives in California, has worked with me for the last 18 years. And I trust her I think more than almost anybody to tell me when something I’ve done is not up to par, when something I’ve written is not as good as it should be. And when maybe I’m moving in some different direction. And then, my husband and I have a best friend named Michael Rothschild, who is a writer and a sculptor and lives in Maine. And he has worked with both my husband and me, and we’ve worked with him on everything we write together, everything we do together.
And he’s absolutely honest about this sentence isn’t any good, or you’re not making this clear. So, that’s built in, in a certain sense. I’m not sure that I did it on purpose, but they are the kind of people, Beth and Michael, and my husband, of course. My husband read every single thing I’ve written and not only edited them but would tell me when I was going off in a direction that really wasn’t right. I remember, when I was working on the book on the Kennedys, and I had always been interested in medical history because my sisters were both nurses, and my brother-in-law was a doctor and because of my mother’s medical history. So, John Fitzgerald, Rose Kennedy’s father, had gone to Harvard Medical School for a year.
And I thought, oh, this is great. I can write a whole chapter on the state of medicine in the 1880s. And then, my husband looks at it, and he says, “But he dropped out of medical school and became a politician. Why are you doing this?” And oh, I hated to make that chapter go down to two pages, but he was just dead right. But the other thing that happens that builds in dissent is that we live in Concord, Massachusetts. And ever since the kids have been grown, and the kids are now joining us because they live back in the town, which I can talk about later. But anyway, we go out every night to eat at a bar. There’s two or three bars in Concord that the whole gang of us goes to one one night, one the other night, and the next one the next night. And in that group of people, there are Trump supporters, there are radical people, there are moderate people.
And we argue and talk about politics. And I think it’s really important for me to be able to listen to those other sides, when I’m going to be talking on television or thinking about today as opposed to thinking about the past.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s say you’re having one of those group conversations. You’re at a restaurant/bar. So there may or may not be alcohol involved.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: There may be.
Tim Ferriss: If things get heated, how do you or other people in the group, are there any particular phrases you use or interjections you use to cool things a little bit, if they start getting too ad hominem or too heated? And I guess what I’m stretching for here is if there are any tools or phrases or approaches that people might use to create environments where a group like that can actually communicate and hear each other’s opinions without it devolving into a verbal fist fight?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Yeah. And, obviously, all over the country right now, it’s a difficult situation where, in some places, you go in bars, and they won’t even put the news on because they’re afraid it will rile the people and make them unhappy. So it’s not been easy discussions, not only this time, but we’ve had a tribal feeling about Democrats and Republicans for some time now through Obama, through Clinton, through Bush. And I guess the best thing is, as long as you can just ask the people why do you feel that way or what parts of him do you like, or do you like this part of what he’s saying or not that, and you can sort of parse it out, or they can ask us why did you like Hillary or why did you think she’d be okay, even though she might have thought she was a terrible candidate. And as long as you can acknowledge that yes, parts of her candidacy didn’t work, but this is what I thought she was prepared for.
Or, on the other hand, they could say he touched a chord, Trump did, in people who felt they were being left out and people who felt that they weren’t being listened to. And then, sometimes, it does. If it gets too hard, then we just say, okay, let’s have another drink and change the subject and talk about the Red Sox. And that’s what does it. And there may be some Yankee fans in the group, but usually, it’s not, not up here. So the Red Sox are a very calming device, even though we’re mad at them, too, because they – but not this summer. This summer, they’re doing great.
Tim Ferriss: So this is what we’re discussing, this type of, I’m looking for a different adjective, but civil is fine, civil discussion, civil discourse about these potentially polarizing topics. That is a skill that can be developed. You have to practice, but it can be developed. And I’d love to look back at some of your guys and to look at, perhaps, some of the mistakes, failures, or roadblocks, which I know you discuss very directly in the new book, to maybe give an illustration of something they perhaps weren’t very good at that then, later became good at, just to give us some historical examples of those early mistakes/weaknesses/roadblocks and how they dealt with them.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well, taking both Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, for example, and both of them had grown up in an extraordinary, privileged background. And both had a certain kind of snobbishness, I think, about people who are not in their class. When Teddy Roosevelt went to Harvard, he looked up the names of potential friends to see if they were on the social register, so that he would know they’d be safe for him to be friendly with. But then, interestingly, he always was interested in the outdoors, in fact, in part, because he was suffering from terrible asthma as a child, so he had to build the body that would allow him to become a man and to live on. So, in the summers, he would go to Maine with these guides. And they were kind of back woodsman guys. And he just loved being with them.
And he loved asking them about their lives. He had always been interested and curious in other lives through literature. But now, he was seeing them – they knew the woods. They knew things he didn’t know. And all of a sudden, the fact that he read more books than they did seemed less important. But even so, when he first got into the state legislature, he was a fiery kind of character. And he went after a judge who he thought was corrupt. And he pounded his desk, and he said terrible things about him, and he got a swelled head, when the judge was undone by the newspapers. And then, he realized that he had become so self-important that he thought the Democrats on the other side were terrible people. He wasn’t dealing with them. Only he knew what was right. And as he said, “I rose like a rocket, and then, I fell to the ground.”
And he finally decided that you had to compromise and collaborate and be with other people and learn from them. And FDR, similarly, when he first got into the state legislature, he did very well at the beginning. He was organizing a group of people, and he thought that the Tammany bosses were all bad people. And then, he began to see, my God, they may be doing some corrupt things, but they also are helping people in the cities. The people who vote for them do it because they come to their funerals, they get them food, they get them fuel. And he moderated his kind of approach to politics. But that’s the thing that what Teddy said, at one point, was the great thing about being a politician more than if he had chosen another field, and I’m not so sure it’s true today, but it was then, he said a man who takes an active part in the political life of a great city is going to be meeting all sorts of people as a result.
