Pulitzer Prize winning historian visits Quinnipiac

Jonathan Carlson

Doris Kearns Goodwin remembers the day President Lyndon Johnson asked her to dance. It was at the celebration the night after she was selected to serve as a White House fellow. The young Goodwin was one of only three girls at the party, so that left LBJ with little to choose from.
“He was probably the best story teller I’ve ever know,” said Goodwin of the late former president. “It was a privilege knowing him and spending hours with this lion of a man.”
The Pulitzer Prize winning historian spoke at Quinnipiac University on March 7. A regular contributor to PBS and NBC News, Goodwin met informally with several students before delivering a speech to an audience of faculty, students and alumni, estimated to be over 500.
During the question and answer period with students, Goodwin was asked to explain her feelings towards current President Bush.
“He was helped by Clinton’s messy exit, but he looks like a much more dignified sword,” she said, adding that Bush did a superior job on his first speech to Congress a few weeks ago. “He has done a pretty good job so far, he hasn’t done anything stupid,” Goodwin said with a chuckle.
Former President Bill Clinton was on the mind of many, with one questioner asking about his legacy. “He is almost obsessed,” Goodwin said, adding that she wasn’t sure what he would be remembered for in the long run.
With violence in the Middle East unchanged even after Clinton’s long fought battle to find peace, and his reoccurring scandals, Goodwin wondered whether Clinton’s achievements would be overshadowed. As of now, “There is nothing permanent that can assure him a place in history,” she said.
Those who are looking for short-term answers may be disappointed. “It takes years before historians can [truly] evaluate a president,” said Goodwin.
The press was a more restrained group 40 years ago. The issue was raised as to whether if President John F. Kennedy’s rumored affairs were brought to light during his presidency, would he have been less popular?
“It would have been disastrous,” said Goodwin. “JFK knew the media wouldn’t report it. When he kept up his relationships, he knew he didn’t have to feel he was risking it. Clinton took a much greater risk, an even stupider thing.”
She added, “If he hadn’t had Monica, just think what he could have accomplished.”
Goodwin detailed her days spent with President Johnson during the controversial Vietnam era.
“He couldn’t have lived with himself if he did the wrong thing,” she said of Johnson’s decision to send troops to Vietnam. “WW III would have started if he hadn’t escalated [the war]. The war had not turned out the way he had hoped it would. He lived his last four years of his life in sadness. I saw a very sad man.”
With the recent health woes of Vice-President Dick Cheney in question, Goodwin was asked whether a politician’s private life should be scrutinized.
“Health belongs in public knowledge,” she said, although, “there is complete blurring between private and public. We need some common sense of what behavior does have baring on leadership.” Of Cheney specifically, she said, “It is relevant. He is one of the most powerful vice-presidents. Bush will depend upon him.”
Goodwin’s views on the Supreme Court decision that effectively handed Bush the presidency? “I was stunned. I think it was terrible decision. There could have been time [had the court not halted the recounts].” She explained, “There were two values that came into conflict: Every vote should count, and the time it has to be over. I think it will be considered a very bad decision on the part of the court historically,” she said, saying it was a “poorly reasoned decision.”
“Gore gave such a graceful speech,” said Goodwin of the concession the former Vice President delivered. It should be noted that Goodwin’s husband wrote the first draft of the speech.
What is Al Gore’s political future? “If it is proven Gore won Florida, it gives him more a chance to compete [in 2004]. He won the popular vote [no matter what]. I think he will be a contender,” she said. Of the 2000 campaign, she said, “He is stronger because of it.”