A biographer surrounded by the lives of ‘her guys’

Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin has spent her career writing about some of America’s most dynamic presidents, from Abraham Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson. In her new book, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times,” she looks to “her guys,” as she describes them, to discern the qualities of what makes the great ones great. Kearns, who lives in Cambridge, joins John Kerry, former US senator and secretary of state, for a sold-out discussion on leadership moderated by Samantha Powers, former US ambassador to the United Nations, at the Boston Book Festival.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

GOODWIN: I read mysteries at night. Right now I’m reading Ken Follett’s “The Modigliani Scandal.” I love his work. I just finished “The Hellfire Club” by Jake Tapper and before that Bill Clinton [and James Patterson’s] “The President is Missing.” I liked it. I’ve read John Grisham consistently for a few months. I like those because they are about law firms, and I thought I might have been a lawyer . 


BOOKS: When did you start reading mysteries?

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GOODWIN: It’s just been the last 4 or 5 years. Reading mysteries at night takes your mind away from everything else and makes it easy to go to sleep. When Lincoln had trouble sleeping he read funny parts of Shakespeare’s plays. He’d sometimes wake his aides up to read to them. 

BOOKS: What did you read before mysteries? 

GOODWIN: Primarily novels, which I still do. A friend is reading Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” so I got it so we can read it together and talk about it. I got the three-volume version so it wouldn’t be too fat to read in bed.

BOOKS: Who are your favorite novelists? 


GOODWIN: I could read Tolstoy over and over. When Norman Mailer, who was a friend, was alive I read each of his novels as they came out. I also reread books that I loved when I was younger. I even read Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” again. I remember reading that with my best friend in high school. We would sit in the yard and read. 

BOOKS: Who else have you read books with?

GOODWIN: With my mother. We read Charles Dickens. She had rheumatic fever. She was an invalid until she died when I was 15. She often read aloud to me, and then after she had a stroke, I read to her. This was not an ordinary mother reading to a child. It meant more because I saw what reading meant for her. 

BOOKS: Who were the best readers among the presidents you’ve researched?

GOODWIN: Nobody was as widely read as Teddy Roosevelt. He had asthma as a child so he couldn’t exercise. He was always reading to the point his father worried that he had become an invalid. He told him, “You have the mind but not the body,” so he started exercising and became the Teddy Roosevelt we know, but he never stopped reading.


BOOKS: What about Lincoln?

‘Reading mysteries at night takes your mind away from everything else.’

GOODWIN: Lincoln always read Shakespeare, drama and poetry, but not novels. When LBJ was young his mother, who loved novels, wanted him to read fiction. He would ask her whether  the book was true. After his heart attack in 1955, they wanted to portray him as less compulsive and more thoughtful. There was a magazine article with a photo of him in a hammock reading Plato. It was so funny. 

BOOKS: Do you think he read Plato?

GOODWIN: No way. I can’t even imagine the book was in his hands. 

BOOKS: Does a president’s reading say anything about his type of leadership?

GOODWIN: Teddy Roosevelt said leaders, more than anything, needed to know about human nature, and human nature is revealed in the best works and prose and poetry. 

BOOKS: What books on leadership would you recommend from your research?

GOODWIN: I loved Jim Collins’s “Good to Great” and [the historian] James MacGregor Burns wrote “Leadership.” Now I have a whole section of books in my house on leadership.

BOOKS: How do you organize your books?

GOODWIN: The books were overwhelming the house so we had a three-car garage turned into a library. Now I have an entire room for each one of the presidents I’ve written about with all their biographies. So Lincoln is in the garage; Teddy Roosevelt is upstairs; and FDR is in a certain corridor.

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