And that’s what he called fellow feeling, which he said was essential for any democracy. He said that by going to places that he normally wouldn’t go – he went to tenements, he was a police commissioner, and he roamed the slums at night. He was a civil service commissioner, so he understood what it was like to take an exam and want to have a job for that kind of clerkship. He was in the Army. He had fellow soldiers, and he was leading. And he lived with them in this same kind of tent. All of that broadened his experience that he would not have had as a child. And by the time he reached the presidency, he had what he called that sense of civic life being marked by understanding other people’s points of view. It’s the very thing that’s missing in our country today. He said a large part of the rancor of political and social strife arises from misunderstanding by one section and one class.
They’re so cut off from each other that they don’t appreciate each other’s passions and prejudices. And because he had spent time in the west, where he went after his wife and his mother died on the same day in the same house to escape his depression, he saw cowboys. He was a cowboy. And it’s that breadth of experience that I think all leaders need. It can come through curiosity. It can come possibly through reading, but it comes through meeting people of different sections and different places. That that’s what politics, in the best sense, can do. But today, I think they’re much more narrowed down to the people who agree with them. And they don’t have that same broad experience that they used to.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s say that there are people in government listening to this podcast, and I do know that there are a number of senators who subscribe to the podcast and various policy makers. What are some recommendations you would have, if they want to develop that broader perspective? Are there any particular actions you might suggest, any particular habits that, based on he historical accounts in your research of these larger than life figures that they could, in the current day, somehow, incorporate to develop these types of attributes that we’re talking about?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I do believe there are. Think about it. Lincoln used to have ordinary people come into his office in the morning and just talk to him about what they wanted. They wanted a job. This is the days before civil service. And he’d listen to their family discussions. He’d listen to why that clerkship or why that post mastership would matter to him. And after a while, his secretaries, Nicolay and Hay, said to him, “Mr. President, you don’t have time for these ordinary people.” He said, “You’re wrong. I must never forget the popular assemblage from which I have come.” So Teddy Roosevelt took whistle stop tours on a train six weeks in the spring and in the fall, and he went to places where he’d been defeated as well as places where he had won.
And then, he would stop the train at the local station and listen to newspaper editors who would be criticizing something he was doing. He’d be talking to ordinary people. You have to get out of the office. FDR was not able, because of his paralysis, to go around the country as much as Teddy Roosevelt was, but he send Eleanor, his wife, 200 days a year, she would be going from one new deal project to the other seeing which ones were working, which ones weren’t bringing him back stories of people who were hurting during the depression. The stories that he needed to really work. And LBJ, if you look at the way he dealt with the Congress, why was he so brilliant in getting the two sides of the aisle together? Because in the first six months of his presidency, after JFK died, he had every single congressman over in groups of 30 to the White House.
They would then start with drinks together. And then, Lady Bird would take the spouses, in those days, on a tour of the mansion. And then, they would sit and talk. And then, he would call them up at 6:00 in the morning. He’d call them at noon. He’d call a senator at 2:00 a.m. He’d say, “I hope I didn’t wake you up, but I just need your advice.” And then the senator says, “Oh, no, I was just lying here looking at the ceiling hoping my president would call.” But nothing beats spending time with different people and not letting your day get filled up just with the colleagues and the people in the government itself. FDR said, when he was putting over the papers to the FDR library, the first presidential library, he said there’s millions of papers here of government talk to one another.
But the ones I value the most are the letters from the people who are telling me their stories and their opinions of me and what I should do differently. And those are the ones that I hope people will read as time goes by. So maintaining that connection, whether it’s a leader and their company and their shareholders, or whether it’s a president and their constituencies and keeping that sense of understanding and connection directly, that’s why FDR was so terrific on the radio because he made people feel, when he was communicating with them, that he was talking to them individually. People would be sitting in their living room or in their kitchen looking at the radio, but they felt, somehow, he was just talking to them. And there’s a story about a construction worker going home one night, and his partner said, “Where are you going so early?”
And he said, “Well, my president is coming to speak to me in my living room tonight. It’s only right I be there to greet him when he comes.” It’s that sense of keeping that connection. The higher up you go, the more likely it is to narrow the numbers of people that you see. And all of these people reached out across those barriers to keep fresh, even when Eleanor Roosevelt came back from her stories, what the people were feeling in the country, they would always have dinner the first night, so the story would be fresh and not repeated over time.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned Eleanor. You also mentioned Lady Bird Johnson. Are there any first lady stories or attributes that you think don’t get enough air time or that perhaps are lesser known that should be better known?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think the important thing is that the importance of a first lady, and so far we have had just first ladies, no first men, the importance of a first lady to the president goes well beyond whether they contribute in the partnership way that Eleanor did. She was extraordinary. She’s the first lady to ever have a radio program, the first lady to speak at a national convention, the first to hold weekly press conferences where she had a rule that only female reporters could come to her press conferences, so that all over the country, stuffy publishers had to hire their first female report to go to Eleanor’s press conferences. But they all can’t be as active in politics as Eleanor was. In fact, when Bess Truman came in, Eleanor said, “I’ll introduce you to the ladies of the press.”
