Pulitzer-prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin has chronicled the lives of U.S. presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and offered insight into the office of the presidency for more than five decades. She was also married for more than 40 years to Richard Goodwin, a speechwriter in the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin has acquired archives belonging to the Goodwins.
Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke to Texas Standard about her Texas connections, and what’s included in the archives. Listen to an extended version of the interview in the audio player above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: I want to ask you about you Texas connection. I knew of your husband’s association with LBJ and before that, JFK. Why the Dolph Briscoe Center for American history for these incredibly valuable archives?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: What I really was hoping – to find a home for these boxes, which my husband carted around for 40 years of our marriage from one house to the other, from a storage place to a basement – was to find a place that would bring them to life, and have another set of boxes and archives that they could be connected to. So they’re not alone there. And the great thing about the Briscoe Center is that it has made itself a center for post-World War II history, for the ’60s in particular, for cultural history.
And then when I met Don Carleton, he just made me feel a certain sense that here’s somebody who’s devoted his life to making sure that there are documentaries, there are books, there are lectures, there are seminars. That people are using them, that archives are meant to be alive. I think he’s been the head of the Briscoe Center for all these years, and he’s just an extraordinary person whose passion is history and who knows archives. And you know, what you can have sometimes when your papers go somewhere is they might sit there and then be used sometimes and not sometimes. But he understands the importance of bringing out exhibits, of having people come and really being able to catapult them back into, in this case, the decade of the ’60s.
So if somebody in the world wants to know about the ’60s, Dick’s papers will be there and mine too, because mine have to do to some extent with the ’60s because of my relationship with Lyndon Johnson.
Your husband’s archives include drafts he wrote of President Kennedy’s inaugural speech and several important civil rights speeches that were delivered by LBJ. And with you being a presidential historian – sort of a a public academic and scholar, and obviously someone who knew Richard Goodwin intimately – what do these archives tell us about how he translated public policy goals into those words that led to change?
I’ve spent my life, really five decades, in presidential libraries and really trying to figure out how can I tell a story from the primary materials that are there because it’s so exciting to just hold some actual speech that is an early draft of a speech or a memo that becomes important. And now this guy was my guy. This wasn’t Teddy Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt; it was Richard Goodwin. And the great thing about it is that he was a major speechwriter for both Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and later for Bobby Kennedy. But speeches often become the moment when a policy is going to be announced.
You decide you’re going to have something to set forth the goals of the Johnson domestic policy administration. So they call it the Great Society. They have a speech at the University of Michigan. There’s a joint session of Congress that occurs after Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, and Lyndon Johnson needs to make a speech to call for voting rights. So it’s always an occasion. They’re not just words. Dick used to say, “You know, you can’t be Patrick Kennedy saying, ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ at a chamber of commerce meeting.” It has to be at a moment in history.
So what these major speeches really reflect is usually some moment in history and hopefully some goal that you want something to happen. You want legislation to pass. In Bobby Kennedy’s case, he went to South Africa to talk about apartheid. And Dick worked on that speech, which is on his grave: the “ripples of hope” speech.
So when you see the early versions of these speeches and how they get changed, they get edited by the presidents, and then you know what happened as a result of them, it’s a really exciting sense of process that you can feel when you’re a person holding these things.
And perhaps it’s underestimated that these words have the power to spark the imagination in such a way that they don’t just serve as chronological markers, but almost as social spiritual markers as well – that they define what the country imagined could be accomplished in many respects.
You’re so right that the sense that Dick had was really that it wasn’t simply the person who was giving the speech, but there’s usually a connection with an outside force. The perfect example of that is the civil rights movement in the time of Selma. And obviously the anthem of the civil rights movement was “We Shall Overcome.” And in the speech that Dick helped to draft for Lyndon Johnson, at a certain point he talks about the fact that what the Blacks had done during their Selma demonstrations was what we had to understand was our problem as well as their problem. It’s a Northern problem, a Southern problem, an American problem. It’s an ideal problem.
But then he said, if we do move together, then he took up the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We shall overcome.” And that’s when the inside channel of power meets the outside movement.
And most social change in history has occurred that way. When you think about it, the anti-slavery movement was critical for the emancipation. The civil rights movement, for what happened in civil rights and voting rights legislation, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement. And I think those speeches, when they reflect that outside power as well as the inside channel of power, that’s when real change takes place.
We should note that this collection also includes your own archival research for your many books: historical audio, video photographs, personal correspondence. As an historian, does it just come naturally to save an archive of all that work?
