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Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin Writes Her Own Biography.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The Pulitzer Prize winning author of "No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War 2" has written a memoir about her own life, "Wait 'Til Next Year" about growing up in the suburbs of New York in the 1950s.

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Other segments from the episode on October 16, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 16, 1997: Interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin; Commentary on nouns and verbs.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: OCTOBER 16, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 101601NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Wait Til Next Year
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a presidential historian whose book on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, "No Ordinary Time," was both a bestseller and a winner of a Pulitzer Prize.

She says her interest in the presidency is rooted in the experience of having known Lyndon Johnson when she was only 24 years old. She worked with him in the last year of his presidency, and later worked on his memoirs. Goodwin is also the author of a book about the Kennedys.

Now, she's written about her own life in "Wait 'Til Next Year," a memoir about growing up in a suburb of New York and an era when the Dodgers were great, when polio was a threat, and the neighborhood participated in nuclear attack safety drills.

During most of her childhood, Doris Kearns Goodwin's mother had a heart condition that kept her relatively inactive. She died in her early 50s. When she died, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who was then in her mid-teens, remembers hearing her father crying: "my pal is gone. My pal is gone."

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, HISTORIAN, AUTHOR, "NO ORDINARY TIME: FRANKLIN AND ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: THE HOME FRONT IN WORLD WAR II," AND "WAIT TIL NEXT YEAR": Those words just kept going over and over in my mind. I had been on a telephone downstairs -- it was a Saturday morning -- and came back upstairs to hear him calling for my older sister Jean to tell her. And I just heard those words, "my pal is gone."

And much later, I realized how lucky they were to have been such good friends, as well as being husband and wife, because they really did share a lot.

He could come home from work during the day, where he was a bank examiner, and tell her what had happened during the day. She would recount whatever she had read during that day, what had happened with the kids. And that friendship base, I think, is so important in any kind of relationship and I think I learned that early-on, and that "pal" thing sort of symbolized it in a way.

GROSS: Symbolized how good a relationship could be if you were best friends?

GOODWIN: I think that's right. I mean, when you're a kid, like when I would read "Gone With The Wind," your notions of romance are being swept off your feet...

GROSS: Right, right.

GOODWIN: ... by somebody that looks like Rhett Butler.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

GOODWIN: And I think that's what I grew up imagining, as so many young girls do. But the reality of my daily life was seeing these two people who really had a friendship and could talk, and had their Manhattan cocktail every night that they shared, without letting anyone else be in the room so they could talk to one another.

And I think in some ways that gave me a more substantial understanding of what marriage is than Rhett Butler ever did.

GROSS: Your mother stayed home and, you know, brought you up when you were young, and that was in part because she was sick -- she had a heart condition and couldn't do much outside the house. What message did you get when you were growing up about whether you should just, you know, get married and raise a family? Or whether you should consider a profession?

GOODWIN: Well, it was complicated. I mean, in terms of the images that were on my block, not only my mother, but there was no other woman who worked on our block. They all stayed home with the kids. There was only one household in which there was what we called a "spinster teacher," who was not married, living with her sister. And that didn't seem to us a model for something that could make any sense because families mattered so much.

And yet on the other hand, there was some yearning in me for wanting something more than just being with the kids on the block. And I remember the moment when it became sort of alive in me, which is my father took me one day into the Williamsburg Savings Bank where he was a bank examiner for the State of New York. But one day I saw what it was like to be in the city with all those men, essentially -- with the excitement and the kind of vibrancy that the city had.

And I remembered vowing to myself, and I'm about eight years old at this point, seven or eight years old, I would love to have both. If it were at all possible, I would love to be able to have these kids and yet at the same time have something that was my own, apart from the block, so I could go off to the city every day.

GROSS: You managed.

GOODWIN: I did manage, somehow.

GROSS: You did it.

GOODWIN: ... I mean, it took a lot. I mean, it wasn't easy because I remember all through my 20s when I wasn't married, and there was a certain loneliness while I was teaching at Harvard and becoming a professor and creating a career. And yet at the other hand, that career really mattered to me and I worried: is this becoming so important that I'm cutting this other part of my life out?

And then, the opposite happened. When I did get married and had two children right in a row, I could hardly go to work anymore. It was almost impossible. I had to finally decide that I couldn't be a teacher at Harvard and a writer and a mother, and had to give up teaching, essentially, so that I could be home with the kids and write my book.