And Bess Truman said, “Why in the world would I want to do that? I’m not going to be talking to the ladies of the press.” What you need to know is the same thing you need to know about any partnership: is what are they contributing to one another. Teddy Roosevelt’s wife, Edith, had no interest in being a public figure. She said the only time a woman’s name should be in the press is when she is born and when she dies. But she gave him the stability of a raucous family home. The kids were part of his life. He’d come home and play with the kids. He knew that they had a family that was strong and stable and could withstand any of the pressures of public life. So I think we need to look at the way in which the wives and first ladies have contributed to their husbands that may be very different from political.
It could be a balance, as Lady Bird was an extraordinary balance to Lyndon Johnson. There were times, even when I was at the ranch, where I could see him get so angry about something. And controlling anger is such an important part of leadership. And somehow, as he was yelling at somebody, she could just put her hand on his knee and say, “Now, Lyndon, Lyndon, you don’t really mean that. You’re going to feel bad about this later on.” And somehow, it just calmed him down. So I think, sometimes, it’s somebody who is calm against the manic person. Sometimes, it’s somebody like Eleanor who could actually argue with him. He said she was like a welcomed thorn in his side. She was the person who could tell him the truth, whenever he needed to hear it.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any other presidents, it could be someone you have written about, it could be someone else you’ve studied, it doesn’t even have to be a president, a leader, let’s just say, who strikes you as particularly underrated or overlooked? And it doesn’t have to be one. It could be more than one.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well, there’s leaders that I don’t know about. That’s what’s amazing, even though I taught a course on the presidency for years at Harvard. I don’t really know a lot of our presidents. In fact, right now, I’m involved in the possibility of a miniseries on George Washington. And I can’t tell you how little I know about George Washington, which is really embarrassing. But I’m so excited because now, I’ll be able to live with him. I’ll wake up with him in the morning and think about him. I’m not writing about him. It won’t be quite as intense as it would be but helping as a consultant on this documentary. So, I don’t think he’s underrated though. I think people know about him. But I’m sure, if I were to go into somebody like Grover Cleveland, if I went into James Polk, which everybody who knows him says he’s a really interesting guy, you’d find more about it.
That’s the thing. When you study somebody, you get interested in them. And the fact that they reach the presidency usually means that there’s some ambition there. There’s some desire, hopefully, to do something for the country. There’s some resilience because they’ve all been through something. So, they become human beings, and then, you realize that maybe, they’re underrated as a person because of their judgment in history. The way presidential historians judge people can often be difficult. I remember I happened to be at a dinner at the White House in 1997, so it was before Monica Lewinsky happened to Clinton. But there had been a presidential historian’s poll that came out that day that ranked him sort of in the middle. And he was so angry through the dinner. He just kept talking about it.
I, unfortunately, was sitting next to him as a presidential historian, so I was trying to make him feel better. That very day, the owners of the Brooklyn Dodgers, now the Los Angeles Dodgers, had announced that they were selling the team. And there was some thought that maybe they’d come back to Brooklyn. So I said to President Clinton, “I’d make you a corrupt bargain. If you bring the Dodgers back to Brooklyn, I will put you up a notch on the next presidential poll.” He didn’t even really laugh. I didn’t think he thought it was funny, but I thought it was funny. Anyway, just mentioning that business of Lyndon Johnson and having anger, controlling anger, is such an important part of leadership. And some of my guys were so much better at it than others.
Abraham Lincoln had this wonderful ritual that I think you can develop where, when he got angry with somebody, he would write what he called a hot letter to the person, releasing all of his anger. And then, he put the letter aside hoping he would cool down psychologically and never need to send it. The famous case of that is when General Meade failed to follow up with General Lee after the victory at Gettysburg despite telegrams saying you can’t let Lee’s army escape. He did let Lee’s armies escape. And Lincoln was so upset about it that he wrote a long letter saying, immeasurably distressed, you didn’t do what we asked you to do. Had you done so, the war would have come to an earlier end. But then, he realized, oh, my God, he’s still in the field. This will paralyze him.
He puts the letter aside, and it’s never even seen, until the 20th century, when his papers are opened, and a raft of these kind of letters exist – never sent and never signed. So after the book Team of Rivals came out, a CEO wrote me and he said, “Thank God for Lincoln’s hot letters.” He had written an email to a subordinate thinking that the subordinate had done something wrong. And then, he decided, I think I’ll just put this in draft instead of sending it. And he found out the next day that he had been wrong about the information. So that’s one way to get through with anger. FDR had his own way. He would write drafts of speeches. Say, his fireside chats would go through five or six drafts before they would be done.
And if he was angry at a congressman over a particular incident, he would call out the person by name in the first draft. He’d call him a traitor to his class, a terrible guy. A new, young speech writer came along and said, “I can’t believe he’s going to do this. This will look terrible.” The older speech writer said, “Just wait until the second draft.” By the second draft, the congressman’s name was gone. By the third, the negative adjectives were gone. By the final draft, all was sweetness and light. But he had gotten it all out of his system by doing that. So figuring out ways to get that anger out, in a way that’s not going to hurt the person directly and hurt your own leadership, is something that my guys were able to do. Lyndon Johnson, less able to. When he’d be angry, he would go, for example, to somebody’s desk.
And if the desk was clean, he’d think, oh, my God, the guy is not working hard. If it was messy, he’d think he’s disorganized. And then, when he got angry, he would just start yelling at the person right there. And then, he’d feel bad. And he might send a present to them the next day, but it’s so much better if you can release that anger in a different way. Stanton, Lincoln’s war secretary, came by one day, and he was furious at a general. And so, Lincoln said to him, “Why don’t you write to the general and tell him what you’re feeling?” And so, Stanton comes back a few days later, and he reads him the thing, and he says, “Now, Stanton, what are you going to do about it?” And he said, “I’m going to send it, of course.” And Lincoln said, “No, you’re not. Just throw it in the waste paper basket.”
