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Doris Kearns Goodwin on her personal history and 'An Unfinished Love Story'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: "An Unfinished Love Story," a story of the love of two people for one another and for their country.

The new book is by an author well-known to "NewsHour" audiences, Doris Kearns Goodwin. She spoke recently to Jeffrey Brown for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Author, "An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal History of the 1960s": In the past, region, ideology...

Jeffrey Brown: Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian and commentator extraordinaire, for years bringing the past into the present on the "NewsHour," when I first got to know her, and other news programs.

Stephen Colbert, Host, "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert": Doris Kearns Goodwin..

Jeffrey Brown: A delightful and delighted presence late night.

Actress: The teacher is Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Today, we explore Lincoln's 18th...

Jeffrey Brown: And that mark of true celebrity on "The Simpsons."

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Dried macaroni and pipe cleaners.

Jeffrey Brown: Most of all, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of bestselling biographies of Lyndon Johnson, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, presidents she's thought of as "my guys,' alive for her through research and writing.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: My kids remember, when I was in the room once, they heard me talking to Franklin and Eleanor and wanting them to get closer to each other. They wondered, what is going on in that room? I couldn't get any answers from those guys, but now this was my guy.

Jeffrey Brown: This was your guy.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: This was my guy, 42 years.

Jeffrey Brown: Her latest subject, her real guy, Richard "Dick" Goodwin, who as a young man was near the center of political triumphs and tragedies in the 1960s.

A speechwriter and adviser to John F. Kennedy, with his promise of a new frontier and a call on young people to help change the world, to Lyndon Johnson, helping name and shape the Great Society social programs to fight poverty and discrimination, and to Robert F. Kennedy, before he was gunned down while campaigning for the presidency in 1968.

When Dick Goodwin turned 80, he decided it was finally time to look at the hundreds of boxes of documents and memorabilia he'd saved from that time and write of those years. And he and Doris took on their final project together. Partway in, in 2018, Goodwin died after a brief bout with cancer.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I was helping him in those first years to write a book in his voice. And then, when he died, I had to figure out what to do.

And we had gone through many of the boxes, but there was much more left to be done. And I realized finally when I came to the decision that I needed to keep the promise I made to him that I'd finish it, it had to be in my voice, not his. And I had to be an historian, as well as a biographer of him, and it had to be about the 1960s, as well as our personal lives.

Jeffrey Brown: The result, "An Unfinished Love Story," part history of a political era, part tale of a long and loving marriage.

One key figure they shared, though not at the same time, Lyndon Johnson. Dick Goodwin had come to believe that LBJ's continuation of the Vietnam War derailed much of the good achieved in domestic programs and civil rights progress. He left the White House in 1965 and went on to work with Johnson's political nemesis, Robert Kennedy.

For her part, Doris worked directly with LBJ in his final period in office and later assisted him with his memoirs. Husband and wife had argued for decades about this giant in American history and in their own lives. Going through the boxes led to a kind of unexpected and again deeply personal resolution.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: After we were going through the Selma part of it, he went upstairs and he said: "Oh, my God, I'm feeling affection for the old guy again."


Doris Kearns Goodwin: And it really healed him in those last years of his life. There was something about going through these boxes that, for me, I felt, as long as we had more boxes to go through, that he'd keep on living and we'd have our story together.

There were still hundreds of boxes left that had to do with the rest of his life. And I remember he one time said "Who do you think will win, the boxes or me?" especially as he got cancer in that last year.

But it gave him a sense of purpose, a joy of waking up in the mornings. And, more importantly, he began to remember that what he had done, what LBJ had done, what the Great Society had done was permanent, so that there had been achievements that he could be proud of, and he didn't have to feel that sadness about what might have been. What was, was pretty amazing.

Jeffrey Brown: Anyone who's been in a long-term relationship, marriage or friendship, there's a point where you might wonder, how well do I actually know that person? Now you had the chance to kind of go back and excavate as a historian.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: No, that's right.

Jeffrey Brown: Were you surprised?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think what I really always wanted to know was what he was like when he was a young man, because I was 12 years younger than him, so I didn't know him. Would I have fallen in love with you? I would constantly ask him: "What were you like when you were young?"

And he said to me: "I don't know. I was so busy being him. How do I remember what I was like then?"

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: And he wouldn't talk that much about it.

But, then when I got these letters and diaries and journals, then I was able to understand it, just as you say, excavate who he was. And I really did like the man that I found. I would have been smitten with him way back then, even.

Jeffrey Brown: Doris continues to weigh in on American politics then and now. When she refers to an unfinished love story, she also means the one she and her husband had for their country.

So how worried are you now? And how worried was Dick? And would he be now?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: You know, the interesting thing is, one of the things he wrote, shortly after we started going through the boxes, he went over to his study, and he came back with a little thing he wrote in which he was talking about American history.

And he talked about the fact that every change that has come in America has come from the ground up and somehow those changes made our country better. And he ended up saying, America is not as fragile as it seems.

And I think that was his overwhelming feeling, and I believe it's mine too.

Jeffrey Brown: You know, that's more hopeful than a lot of people feel right now. We're stronger than we think?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: One of the things about history is that it gives you a sense of perspective and solace and really lessons. All the people I have studied live through really hard times, so they had the same anxiety we had.

But, somehow, I take solace from thinking those were really, really tough times, maybe even tougher than the time we're living through now. This is a really tough time, however. And, somehow, we got through it.

When put to the test, the American people will come through.

Jeffrey Brown: "I tried to outrun grief in the months after Dick's death," Doris writes in an epilogue.

One solace, donating their vast collection of books to the local library in Concord, Massachusetts, which created the Goodwin Forum as a community space for reading and public lectures and talks.

But the first couple of years, she says, were really hard.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: After a while, I realized that, by doing the book, I kept his memory alive. Rather than talking only about the grief, I heard his voice. He was back. He was back with me. I think that's what you hope to do when you talk to people.

And if I have any kind of hope for the book itself, it's that don't wait until the person dies before you go through their memorabilia. Talk to your parents or grandparents about their memories and whatever their memorabilia they have, because that's the way people live on, through the stories that somebody tells to the next generation. And those stories keep that person alive.

So I'd like to believe that I have kept Dick alive. He's certainly kept alive for me. And maybe for a lot of people now who will read this, they will know what a great character he was.

Jeffrey Brown: The book is "An Unfinished Love Story."

Doris Kearns Goodwin, nice to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Thank you so very much.

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