And then I had to start worrying: oh, my God, have I given up my career? So it's never easy. But, somehow it manages over time to balance itself out.

GROSS: For your memoir, you actually went back and interviewed best friends, neighbors, other kids who went to -- you know, now adults, who went to the same school as you did; members of your family. I would really like to know what it was like for you to interview Howard Rabinowitz (ph), the boy who you had a crush on when you were in middle school.

LAUGHTER

Who you describe as, you know, one of the two most handsome boys in the school. What was it like as an adult, this successful adult, to go back and interview him?

GOODWIN: Well, the weirdest thing is, you never quite lose that childhood sense of crush. I mean, I used to walk by his house just hoping he would come out of it. And he had no interest in me. I mean, the two handsomest boys, Dannie Schechter (ph) and Howard Rabinowitz -- Sherry Hoffman (ph), with her long pony tail and her 16-inch waist kept even tighter by a cinch-belt, was all they ever thought about.

But meanwhile, I got to see him again as an adult. Indeed, I gave a talk in Rockville Center, at my hometown in the high school last week, and Howie Rabinowitz who's now a professor of History in Albuquerque, New Mexico came from Albuquerque because he was so excited to be mentioned as the handsomest boy in the junior high school class. Indeed, he said his two daughters, who are in their 20s, have now looked on him with new respect.

And there's a part of you that wants to say: you could have changed my life when we were -- and he said: "I would have had a crush on you had I ever known." That is not true. But I'm sure now he might think that's true, and I kept saying "suppose you had -- I would have changed my whole image of myself as an adolescent, to be eligible for the handsomest man" -- which I certainly wasn't.

GROSS: That's really funny. Doris Kearns Goodwin is my guest, and her new memoir is called Wait 'Til Next Year.

Your career as a presidential historian started with helping LBJ with his memoirs, back when you were 24 and he was retired from the presidency. And I'm wondering more specifically what your job was with him on that book?

GOODWIN: Well, what happened is -- it started, my working for him when I became a White House Fellow and worked for him in the White House his last year in the presidency, and got into a habit almost at the end of the day -- he wanted to talk about what had happened that day. And he would call me into his office and just ask me to listen to him.

And in some ways, I had learned that whole pleasure of listening to stories from the time I had been a little kid, so I just adored listening to this character recount what had happened during the day.

So then when he left the presidency, he wanted me to come down to his ranch and, along with several other people who were working on the memoirs, he asked me if I would work on the chapter on civil rights and the chapter on the Congress -- the two things I most wanted to work on.

Even so, to be honest, I was somewhat hesitant because he was such a powerful, formidable man that it was scary sometimes to be around him full-time. I'll never forget one time I was with him in his car that he used to take people around with him on his ranch, and he made me feel special. He put me in the front of the car and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, he might put in the back of the car. And he'd say: "look Doris, look at the jumping antelope; look at the bluebonnets; look at the place where I was born." And you'd feel so special.

Until one day, I didn't visit him one weekend at the ranch when I was with a boyfriend and he was mad at me. And so the next weekend, I was down there, I was in the back of the car. And I remember the Secretary of State Dean Rusk was in the front of the car, and he's saying: "look, Dean, look at the jumping antelope; look at the bluebonnets; look at the birth house." And I felt like I'd been exiled to Siberia. I mean, it was idiotic. I didn't even want to be in the car. I'd seen those jumping antelope a thousand times.

He could use ordinary situations to hurt you in a million ways. And I remember vowing at that moment -- he was still president: "I will never work for this man full-time. If you're dependent on him, he will shape you and hurt you."

So when he asked me to come to the ranch full-time to help him on his memoirs, I at first said "no." I was going back to Harvard. I was going to start being a teacher. And then he said: "well, it's all or nothing. Either you come full-time or not at all." And I just wanted so badly to work for him part-time so I'd have some other base of power besides him. And it didn't seem to work out until the very last day of his presidency, he called me into his office and he said to me: "all right, work for me part-time."

LAUGHTER

So I ended up -- and it was perfect, 'cause I went down every other weekend, spent summers and Christmases with him for those next three years. And it probably was one of the most important public relationships I've ever had in my life. I think it shaped everything else.