And he said, “But it took me two days to write.” And he said, “I know, and it did you ever so much good. You feel better now. That’s all that’s necessary. Just throw it away.” And so, after a little more grumbling, Stanton did just that. And the interesting thing is, when I interviewed President Obama for a Vanity Fair exit interview, I was talking to him about Lincoln’s hot letters. And he had read Team of Rivals, but we went over it again. And I said, “Did you ever do that?” And he said, “What do you mean? Of course, I do all of the time.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I write dozens of letters and crumple them up and put them in the wastebasket.” So that’s a lesson one could learn.
Tim Ferriss: Pulling from that Vanity Fair piece, I wanted to ask you about this because, at one point, and I think I have this right, you wrote, “At the beginning, preparing for this conversation today, I realized that it was nine years ago that you first called me on my cell phone, ‘Hello, this is Barack Obama. I’ve just read Team of Rivals, and we have to talk about Lincoln.’” So a couple of questions. Did you know this call was coming? Was it a blocked number, and then, someone saying they’re Barack Obama? Did you believe that it was Barack Obama? Can you tell us a little bit about that phone call?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Now, remember, he’s just a candidate, at this point, running way behind Hillary Clinton. But, obviously, he had been a star at that convention. So, I had never met him, but I’d heard him give that speech because I’d been there covering it for television. But no, I can picture the room I was in in my house, when I just answered the cell phone, and he said “This is Barack Obama.” And I thought, at first, is it really? But, indeed, it was. And what had happened is that he wanted to talk to me about the book not because he was thinking of creating a team of rivals. He was so far behind Hillary, at that point, he just was fascinated by Lincoln’s emotional intelligence. How he could forgive these people in the past, how he could control his anger, how he could share credit, all of those things.
So, I went to his senate office building and talked to him about Lincoln. And then, the interesting thing that happened is that, when he then appointed Hillary Secretary of State, his chief rival, after he had won the nomination, actually, somebody asked him, a journalist said to him, would you really be willing to put one of your chief rivals into your cabinet, even if he or she had a spouse who could be a pain in the neck? Of course, it was meaning Hillary and Bill Clinton. And he then quoted Lincoln. And he said, “The times are in peril. These are the strongest of all people. If she’s the strongest, yes, I’ll put her in.” So, then, when he did, it sort of became a term, team of rivals.
So when I went to the inauguration covering it for television, and there was a party the night before where Hillary Clinton was, and teasingly, she came up to me and said, “You are responsible for my being Secretary of State!” Of course not me, but Abraham Lincoln, but yes, I think leaders do learn from each other. That’s one of the great things about Harry Truman was that, even though he was not college educated, he loved reading history and biography. And he learned from the leaders in the past. Each one of them, I think, learns from each other. When I think about it, the book that I’ve written about Lincoln and Teddy and Franklin and LBJ, it’s almost like a family tree because LBJ’s hero was Franklin Roosevelt, who he called his political daddy. Franklin Roosevelt’s hero was Teddy Roosevelt.
In fact, he modeled his whole career on him. When Franklin was 28 years old and a law clerk, as I say, not having been a great student or even a great law clerk, he and the law clerks are sitting around and talking about what might happen to them in the future. And he said, “I’m not going to be practicing law forever. I think what I’d like to do is to be a state legislator. And then, I think I’d love to be Assistant Secretary of the Navy.” He loved ships, and he loved maps, and he loved the Navy. “And then, maybe from that, I could be Governor. And then, who knows? Maybe I could be President.” Exactly the path that Teddy Roosevelt had taken. And Teddy was his hero. They were distantly related. But, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt was Teddy Roosevelt’s younger brother’s daughter. And her father had died of alcoholism young, so Teddy became a really important uncle to her.
So from the time that Franklin was young meeting the family early on, and then, from knowing Teddy Roosevelt as a young man that was his hero. Teddy Roosevelt’s hero was Abraham Lincoln. And he read, one summer, when he was in the middle of this terrible crisis of the coal strike, he read the eight volumes by Nicolay and Hay on Lincoln. And it just helped him, he said, to learn that Lincoln had been through rough times before. That Lincoln had had to face radicals on the one side, conservatives on the other, and figure out a moderate point of view. And in the middle of this coal strike, he’s reading this book. And it gives him solace.
And then, of course, Lincoln’s heroes were the founding fathers and George Washington. So, it shows how short the history of our country is that you could encompass these four or five leaders in the whole history of the country who form a family tree.
Tim Ferriss: It is remarkable. It really is incredible. I think about, say, traveling overseas, and you find these buildings that are, by not a small margin, so much older than the entire history of our country. It’s really remarkable. And I’d love to come back to some of these habits, one of which we discussed, the hot letters, say, that Lincoln would write. Are there any other routines or habits, it could be for anything, for forgiveness, sharing, or giving credit, or anything at all that have stuck with you that you find particularly interesting or unusual, from any of the figures you’ve studied?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well, I think one of the things that Teddy Roosevelt would argue was that procrastination was a mortal sin. So that if he knew he had to give a speech months away, he would start writing it that day just so that he wouldn’t have to think about, “When am I going to start it? When am I going to start it?” Even when he was leaving the presidency, he was supposed to give a speech in the Sorbonne, after his year in Africa on the hunt that he went on, but he had already finished the speech before he went even on the hunt to Africa. And so, there are so many times, even for myself, if I have something I really don’t want to do, I at least start it, so that I won’t have to think when am I going to start that thing. So that’s a habit that I think he developed in his other people in the cabinet.
