Presidential scholar and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin gave the keynote address at Bowdoin College’s 2012 Reunion Convocation, held Saturday in the Sidney J. Watson Arena. She shared stories about three historical figures — Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln — all of whom, she said, “triumphed over adversity,” one of the main capacities of a great leader.
Here’s a three-minute excerpt from Goodwin’s speech, which begins with an anecdote of when she and her husband spent the night in a White House bedroom where Winston Churchill once slept. That room is the scene of one of Goodwin’s favorite stories, which has Franklin Roosevelt bursting into the suite to tell Churchill about his new name for the United Nations.
Goodwin spoke about how her drive to understand the inner person behind the public figure was kindled by her relationship with Lyndon B. Johnson. She started as a White House Fellow for Johnson when she was just 24, and in his later years, she helped him write his memoirs. She realizes now what an honor it was to spend so many hours with “an aging lion of a man,” who had won “1,000 contests” — passing civil rights laws, Medicare, and aid to education — but who in the end was defeated by the Vietnam War. Sad and vulnerable then, he opened up to Goodwin in a way she doesn’t think he would have at the height of his powers. And this experience, she said, has inspired her to approach the subjects of her books from a deeply empathic place.
Goodwin went on to describe how Franklin’s paralysis from polio crippled his body but expanded his mind and sensibilities, helping him develop a greater empathy for the poor and unemployed, those “people for whom fate had also dealt an unkind hand,” she said.
Eleanor Roosevelt overcame a hard childhood in which she lost both parents as a young girl, and was raised by strict, unloving grandparents. Goodwin said adversity then transformed Eleanor’s relationship with her husband. Following her discovery of her husband’s extramarital affair, Eleanor turned to the outside world for fulfillment, becoming involved with women activists fighting for child labor protections. Later, she used her newly found leadership skills to expand the role of First Lady to become influential in her own right.
Goodwin said that of the three, Abraham Lincoln’s story has the greatest emotional hold over her. She described Lincoln as a man who endured one failure after another, and yet his remarkable determination allowed his to rise above his circumstances and accomplish his mission of leaving the world a better place for his having lived in it.