GROSS: You said that toward the end of his life, he'd pour out his feelings to you while he was sitting around wearing his pajamas. Did that make you uncomfortable? And also, I'm wondering if the informality of that situation diminished his stature in your eyes in any way? I mean, people are so -- so much less imposing when they're wearing their pajamas.

GOODWIN: No, I know what you mean. There were times when I did get to know him informally, when he was so vulnerable and lonely that he would come in and wake me up in the morning so that I could talk to him. And it's hard to remember when you see these striped or polka-dotted pajamas, that this man is the president, or former president of the United States.

But then other times, I'd be in his office and see books on his shelf ranging from Washington through Lincoln through Wilson through Roosevelt -- and suddenly be drawn up short saying "oh my God, he's one of them -- one of those presidents" and I'm talking to him as if he's a friend of mine.

So, you'd get mixed up back and forth. But I realized later that had I ever known him at the height of his power, I don't think he ever would have confided in me the way he did because he was lonely; because he was in exile; and because I happened to be there. He shared his hopes and his sorrows and his fears in a way that he wouldn't have had time to do had I known him when he was really running the Great Society and the world.

GROSS: What were some of the sorrows and fears that he did share with you?

GOODWIN: Well I think the greatest sorrow was the feeling that he knew when he became president that he had a chance to create a huge legacy. He became deeply committed, as time went on, to civil rights and deserves every credit in the world for getting that Civil Rights Bill of '64 through, which desegregated the South, essentially; the Voting Rights Bill of '65, too, which gave black Americans the right to vote for the first time; and then the open housing act of '68 -- plus Medicare and the Great Society and education and housing.

And yet all of it had been, in some ways, sacrificed on the altar of Vietnam. And he knew that that was true. Before he died, he could see the Great Society was being undone by Richard Nixon. The war in Vietnam was still so unpopular, and that had become the mark of his leadership.

So there was a terrible sense that his legacy had almost been assured, and then been sort of taken from him by his own actions, although he wouldn't fully admit that, little by little. And he had no hope anymore that history would remember him well.

GROSS: Do you wish that you knew then about the White House tapes that Michael Beschloss has edited?

GOODWIN: Oh, I'll tell you...

GROSS: The Lyndon Johnson White House tapes -- yeah, go ahead.

GOODWIN: They are so fabulous, those tapes. I mean, what happened is, I actually know that they existed in part because I was working on the civil rights chapter, for instance, and one day I would come in and there'd be this incredible transcript on my desk. Nobody would tell me where it came from. They just said Lyndon Johnson had sent it.

And the transcript would be a transcript of a conversation he had about civil rights with Everett Dirksen, you know -- with a senator from the South. And I thought: "my God, this stuff is fabulous." And I tried to work it into my drafts of his chapters on civil rights, including these fabulous stories that he would tell me. And I always put them down verbatim.

And then he'd read the draft and he'd say: "I can't say that. I've gotta be presidential. This is much too crude, much too profane." And unfortunately, he then sanitized the memoir, not just my chapters, but everybody's.

And it could have been the most extraordinary memoirs. Think of the enormous attention the tapes are getting now. If he had used them for his memoirs, that could have shown him as the extraordinary, absolutely best storyteller -- even if half his stories weren't true -- that I have ever heard.

So I wish in some ways he'd been able to do that. But I guess he feared that there was so much on there that was controversial that he had to wait 50 years. And luckily, Lady Bird decided to let them be published now.

GROSS: How did those experiences -- spending so much time with LBJ when you were a young woman in your 20s -- affect your idea of presidents and presidential history?

GOODWIN: Well you know, I think in some ways the most important thing that it did was, I used to think that the people who got to the top of any profession were simply the ones who were the most talented and had the most luck; that it was extraordinary, for example, to become President of the United States or CEO of some big organization.

And yet when I saw Lyndon Johnson, I realized that an enormous price was paid for the kind of ambition that cut out everything else that mattered in life. By the time he got to the ranch, there was no interest in sports; no interest in movies; no desire to read books, though he had a brilliant mind. His family loved him, but somehow the hold that only millions could fill was too deep for a love of a wife and a couple of children.

And I realized that there was such an unbalanced quality to that kind of success that in some way it dampened my own ambitious -- my need to do something that required that kind of obsession.

GROSS: And what about your view of presidents -- about them being great men, extraordinary men or...