Whenever they had to give a speech or go somewhere, they would all be preparing ahead of time and sharing drafts with one another, which they wouldn’t have done if it had waited until the last moment. I think the most important thing, however, that they all figured out how to do was how to relax and replenish their energy, to find time to think and relax. I think about it, in our 24/7 world, so may leaders or even regular people working in an organization feel, “I can’t take a vacation,” or “I have to take my email with me wherever I go. I can’t find time to do anything else other than work.” But think of these guys that I’m studying. They, certainly, had difficult situations. You had Lincoln having to deal with the Civil War. You have Teddy dealing with the Industrial Revolution and the huge gap between rich and poor that arises during that time and big labor strife.
And you have, obviously, FDR with the Depression and World War II and Lyndon Johnson with the Civil Rights struggle. And here they go. Lincoln goes to the theater more than a hundred times during the Civil War. And people criticized him for it. They said, “How can you go to the theater in the midst of all of this?” and he said, “I’ve got to get out of politics and out of the war. And for a few hours, when I’m watching Henry IV, I can imagine myself back at the War of the Roses. And I must have some relief from this terrible anxiety. It will kill me. And the theater is it.” Or for Lincoln, when he told funny stories. He was a great storyteller. And he could tell stories to people who were around him, and they’d laugh. And when he would laugh, somehow, he was whistling off his sadness. So, humor, in a certain sense, was his way of dealing with anxiety.
Teddy Roosevelt, every afternoon, found two hours every afternoon, for either a raucous tennis match or a strenuous hike in the wooded cliffs of Rock Creek Park, or being thrown around by two Japanese wrestlers, or a boxing match. He loved playing this game, single stock. He would often injure himself in these various games he played. And then, there was one time, when he was in the middle of the coal strike, where he was deprived of these zany exertions because he had an infected leg. So, he writes to the Librarian of Congress, and he said, “I need some escape from all of this. I want you to send me something on Mediterranean history or something on the history of Poland.”
And so, in the middle of this coal strike, at night, and he writes back to the Librarian of Congress, and he says, “It’s been such a delight to drop everything useful, everything relating to my duty, particularly the coal strike, and spend an afternoon reading about the relations between Assyria and Egypt, which could not possibly do me any good but in which I reveled accordingly.”
Franklin is the best. I think, in some ways, he’s the best. So, first of all, he loves having movies at the White House. He loves crossword puzzles. He loves his stamps. He loves looking at maps. He loved playing poker. He really, really knew how to relax. But the best thing he did was, when he was in World War II, he had a cocktail hour every night.
And the rule was that you couldn’t talk about the war. You could talk about books you’d read. You could talk about movies you’d seen, gossip about people, as long as the war wasn’t mentioned. So, for a few precious hours, he, like Lincoln, when Lincoln was at the theater, could relax totally. And after a while, this cocktail hour was so important to him that he wanted his closest friends and associates to be living on the second floor of the White House to be ready for the cocktail hour. So the White House became the most exclusive residential hotel you could possibly imagine. Harry Hopkins, his foreign policy advisor, came for dinner one night and slept over, didn’t leave until the war came to an end. His secretary, Missy LeHand, lived with the family in the White House. Lorena Hickok, who had an emotional relationship with Eleanor, had a bedroom next to Eleanor.
And the Princess from Norway in exile in America during the war lived with the family on the weekends. And the great Winston Churchill came and spent weeks at a time in a room diagonally across from Roosevelt’s. So, when I was writing the book, I just imagined all of these people in their bathrobes at night on the corridor of the second floor of the White House waiting for the cocktail hour or having come from the cocktail hour and then, being ready for bed and wishing that, when I’d been up there with Lyndon Johnson when I was 24, I’d asked, “Where did Roosevelt sleep. Where was Eleanor? Where was Churchill?” But I wasn’t thinking in those terms then. So I happened to mention this on a radio program in Washington when No Ordinary Time came out. And it happened Hillary Clinton, then in the White House, was listening.
So she promptly called me up at the radio station and invited me to sleep overnight in the White House so I could wander the corridor together with her and her husband and figure out where everyone slept 50 years earlier.
Tim Ferriss: That’s amazing.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: So she invited me and my husband to sleep overnight, and we were given Winston Churchill’s room, which meant there was no way I could sleep. I was certain he was sitting in the corner drinking his brandy and smoking his cigar. But with my map, we figured out, yes, Chelsea Clinton is sleeping where Harry Hopkins was. And the Clintons are sleeping where FDR was. And, of course, we were with Winston Churchill. So it was really exciting.
Tim Ferriss: That is amazing. Are there any particular routines, tools, anything that you use to rejuvenate or decompress yourself? You have an incredibly busy schedule, or just based on the amount of work you put out, it would seem that you are certainly able to go, go, go. So, what have you built into your schedule to help recharge the batteries?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well, the most important thing, I think, is that once it’s time for dinner, I don’t work late into the nights. I get up early in the morning. I wake up at 5:00 or 5:30. I love getting up before everybody else is around, and I don’t look at email until 7:00 or 7:30. If it’s winter, I come downstairs, and I have a fire that I can turn on in the fireplace. If it’s summer, and it’s air conditioned, I put a blanket on myself. And the rest of the household hasn’t awakened yet. So, those are really precious hours to just read over what I’d written the day before, not look at email, not think of everything else I have to do that day. And similarly, by 6:30 or so at night, that’s the end of work. We go out to dinner every night, as I was saying. And when I get to that bar with my friends, it has nothing to do with what I was doing that day.