I wish I had saved even more than as my husband did. What I did save was every outline for each one of the books that I did, all the primary sources that I used, newspaper clippings
I wasn’t as good as he was at saving diaries. He kept diaries. I wish I had done that. I started a diary and when I was 15 years old on the day that my mother died and I thought, this is really important to capture my feelings on this day. And it was so overwhelming to me that I thought I couldn’t capture them in words. And I never kept the diary after that. And somehow, Dick was able, during the days after the Kennedy assassination, to keep an incredible diary that really established an understanding that he was at the White House – what were they feeling, what were they thinking, what were they doing? And those are the moments when you write, As an historian, I wish I’d done it in my own life more. But at least I did it for all the books that I did for my guys, less than for myself.
Much of your recent life has been spent in front of the camera in a sense, in the public eye and as a presidential historian. But I’d like to ask you about what’s been going on in current events. Of course, the 2016 and 2020 elections, the Trump presidency, impeachment, the Jan. 6 insurrection. Is there a way that you think about how historians might look back on this period in 30, 40, maybe even 100 years from now?
When I think about it, I’ve studied mostly presidents who lived in turbulent times, whether it was the Civil War or the Great Depression or the early days of World War II. And in some ways, I think when historians look back at our time, it’s going to be a cascading series of crises. It’s extraordinary all the things we’ve had to live through together in these last years. When you think about what COVID has done in the last couple of years, the fallout on the economy, the renewal of the fight for social justice with the Black Lives Matter movement and now with the war with Ukraine and Russia and all of that coming on top of worry about whether democracy at home is in a fragile state, the Jan. 6 insurrection, I mean, it’s an extraordinary sense of having to deal with so many crises at the same time. And historians are going to have to sort that out: which caused what and what to do with it. I wish I were living 50 years from now and could tell you what we’re going through. That’s going to take time to sort through because it’s really been a hard, difficult time.
And yet the one thing I think that history gives us solace for is that we’ve been through those tough times before. When I think about it, the people living in the early days of the Civil War or the Great Depression or World War II didn’t know how the story was going to end, as we don’t know now. We feel the fear and anxiety. We know now what they didn’t know. We know that the emancipation ended and the Union was restored. We know that the Great Depression came to an end when there was a mobilization for World War II. And we know that the Allies won World War II, but they didn’t know that. So we live with that sense of not understanding where we’re going. And it’s scary, but that’s why I think history provides perspective and hope and solace because those other times seemed really hard. And yet somehow we emerged with greater strength.
When we started, you mentioned all those boxes that you and your husband toted around from house to house and basement to basement. Having said that, obviously you wouldn’t have hung on to them for this long if they weren’t meaningful and perhaps even precious to you. Is it hard to give up those boxes, send them all the way to Texas?
It’s a really good question. I’ve been used to having that material right around us. And for example, there are fabulous pictures that we had. One of them is Dick when he was the president of the Law Review at Harvard. And you see these 40 white guys and then you see two little women on either side, and one is Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And we discovered that in the box. And that was just so exciting. And then the other part of me said, “Dick, why aren’t there more women?” as if it was his fault.
And then there’s a telegram from Martin Luther King to Lyndon Johnson after the Howard University speech that my husband helped to craft. The actual blue telegram saying this is the most profound speech that a president has given. And we have a cigar box that was given to Dick by Che Guevara when he was down at a conference about Cuba. And we used to have cigars in it and show people and tell the story.
And now these will all be at the Briscoe Center, but I’ll be able to visit these things every now and then. There’s just something about holding an early draft of a speech or a letter from Bobby Kennedy or a letter from Jackie Kennedy, or memos that were sent back and forth between Kennedy, and Dick and Johnson, and Dick or Bobby or the McCarthy campaign. And just to be able to hold the actual thing, it makes you feel a sense of being back in that period of time. But as I say, I’ll be coming to Austin and I can visit them when I’m there.
What do you know about your new role on the Briscoe Center’s advisory board?
What I’m hoping is not only to be on the advisory board; I’d love to be meeting some of the students and possibly giving lectures or seminars. I started my life as a young teacher when I was at Harvard, before I became a full-time writer. And I loved teaching. And the experience with Lyndon Johnson is really what made me a presidential historian. I was going to be a Supreme Court historian. That’s what my Ph.D. thesis at Harvard was like.
I got a White House fellowship. I came to work with Lyndon Johnson that last year in the White House and then accompanied him to help him on his memoirs, stayed in Austin and then stayed at the ranch. And had that extraordinary experience of being with this aging lion of a man, the most interesting political figure I probably ever met, when I was only 24 years old, set me on a path to becoming a presidential historian. So I’ll be forever grateful to him and to Texas. I feel like it’s where my career began.
And then it branched out from there to Lincoln and the Roosevelts and all the other people that I’ve studied. But it all began with Texas and Lyndon Johnson. So that feels really good just to know that if I can contribute back to the University of Texas, to the teaching that I loved when I was a young teacher at Harvard, it will make my life feel like it has come in a full circle.