GOODWIN: Well you know, the interesting thing is, though, even though his legacy may not have been what he hoped -- even though the war in Vietnam divided the country in so many sad ways -- he was a large figure. So the fact that the first president I ever knew was such a large man, bigger than life -- and if you were in a room with him, no one else would matter.

Somehow, he walked in that room and he just imposed himself. Even physically, he stood so close to you you could hardly breathe. And somehow my husband, who worked for him -- Richard Goodwin -- as a young speechwriter tells a story of one time when George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, came into a meeting in the Oval Office, and he wanted to overpower Wallace.

So he sat Wallace, who stood five feet four inches tall, on this couch that then sunk down another five inches. And Lyndon Johnson sat in a rocking chair and rocked back and forth, almost touching his nose. And he was so powerful that Wallace came out of the meeting saying: "oh my God, if I hadn't gotten out of their quicker, I might have come out for civil rights."

LAUGHTER

So he gave me -- it's amazing. I mean, he had that power. You -- so I certainly had a sense that hasn't always been borne out since, that presidents were large, bigger than life figures.

GROSS: Is there anything that you learned in the recently-released Johnson White House tapes that genuinely surprised you -- made you reevaluate a part of who he was?

GOODWIN: Well, I think he had talked to me a little bit about the assassination. And I hadn't fully concentrated until these tapes on the extent to which he really did feel that it was more than Oswald. I mean, he had told me that when the Warren Commission report came out, he felt it was critical for the country to coalesce around an answer, a single-bullet answer or a single-assassin answer -- so that they could get on with the business of going on forward.

But the extent to which, as the tapes seem to reveal, he really did think it might have been the Cubans or the Mafia or whatever else might have been involved, was clearer to me in the tapes than they were in those somewhat fuzzy conversations I had had with him.

But mostly, I think, what the continuum of the tapes reveal is the sad sense of how extraordinarily brilliant he was in one-on-one conversations. He could get people to agree with him, and eventually put together this consensus that created the legislation that formed the backbone of his Great Society.

And when you hear him, it's him alive again. There's probably no better way to capture Lyndon Johnson than through his oral communication, because he was so incredible at it. He was like a camel. He didn't need to drink. He could go on for 20 hours a day, talking -- talking on the phone. He started calling people at six. If the congressman wasn't there, he'd talk to their wife. If the wife wasn't there, he'd talk to the daughter.

He had this huge map on the wall where he knew where every committee was and which committee, subcommittee on the Hill. And he'd start calling and pinpointing. And there was a genius involved in that that somehow could never be captured other than by telephone.

GROSS: My guest is presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Her new book is a memoir called Wait 'Til Next Year. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is my guest. Her new book is a memoir called Wait 'Til Next Year. She's the author of a book about the Kennedys, of a book about the Roosevelts, and she worked on LBJ's memoirs.

In writing about the Roosevelts, you said that they lived in an era before the private lives of public figures were considered relevant; before private life was reported on by the political press.

What are some of the relationships that you think would have caused a big to-do today if they had been reported?

GOODWIN: Oh, I've thought about this so much because in some ways Roosevelt's leadership depended on the informal relationships of the people who lived with him in the White House -- almost making the White House like a residential hotel -- which were all fine in their own right, but were the media to look at them from the outside in today, might seem quite askance.

For instance, his secretary Missy LeHand, who started working for him when she was 20 years old, loved him all the rest of her life, lived in the White House family quarters with Roosevelt. Roosevelt's closest adviser, Harry Hopkins, came on night to dinner and never left during the entire World War II period; had a bedroom next door to Roosevelt.

Eleanor's great friend Lorena Hickok, a former reporter, who loved Eleanor in many ways -- had a bedroom next door to Eleanor. A beautiful princess from Norway would visit on the weekends. And of course, the incomparable Winston Churchill came and spent weeks and months at a time, actually drinking from the moment he awakened in the morning 'til the moment he went to bed at night, yet saving England in the process.

Now, all these people are living in the second floor of the White House -- one corridor surrounded by eight guest bedroom suites. Had the media been able to penetrate that and talk about these weird relationships, and prevent Roosevelt from having them in close contact, he would have lost his chance for conversation. Conversation was his main form of relaxation. He needed to replenish his energies to face the next day.

Other presidents can walk the White House grounds, can play tennis or golf. But of course because he was a paraplegic, he couldn't do that. And if he'd been prevented from relaxing with these people, I don't think he would have had the revitalized energy to continue on the way he did day after day during that terrible war.