We’re talking about the game of the Red Sox, or we’re talking about politics. And it’s totally taking me away to another channel of thought. And then, because we’ve had season tickets for the Red Sox for the last 30 years, when I walk into the baseball game, I, obviously, became a Red Sox fan after the Brooklyn Dodgers abandoned me and went to Los Angeles, and I moved to Harvard and became a Red Sox fan, equally as crazy as I was as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. But once I walk into that ballpark, and I keep score still of when I can there, I feel like I’m in another place, and I don’t think and worry about what I’m doing. And then, when I get home at night, I don’t read history at night. I read mysteries. Somehow, that’s what I need to do before going to sleep is to read some mystery. I don’t know why.
Trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together but just relaxing with a good mystery. So, there are ways to do it, I think. The most interesting way of thinking about anxiety, for my guys, is FDR had all of these ways of allowing himself to relax. He went on a fishing trip, at one point, ten-day fishing trip in the middle of the crisis of Britain before we were in the war. And he came up with a whole idea of lend-lease on that fishing trip because he was away from the turmoil of Washington where the bureaucratic structure couldn’t figure out how to lend money or lend supplies to England because of the Neutrality Act. So he comes up with lend-lease.
Tim Ferriss: Can you explain what that is? I’m going to admit my ignorance; I don’t know what that is.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: No, absolutely. So what happens is that when Britain is already being bombed by Germany, and it’s 1940, so we’re not in the war yet, he knows that Churchill has run out of supplies. Dunkirk had happened, so their destroyers were killed. We need to somehow get our supplies and our weapons to England. But England has no money to buy them anymore, and Neutrality Act says we can’t just give them to them. So he comes up with the idea that we will lend you our weapons, and then, after the war is over, you will get them back to us, as if a neighbor’s house is on fire, and you’re going to lend them your hose to save that neighbor’s house but also save your house, too. And then, in return for giving the weapons, we got a lease on British bases around the world. It was really a good deal, a good Yankee bargain.
But, anyway, it eventually gave us money for Russia. It gave us money for all of our allies, not just money but supplies that were given to our allies all over the world because of leasing them rather than letting them buy it. So on this 10-day fishing trip, he comes up with the idea that he can just lend the weapons and then get them back at the end. And it’s really leasing them rather than selling them or having them buy it. So it was a simple thing, but nobody could figure that out in Washington. But the thing that really struck me was that, on evenings when FDR couldn’t fall asleep, when there was unusual tension and the poker game didn’t do it, or the cocktail hour didn’t do it, he had this ritual that helped him to fall asleep. He would close his eyes and imagine himself as a boy again at Hyde Park standing with his sled atop this steep hill behind his house.
And he would go down the hill until he reached the bottom and then slowly come back up again to the top. And then he’d again do it over and over again. And it was his method of counting sheep. But the amazing thing is he was also liberating himself from the paralysis by this imagining. And in that way, he falls asleep. So, and what Teddy Roosevelt would do, when he was anxious about an election, and this I’ve thought about a lot, actually, he would write letters to his friends and his family saying, “Don’t worry; if I don’t win this election, I’ve had the best life so far. I’ve had a first rate run. And it would be selfish of me to think that, if I don’t win this one, everything is lost.” And I’ve thought about that a lot, actually.
I’ve thought about the fact that, if I knew I were dying, and maybe this is a dramatic way of putting it because he was just worrying about losing an election, but that I’d hope that it would give me solace to think I’ve really had a good life, and I felt like it was what I wanted it to be. And I can’t control that it won’t go on any longer, but I can look back on that just like Teddy looked back on his life. And I thought about it so much, in these last months, because my husband got cancer this last year. And he was incredible during the whole time. He still, even though he couldn’t enjoy food anymore because of the radiation that he went through, he couldn’t have his trademark cigars anymore, he went out every night with us to our regular dinners, even though he was being fed by a feeding tube during the day, so that he would get the nourishment he needed.
And I actually learned how to do the feeding tube. I couldn’t believe that I learned that. I was so afraid of my technical abilities. And I had to face that fear and somehow do it. But in the days before he died, all of our friends came to visit him because he was in hospice at home. And somehow, magically, he woke up, when people would come. And he had something to say to them, something funny or something serious. And then, he would go back to sleep and then wake up again. But in so many days before that, he would say – he didn’t necessarily know he was dying right then, but he knew that he had cancer and that radiation hadn’t worked. And there was no sense of talking about death. He was still working on a book that he hoped to finish. But he kept saying I love this town, I love what’s happened to our life.
Our kids are great. How lucky we are. And I just hope I can say that at the same way he did. It made me less nervous about dying to watch the peacefulness of the way he handled it. And there was an extraordinary moment, I can’t believe I’m talking about all of this right now, but I’ve somehow gotten into it, where the last thing he said to me, he just looked at me, and he had this incredible light in his eyes. Everybody said it was almost like magic. And he just said to me, “You are a wonder.” I will take those words with me the rest of my life. So I just hope I can be as peaceful and loving as he was, as he faced his own death.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you so much for sharing that.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I don’t know how I got into all of that, but it had something to do with anxiety and how you go to sleep at night.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. The gratitude and appreciation that you’re describing, on so many different levels. First and foremost, I’m sorry for your loss. I can’t even imagine what that would be like. But I thank you for sharing that.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: You’re welcome. He was great, 42 years of marriage, and an extraordinary life that he had. He was involved in so many things that people knew, when the obituaries came out, the breadth of it. People had known part of it. We knew he wrote for Lyndon Johnson the great We Shall Overcome speech. He wrote Bobby Kennedy’s South Africa speech, The Ripple of Hope. He worked with JFK, when he was only in his twenties and worked on some of his famous South American speeches. Al Gore’s concession speech. But more important than any of that, he was just involved in policy, in the Great Society and Civil Rights.
