Enjoying Both the Past and the Present with Doris Kearns Goodwin

Besides receiving my diploma and the traditional bouquet of a dozen red roses when I graduated from CSG, I took home the Mary Jane Rodabaugh Trophy for being the top student in the subject of history.  While I had to return the elegant silver urn engraved with the names of the award-winners at the end of the summer, I got to keep the copy of Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself that Dr. Rogers gave me to accompany my prize.

While I learned a lot plowing through the book that summer, the inscription that Dr. Rogers wrote inside the book to me is what I remember most: “He lives twice who enjoys both the past and the present.” A wooden block holding this quote from Marcus Martial sat firmly on the edge of Dr. Rogers’ desk during the four years of classes I had with him, a silent reminder to me and my classmates about the value of studying history. Today, I spent an hour with someone whom I think would appreciate that quote as much as Dr. Rogers and I do.

Doris Kearns Goodwin at the Ohio Statehouse, April 6, 2011

Doris Kearns Goodwin appeared at the Ohio Statehouse today to talk about Abraham Lincoln and his leadership during the Civil War. I’ve read all of her books, attended previous lectures that she’s given in central Ohio, and paid careful attention whenever I’ve heard her in radio and television interviews (during one, I proudly recognized that she and I both had the same colorful striped Ralph Lauren tee shirt in our wardrobe). So it’s no surprise that I was in the audience today to hear what she had to say.

She began by sharing some interesting anecdotes about Lincoln’s visits to Ohio. For example, Lincoln was one of a team of lawyers headed by Edwin Stanton that challenged Cyrus McCormick’s patent on the reaper. When the trial was moved to Cincinnati, Lincoln traveled there and introduced himself to Stanton. Stanton referred to the gangly lawyer in ill-fitting clothing as a “long-armed Ape.” During the trial, Stanton’s behavior to Lincoln didn’t improve. When Lincoln left Cincinnati, he was so humiliated that he vowed never to return to Ohio again. However, the ambition that drove him to accomplish something for which he would be remembered led him to break his promise and return to our state a few more times. What’s more, in 1862, when he was president, Lincoln recognized Stanton’s ability, put the past behind him and invited Stanton to be his Secretary of War. That integrity of character, Goodwin related, was one of Lincoln’s greatest strengths.

Goodwin also told of Lincoln’s visit to the Ohio Statehouse in 1861, when he was on his way to Washington, D.C. That same day, the Electoral College met. While Lincoln was at the Statehouse that afternoon, he received a telegram telling him that he had been formally elected as president. Reading it, Lincoln smiled, then put it in his pocket and said to Governor William Dennison, “What a beautiful building you have here!”

While her book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, provided the focus for her remarks, she also shared some stories about her experiences as a historian, such as her opportunity to stay at the White House in the bedroom where Winston Churchill stayed. But the most memorable part of her presentation was the answer she gave a student who asked her how long it took to write Team of Rivals (which was 10 years, by the way). The research is what’s most fun about writing a book, she said (which was music to this archivist’s ears).  As she reads diaries and letters written by people long ago, she feels like she’s reading over their shoulder, like she’s really there with them. That’s what makes these people come to life, and that’s what inspires her to tell the stories of their lives that enable them to live on in our memories. To her, there’s a definite connection between history and storytelling.

Introducing Goodwin this afternoon, Governor Kasich described her gift for using vivid prose in telling stories about her subjects. This afternoon, she demonstrated her gift for speaking in the same vivid manner. Doris Kearns Goodwin is an historian who’s living twice by enjoying both the past and the present, telling stories about the accomplishments of her subjects and having some great present-day experiences of her own.  Her visit was the inspiration that I needed to get going and, like Lincoln, work on accomplishing great things again!

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