GROSS: Of course, the question today would also have been: were any of these relationships sexual?

GOODWIN: Of course, that's what everyone would have been interested in. You know what interests me is that purely what happens in bed between people seems to me sometimes less important than knowing how deep their relationship goes. For instance, I don't know whether Missy LeHand, his secretary, and he ever had a sexual relationship. He knew her mostly after his polio and he was paralyzed from the waist down.

But the important thing was that he depended on her as a companion. When Eleanor traveled 200 days a year, she was the one who was his hostess in the White House. She would sit with him at his cocktail hour. She would play poker with him at night. Sometimes those things are absolutely as important, as intimate, as central to understanding somebody as whether they actually went to bed.

Sometimes we seem so obsessed in this country by the sexual piece of it, when the other parts of it are even more interesting and more revealing of character.

GROSS: Do you think in a way that we expect our presidents and leading public figures to be very great, very special, very extraordinary in their way -- but also to be very conventional when it comes to relationships? We don't want them to be unconventional. That's bad.

GOODWIN: I think you're probably right. We have a somewhat puritanical atmosphere that surrounds our public candidates. I mean, when you think about it, most of the people have been, over a period of time, ones without very interesting relationships that we've known of, even after the fact. There's a certain kind of sanitizing that takes place for those that become eligible for higher office.

And in a certain way, we may be losing something. There's a certain kind of, I don't know, a vibrancy that wildness -- or not so much, really, unconvention, but interesting relationships bring to a person. I'm afraid sometimes we're now cordoning off our leaders into the ones that the only ones who can make it are the ones that sit around in their pajamas by themselves at night. And I'm not sure that's in our best interest.

GROSS: How does this relate to allegations about affairs Clinton has had?

GOODWIN: Well, it's interesting. I've tried to think about the whole question of affairs. I mean, I think sometimes it's relevant to their public leadership and sometimes it's not -- which may not be a very good answer -- in the sense that to know that John Kennedy, for instance, had a series of women coming into the White House during his presidency seems to me to know something about his character.

My husband, who defends John Kennedy endlessly, will always tell me: "oh, come on. It was just the era. It doesn't matter. So what if he relaxed that way." But it seems to me that being a president is adventure enough; that you shouldn't take a risk with your presidency to bring them into the White House.

Now in Clinton's case, had he still or is he still or were he still bringing people into the White House, I think it would tell us that he was reckless; that he was taking a risk with the presidency. There are so far not allegations of that. So whatever happened before the White House years, if that's all it is, then I think it's less interesting for his character than whatever has happened since.

Once he started running for public office, if he couldn't contain his sexual impulse, and there have been some allegations of that, I think that tells us something about him. But I don't care if somebody had an affair 20 years ago, if especially the wife understood it; they've come to terms with it, as in Roosevelt's case. What business is it of ours to worry about?

GROSS: Doris Kearns Goodwin has written a new memoir about her childhood called Wait 'Til Next Year. She'll be back with us in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. She worked on LBJ's memoirs, wrote a book about the Kennedys, and won a Pulitzer Prize for her book No Ordinary Time, about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Now, she's written a memoir about her childhood called Wait 'Til Next Year.

In your book about the Roosevelts, you say that in 1918, Eleanor Roosevelt discovered FDR's love letters to Lucy Mercer. And then, Eleanor offered her husband a divorce. He pledged never to see Lucy again, so Eleanor agreed to stay in the marriage.

You say that that gave Eleanor Roosevelt something that few married women had in 1918 -- the freedom to go outside her home to find her fulfillment. How do you think finding out about this affair gave her that freedom?

GOODWIN: Well I think that what happened is at that time if you were a married woman, it seemed that your major responsibility was to be with your husband and be with your family, and his mother, especially, Sara Delano Roosevelt, looked very askance on Eleanor if she tried every now and then to work in a settlement house outside the home, telling her for instance that she would bring home diseases to the little kids and that she was being irresponsible.

But once this catastrophe occurred in their private lives, I think it just gave her the freedom to just not feel guilty anymore about what she was doing. And he had so much guilt that he was certainly not going to stop her from doing anything.