And then, he was in the Quiz Show investigation, and that was made into a movie because he was the young guy who discovered that those quiz shows, when you weren’t even born, those quiz shows were corrupted. And then, he wrote a play about Galileo and Pope Urban VIII. It was put on in London and in Boston. It was such a wonderfully broad life. And he was a great guy and a great husband and father to our kids. Our kids adored him.
Tim Ferriss: I feel like I’m unsure of where to go next with this. That was such a beautiful story. And you’re a gifted storyteller. It seems to go back a long way. You’ve honed that, certainly, over time. And you have some of the most incredible, speaking of storytelling, some of the most incredible book blurbs and quotes from admirers of your work for this new book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, you have Warren Buffett. You have an incredible collection of fans who have provided you with words for this book. Why did you write this book? You have such a keen sense of the finite amount of time that we’re all given on this planet, given your study of history, certainly mortality, your first hand exposure so it. Why put the time and energy into writing this book?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well, in some ways, I started it five years ago. So, times were not as turbulent as they are now. But there was a sense that Washington was broken even then and that we weren’t the kind of leadership on the two sides of the aisle that could get anything done. And having lived through the ‘60s, having been there when the Civil Rights Bill passed and the Voting Rights Bill passed, and aid to education, Medicare, it was such a thrilling time to be young, to see our country moving together in those directions. I’d written about these four guys before. But I hadn’t really looked at them as leaders and what it was that made them able to not just bring two sides of the aisle together but lead the country through such difficult times.
And I realized that each of the times in which they led were far worse than the time we’re living in now. So if we think this is the worst of times, history will tell you, no, we’ve had more turbulent times before, and we got through them when you had the right leader fitted for the right time. They all had different leadership styles. They wouldn’t have been fitted to be in the other time possibly. So it’s not just a matter of the constellation of traits you have, it’s whether or not those behavioral patterns fit the challenges of the moment of the time. But I think what I really wanted to do was just to understand how they became leaders. We see them as iconic figures now. There’s Mount Rushmore. There’s monuments. And I was giving a talk to a group of college students four or five years ago.
And one of them raised their hands and said, “But how can we (I was talking about leadership lessons from the White House) but how can I ever become one of them? It’s too far removed.” So the way I start the book is when each one of them is running for office the first time, so they’re not formed yet, and they’re not going to necessarily succeed. Lincoln, in fact, loses his first election, when he’s 23 years old. But, incredibly, he says, “If I lose, I’ve been already too familiar with disappointment to be very chagrined. But I do promise I’ll come back five or six times and try again, until it’s too humiliating. And then, I’ll give up.” That’s incredible, that kind of resilience. They all suffered adversity.
And I guess I was interested in that, too, maybe because of my personal history of my mother dying when I was 15, my father dying when I was in my twenties, so that I had encountered death at an early age. But all of these people went through terrible adversity. Lincoln had a near suicidal depression, when his word was no longer his bond. He had broken his engagement to Mary, and he was humiliating her by doing so. He had failed in bringing infrastructure projects to Illinois, which he had promised to do. And he really was almost ready, he said, to die. But when he was told by his best friend, “You have to rally or you will die,” they had taken all knives and scissors and razors from his room, he said, “I would just as soon die now, but I’ve not yet accomplished anything to make any human being remember that I have lived.”
So that was his lodestar. That carried him through everything, all of the losses that he had. He tried for the Senate twice. He lost. He finally wins the presidency, and then, he has the Civil War in front of him. So resilience and coming through adversity was a key that I wanted to understand. And all that happened to all of them. Teddy Roosevelt lost his wife and his mother on the same day in the same house in New York. His wife was pregnant having a child. The mother was only 49, had come to take care of her. The mother got typhoid fever and died. And the wife died in childbirth on the same day, in that house. And he was so depressed, he left the state legislature. He went to the Badlands. He said he had to be on his horse 15 hours a day. He could outride “black care” – depression.
But more importantly, he found solace in nature. He found solace in the west and became a different kind of leader because he understood the west as well as the east. And he came back and then went on to this extraordinary political career. But it taught him, he said, that you don’t build your resume little by little. He had always thought before he had a pattern worked out. And no longer did that pattern seem – so he said, “I’m just going to take whatever job comes that seems really interesting to me because it may be my last job,” because he now had a fatalism about life. So, his friends say, “Why are you becoming Civil Service Commissioner? Why are you Police Commissioner? This is below you.” He said, “No, I want to do these things. And if it’s my last job, so be it.” And then, of course, most importantly, FDR.
What he went through when he contracted polio and was paralyzed from the waist down, it allowed him to emerge more warm hearted, more connected to other people to whom fate had dealt an unkind hand than he would have been before that. He said, “You learn humility through something like polio and the paralysis.” He said, “If you spent two years trying to move your big toe, which is frozen, and you finally move it, and you celebrate it, then, the pressures of the presidency are not going to get you.” What he did at Warm Springs by bringing his fellow polios, as he called them, to enjoy life again, not just to rehab themselves in the Warm Springs pool, but he would have wheelchair dances. They’d play games, soccer games or badminton games in the pool. He made them learn to live life again, even with the affliction of having been paralyzed.
