SIOUX CITY | Doris Kearns Goodwin knows more about American presidents than pretty much anyone.
She has written extensive biographies about Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt. Her 2005 hit, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," is the inspiration for the film “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis and directed by Steven Spielberg set for release next month.
Goodwin, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995, will present Morningside College’s 2012 Waitt Lecture on Wednesday. She spoke to the Journal earlier this month.
QUESTION: What do you want to impart during your talk in Morningside?
ANSWER: Given that this is the fall of a presidential election, what I'd like to believe that I've learned, after a lifetime of living with presidents who are no longer alive, is what are the qualities that made our great presidents' administrations successful?
After having worked on (books about presidents), there are certain universal traits of leadership, because so much of leadership is about human behavior that extends over time. If we can figure out what they are, that's really what we should be looking at, in terms of trying to figure out who would make the better president when we are in the election booth.
Q: Are you more interested in looking back at what presidents did or, in an election year, are you intrigued by the process of selecting them?
A: Both. I'll weave in some of the changes that have taken place between the elections of these other people and the now, in terms of the difference in the primary system and the communications. The bully pulpit has changed so much from what it was.
In Abraham Lincoln's time, you gave a speech and then the entire speech would be printed in the newspapers and then put out in a pamphlet. ... In Roosevelt's time, the fireside chats, and there were only 30 that he delivered in the 12 years, you know, no pundit was on right after, talking about what he said. Nowadays, when a person gives a speech, you are getting snippets in the Twitter, in the Internet and from the pundits. I think the bully pulpit itself has been much more scattered, as a result of the modern technology.
Q: What do you think about the tenor of the 2012 campaign?
A: We despair at times about how trivial it seems. ... The one concern always is that -- in an age where so much of what people are learning comes from the advertisements of either side, the negative ads, and the facts are often wrong on both sides -- then that is troubling for making a choice on an election, if you not even getting an agreement on what the facts are.
Q: Did you have any input into the "Lincoln" movie?
A: I've been involved in seeing all the scripts over time, and went down to the filming in Richmond, and then later saw the (final cut) in August at Spielberg's house. It has really been fun. It shows Lincoln's qualities, and that's what mattered to me -- is that even if by taking a smaller segment of a bigger story, if you can reveal Lincoln's strength and his political genius and his humor and his convictions, that's the key to making him come alive. I think Daniel Day Lewis does an amazing job; he is just an extraordinary actor. You feel like you are just watching Lincoln.
Q: What was the political genius of Abraham Lincoln?
A: He had an extraordinary emotional intelligence, which meant that he understood how to deal with people. He would share credit when things happened, he took the blame for the failure of other people, he communicated not only with his inner circle but with the country at large and he could grow from his mistakes.