So, she found something that was really what she had wanted to do all along. She suddenly learned that she had a whole range of skills, that she hadn't understood, for speaking in the public; for organizing people; for articulating a cause. And became close to a circle of women activists who taught her, as they fought for minimum wage and child labor regulations, that she had a range of talents that hadn't shown up, simply, in her family life.

I think it gave her the confidence that her saddened childhood had never allowed her to achieve.

GROSS: FDR kept good on his pledge to Eleanor to not see Lucy again until the last year of his life, which was during World War II. And Roosevelt asked his daughter Anna to set up meetings with Lucy so he could spend some time with her. And he hadn't really spent time with her since 1918. Did you talk to Roosevelt's daughter Anna about that -- about being put on the spot like that?

GOODWIN: I was able -- not to talk to Anna 'cause she had died before I started the book -- but her children, I was able to spend some time at length, actually, talking to. And they had talked to their mother about it. There were certain letters. There were diary entries that enabled me to understand that in Anna's own words, she said she felt caught in a cross-fire when her father asked her if she would arrange these meetings with Lucy when her mother was away. It was the only way that Franklin felt he could have Lucy come to the White House without Eleanor knowing. And the only delicate person who could do that would be his daughter.

She said she loved them both so much, and she didn't know what to do at first when he asked her to do this for him, 'cause she knew what Lucy meant to her mother. But on the other hand, she said later she could see that her father was dying in that last year.

She was with him so much that she saw the congestive heart failure having its impact on his vibrancy, on his energy. And she decided that if this relationship with Lucy could give him comfort and solace in those last days, while he still faced all the battles of the war. D-Day was still ahead of him. Who was she to prevent it from happening?

So she did indeed agree to invite Lucy six different times that last year. Each time, Lucy stayed a week at a time, simply had dinner with Roosevelt each night. I'm convinced they simply talked, but it meant a lot to Roosevelt during that period of time.

GROSS: How did Eleanor find out about this?

GOODWIN: Oh, it's one of those sad moments when you just want to go back in history and say: how did it have to happen this way? It just happened that Lucy happened to be in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945 when Roosevelt collapsed and died.

She knew enough to leave the moment he collapsed, but later that night when Eleanor flew down from Washington where she'd been delivering a speech at the moment of his collapse, she pressed people to tell her everything that happened in the last 24 hours, as you would do, naturally, in the time of a death.

And they told her that Lucy had been there. And then when she pressed further, she discovered that Lucy had been to the White House that last year, and that her daughter Anna had been the one to make those visits possible.

I still can't imagine the dignity that somehow she mustered within herself to accompany her husband's body on that famous train trip from Warm Springs to Washington, DC, as hundreds of thousands of people lined the tracks for the last glimpse of their fallen leader. And somehow she never let them know the hurt she was feeling inside. Until, of course, she got to the White House, raced to Anna's room, and Anna later said her mother was so angry, so cold, so unwilling to listen to her explanation that she felt caught in a cross-fire and didn't know what to do.

She was convinced that their relationship had been destroyed forever.

GROSS: Was it?

GOODWIN: No, thank goodness. In fact, when I came to that point of the story, I just didn't want to end my book at the funeral of Roosevelt. I guess you get so connected to these people you're writing about. I just didn't want to believe that it ended there.

So I kept interviewing the people who knew Anna. I kept watching for Eleanor's letters in the next six or eight months, and discovered that what happened is that summer of 1945, Eleanor started traveling the country again and everywhere she went, people kept telling her how much they loved her husband -- porters, taxicab drivers, elevator operators told her sort of how much better their lives were as a result of his leadership. Blacks talked to her of the sense of pride they felt in their factory work, in their military success; GIs were going to college on his GI Bill of Rights.

And she realized that the war had become a vehicle for social reform in all the ways she had dreamed at the start of the war. And suddenly as she began to absorb all these positive changes that occurred for so many people, she was able, she later said, to reach within herself and forgive him for resuming that friendship with Lucy at the end of his life.

And then, just as the war came to an end, go to her daughter Anna and forgive her as well. And then, that afforded a reconciliation between them that lasted for the rest of their lives.

I was so relieved and happy. It just makes you realize -- in fact, it was probably the most important lesson for me, humanly, of the whole story -- that you can be so deeply hurt, but if you can somehow absorb it and go beyond it, as Eleanor did, then she was able to put that bitterness behind her and go on for 17 more years and become the First Lady of the United Nations.