And he emerged a different person. It’s extraordinary what he did. And I just, on a human level, I found these stories so important to understand much less because it made them great leaders. When he first made an appearance, after his polio, two years afterwards, he hadn’t been in public life. He was asked to give a nominating speech for Al Smith for president in 1924 at the Democratic Convention. And he was very worried about how he could get from the seat with his braces locked in place, he could appear to be walking, if he held onto the arm of somebody, his son’s strong arm, get to the podium. But he practiced and practiced that distance in his own library time after time. And he was sweating, and he got up to the podium, and he made it.
And he would practice, even when he couldn’t walk at all, he would practice crawling up the stairs one stair at a time. And each stair, when he got higher, they’d have a celebration. When you go through that adversity, you’re a different person, at the other end. And Lyndon Johnson, what happened to him was that he had a loss in a senate race in 1941. And for him, it was as big an adversity as these other things were because it meant the end, he thought, of his political upward climb. And sometimes, people don’t get through adversity in a positive way. They can go backwards. And he then just accumulated wealth and power and was not as interested as he had once been in making lives better for other people. Then, he had a near fatal heart attack in 1955. And as you often read about with other people, it changed his attitude towards his life.
And he decided I need something more than power. I need to make that power put to a purpose. And when he did finally get into the presidency through the death of JFK, he decided that the first thing he would go for would be the Civil Rights Act and segregation of the south. Everybody said it’s too risky. You can’t do that. You’ll never get through the filibuster. And your presidency will be a failure. And you’re not going to be able to win the next election. And he said, “Every now and then, if you’re playing poker, you’ve got to throw in all of your chips.” So, he had learned that through adversity. So, I think, what I wanted to do was, even though I knew them as family men, I knew their colleagues, I had studied the times, I had studied the substance of their leadership, I wanted to understand how they became leaders, how they got through adversity, how they developed, how they learned from their mistakes.
And then, finally, the last part of the book are case studies. They’re pivotal moments in their histories, which are Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which is actually coming out in Harvard Business Review in days actually, the Emancipation Proclamation as an example of transformative leadership. And then, with Teddy, it’s crisis management, leadership of the coal strike. And with FDR, it’s turnaround leadership with the 100 Days. And it’s, surprisingly, visionary leadership for LBJ on civil rights, though, obviously, there’s a code about the war in Vietnam where his leadership utterly failed, and it was an epic failure of leadership. But even when I was in graduate school, we used to talk about big things like ambition. Where does ambition come from? Where do you get a sense of purpose? How do you have meaning in your life?
These are the things you’d stay up with late at night to talk about. And I realized that that was what I wanted to come back to probably this is, in some ways, a culmination of 50 years of studying presidents. But it’s at a different level. It’s a more personal emotional level about my guys, as I call them. And it’s really stretched me, in a way, because it meant drama and history and literature and not just biography but other things to try and understand, psychologically, to understand how they led and how they became leaders.
Tim Ferriss: Doris, this is such a gift of a conversation. I’ve had so much fun. And I am completely certain that this book is going to be so incredibly compelling and valuable to readers because, as you said, it’s taking such a personal lens to the stories and lessons learned vis a vis these leaders that it transcends politics and really touches upon so many layers of the human experience. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me today and to share all of this.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I enjoyed it so much. This is so weird to just be looking at this little picture of your face, and I feel like we’re talking to each other. It’s terrific. I thank you so much.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, it’s entirely my pleasure. And I really encourage everybody to take a look at your new book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, couldn’t be more timely and timeless at the same time. And I will link to the book, of course, to other pieces of your writing, in the show notes, everything we’ve discussed, for people listening, will be in the show notes, so you can find links there at tim.blog/podcast. And Doris, I have to ask you one last question before we wrap up, which is speaking myself as someone who occasionally has trouble sleeping, do you have any mysteries that you might recommend or types of mysteries?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Absolutely. In fact, I just go on reading one mystery writer as sort of a binge reading. So, just recently, it’s been John Grisham. And the great thing was that I was already into John Grisham when, a few months ago, he came up to Boston with four of his friends from old Mississippi, including one who was 80 years old and had a bucket list of things he wanted to do and places they wanted to see. And they were all in a bus together, and then they would come to these various places. They went to New York. Anyway, when they came to the Kennedy Library, part of the bucket list of the older guy was for me to talk to them for a couple of hours. So Grisham was there. So it was so exciting for me, just having come into reading all of his works, to be actually meeting him and hearing him talk about how he creates a story and what sparks his desire to write about a particular law firm or a particular medical problem that happens.
So, there’s something about mysteries that just allows me to transport myself somewhere else. So I think Grisham is a great. I read Bill Clinton’s new book, and I’m reading Jake Tapper’s book right now, Hellfire Club, which is really good also. So I have several of them because, when I’m on a trip, I have to take a paperback because my suitcase is too heavy. So, if I’m reading a hardback, I have to have another going at the same time. But I somehow get to sleep.
Tim Ferriss: Well, no one will ever accuse you of being an underachiever. You are so gifted at telling stories that are worth telling and also doing such an incredible depth of research to piece it together in a narrative and a story arc that is easily digested. I really appreciate you doing the work that you do. And once again, thank you so much for the time today.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I thank you for yours. Wow.
Tim Ferriss: And to everybody listening, like I said, links to everything are in the show notes, tim.blog/podcast. And until next time, thank you for listening.
Posted on: September 11, 2018.
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