In her long career as a historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin has enjoyed such close access to U.S. presidents that Lyndon B. Johnson once told her over wine and cheese, “More than any woman I have known, you remind me of my mother.”
She can recall so many White House candidates, even James Weaver and the other also-rans lost to obscurity, that she fears them waiting for her in the afterlife, ready to rattle off the details she got wrong.
But in Raleigh on Thursday night, Goodwin confirmed what baffled political pundits have been saying all year, watching the crop of 2016 presidential hopefuls.
“There has never been a campaign like this,” she said.
Goodwin, 73, spoke at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, part of a lecture series put on by the N.C. Museum of History. A Pulitzer Prize winner in 1995, she signed copies of her most recent book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.”
In his introduction of Goodwin, News & Observer Editorial Page Editor Ned Barnett echoed the common description of her as the country’s “historian in chief” and poked at her well-known love for the Boston Red Sox – no longer underdogs but rather “the Boston Yankees” as three-time World Series winners.
Before a full house in the Fletcher Opera Theater, Goodwin said the fear and anxiety propelling the campaign of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders, most closely resembles America’s mood in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.
That era saw heavy immigration, changing technology, conflict between cities and farms and growing rifts between rich and poor. Those tensions created both demagogues and populist candidates who played to the nation’s uneasiness.
“They charged that the U.S. was no longer by the people, for the people, but rather a country by and for Wall Street,” Goodwin said.
Along with that, she said, changes in the primary election system have fueled Trump’s rise. Election season used to start around Labor Day, and candidates did not even attend party conventions. Had Trump run in distant decades, party bosses would have had far more control over the nominee. President Teddy Roosevelt started the move toward primaries in his failed comeback run in 1912, knowing that he was popular with voters rather than officialdom.
In remarks before the lecture, Goodwin struggled to find a historical candidate to parallel Trump. Wendell Willkie, a Republican who lost to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, also lacked any prior political office on his resume. But there is scarce precedent, she said, for a candidate to endure and even thrive after making so many remarks that offend large blocs of voters, as Trump has.
In past races, she said, “The hammer comes down so quickly. Somehow, (Trump) has gotten past that.”
Turning to the Democrats’ contest, Goodwin said she doubted Hillary Clinton’s trouble sealing the nomination stems from her being a woman. Rather, she said, voters nationwide are polar in their opinions of the Clinton family in general, both the former president and his wife the former senator and secretary of state. Being tagged with 25 years of political history has placed her on the defensive, Goodwin said, which will change when she gets the chance to relax.
“I know her enough to know she’s a much warmer person than she appears,” Goodwin said. “She admits she’s not a natural pol like (Bill Clinton) is.”
She added that it will take another 20 to 30 years to assess President Barack Obama’s tenure. His legacy will depend much on what happens in policy hotspots such as Iran and whether his health care initiatives endure. She declined to assign him to any rank among past presidents, and said, “He has conducted the office with dignity. The VA scandal was pretty big, but not connected with something he did himself.”
Lastly, Goodwin said she would not want to work on the biography of any current president. Historians of the future will contend with Facebook posts, tweets and emails that may not survive and, even if they do, will fail to communicate the depth found in diaries no longer kept.
“Diaries and letters are the treasure,” she said. “All of their emotions come out. ... The only reason we know Lincoln had a high-pitched voice was somebody wrote that down. (Future generations) will know how we walk and talk, but they won’t have that intimacy.”