Had she been consumed by that sadness and bitterness, she might have been paralyzed from moving forward.

GROSS: Now, you've said that you're glad that the Roosevelts' private lives weren't made public at the press while they were in the White House. Why do you think all these personal stories are relevant now to history?

GOODWIN: That's a very fair question, and the only way I can answer it in part is that the only difference is that when there's the perspective of 50 years time; when you're able to interview a lot of people and look at diaries and letters -- that hopefully you can bring empathy and understanding to the subject so that you're not, in a certain sense, caught in the trap of labeling or stereotyping or exposing it just for its own sake.

So that when the story is told, I hope in the end that people don't feel a sense of castigating either Franklin or Eleanor. They both had untended needs in their marriage, to a certain extent, that either one couldn't fulfill.

And what -- when you look at it from the perspective of 50 years, I really think you come away feeling these were extraordinary people. They both had needs and somehow they made it work. And it just allows you to feel a greater sense of possibility of human relationships, even if it didn't fit the conventional pattern.

Whereas my fear is if when you write it at the time, without that understanding -- without all that information -- then it might tend to narrow your understanding, rather than expand it.

GROSS: FDR, who you greatly admire, was the president during one of the great abridgements of civil liberties -- civil liberties in the United States: the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. I'm wondering how that affects your view of FDR?

GOODWIN: What happens is, there are certain moments when these leaders that you do, as you're suggesting in the question, admire greatly -- when they disappoint you equally greatly. That was one of the two times, without question. When he put those Japanese-Americans into incarceration camps, it was considered one of the most serious violations of all history in America in civil liberties. He thought it was necessary for national security. It turned out not to be so. He should have questioned his military men further.

Once he discovered that the Japanese-Americans were not a threat, he should have taken them out of those camps earlier. It's one of those things that happen when you focus so much on a war -- and the victory of the war in a certain sense blinds you to the byproducts of what you're doing.

The second great area was when he didn't do more to bring in more Jewish refugees into the United States before Hitler had closed the doors. And then, once the clearness had been at least understood a little bit about what was happening in the concentration camps, one wished he could have done more to potentially bomb the train tracks or even the camps themselves.

But even understanding these great mistakes, great flaws -- tragic flaws, as it turns out -- you still end up balancing the strengths and the weaknesses of a leader. And I still come away thinking that his strengths far outweighed his weaknesses. It doesn't mean you bypass those weaknesses. You've got to be open.

And the tough thing is, when you respect somebody I think there's sometimes tendencies to not be willing to accept that they made terrible mistakes. But human life is filled with mistakes as well as greatness, and I think that's certainly true in his case.

GROSS: My guest is presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Her new book is a memoir called Wait 'Til Next Year. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

You started working on the lives of presidents when you were in your 20s, when you were working with LBJ. So in a way, you know, he was an older man. You were a young woman. In a way, he could have been almost like a father figure to you -- somebody so much older in years that you can imagine anything could have happened to make him so great.

You know how to -- what I'm trying to say is that when somebody's really old, you imagine: "wow, they've lived so many years, of course they know this, of course they're great." You know.

Now, you are a couple, I think, years older than the president. You've a living -- a little bit older than President Clinton and so you can no longer look up to the president in that way -- you know, look up to him because he's older and therefore wiser and more worldly.

Does that change your feelings about the president, knowing that, you know, you've lived as long as the president has?

GOODWIN: You know, I'm not sure I've really thought about that, but I suspect that it probably does. I mean, I think what's happened, in fact, to the whole generation of journalists who cover Clinton right now is that many of them, and me as well, are his same age or older. And so somehow, that sort of child-like looking up to somebody in authority is impossible.

And I think at the beginning with Clinton, it created a great sense of camaraderie -- a sense that one of our own generation had made it to the presidency with a certain kind of pride. But then when there's disappointment and it doesn't work out like you hoped, then there's a certain deeperness -- deeperness -- there's a certain depth to the anger that you feel for his not living up to those hopes because he is one of you and maybe you keep hoping: maybe I could have done that? Or some journalist might think: maybe I could have done a better job? -- instead of thinking: "well, there's nothing I could do. He's so different from me."

I think you're probably right.

GROSS: I wonder which parts of the press coverage of the president and the first lady's private lives you think have gone too far?

GOODWIN: Well, I'll tell you -- I think in the presidency the press has actually been pretty fair. I mean, certainly one looks at the whole way in which they covered Chelsea and the privacy that they afforded the Clintons to allow this daughter to come out as well as she did through her teenage years. And luckily, they didn't hound her or hound them as parents. And I think that must be one of the most important things that the Clintons will later be grateful for.

You know, whether the Whitewater scandals deserved as much of the attention that they got -- I'm not sure yet. I think the campaign finance thing, on the other hand, is much more important than the attention that it's getting. I think it's just such a disgrace to our system. It's ruining belonging in public life -- making our public servants spend so much time raising money, they don't have the energy to do things for the public. They're dependent on the special interests.

There's no way when somebody gives them $500,000 you're not going to give them something in return. That should be the focus. And one just simply wishes that pieces of this parts of their lives that became relevant to their public leadership, like campaign finance, were given much more attention, rather than something that happened maybe years ago in a land deal that Hillary herself was involved in.

GROSS: Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is my guest. Her new book is a memoir and it's called Wait 'Til Next Year.

One of the things that Jimmy Carter said that made headlines and it became, you know, quite scandalous was he told the reporter for Playboy that he had "lust in his heart." And that caused people to kind of question Carter and also to mock him.

LAUGHTER

Now, I understand that he had said that to you before it was published in Playboy. What was the context that he told you that? Why were you interviewing him?

GOODWIN: Well, this is one of those greatly embarrassing moments. I had been asked by a series of women's magazines to do an article on Carter and Ford -- a character study for that presidential election. So I went down to Plains, Georgia in the summer of 1976 after he'd won the Democratic nomination, before the election.

And it happened that I'd been in a meeting the night before with his staff in which they said that he really wanted to be a moral leader of the country. So I asked him: "is that your main goal -- to be a moral leader?" And he said: "absolutely, it is" -- but he had his own problems that he'd have to figure out first.

And he said: "I've definitely conquered the problems of affairs. I don't do that." But he then told me he had this great problem of lust, and that he actually had to describe to Jesus Christ at night the dimensions of the women that he lusted after that day.

So, I wrote all this down. I came back home to see my husband on Cape Cod, and I told him this weird conversation I had with him about lust. And I was still a political scientist -- a professor at Harvard at the time. And I was actually writing an article that was categories of strengths of weaknesses of leaders. So, I couldn't figure out where to fit the lust in. So, I just sort of left it out.

And if I'd ever been a journalist, you can imagine -- I wouldn't be working for that newspaper very long. Luckily, I was an historian so it didn't count against me. But I remember when I saw it on the Today Show and it became the story of the campaign, I just felt this sinking feeling, I thought: "oh, my God, he had told me that before."

So obviously, he wasn't just telling it to that one reporter. It was on his mind -- the lust in his heart.

GROSS: I wonder who else he told it to before it was published.

GOODWIN: Me too. I get it was -- I mean, it can't possibly be that he just mentioned it to us two -- probably just that reporter was smart enough to realize that he had a great story. Not me.

GROSS: Well, what did it mean to you when he said that? Do you think it should have caused quite the stir that it did?

GOODWIN: No, I don't think it was that important. You know what I think it meant? I think that it -- usually when these little things cause a big stir, however, they do have some window onto some larger characterological problem.

And I think even then there was a sense -- and I certainly came away from interviewing Carter with enormous respect for him as a human being, but real questions about whether he could be a political figure. He didn't seem at ease with the thought of jawboning with the Congress. When I asked him what he wanted to achieve in the presidency, he hadn't thought through what it is that he might have wanted to accomplish. And there wasn't a sense of just the give and take of politics.

So I think when this lust thing came out, it made him seem different from the ordinary politician who lusts after power, rather than some other woman. And I think they were right to wonder whether this moral figure who worried about lusting really was the kind of practical politician that he showed that he probably wasn't able to be. He's been a fabulous ex-president -- better, in some ways, than his presidency, because he can be that kind of moral figure.

So in some ways, the whole folderol which may have been around lust really was a signal to something else. And that's usually true, I think.

GROSS: You've written about LBJ, about the Roosevelts, about Kennedy. Are there secrets that you are withholding from us because you think that these things should be kept secret; should be kept private for the families living or dead?

GOODWIN: Well, you know it's interesting. When I was talking to Lyndon Johnson in all those years that I was on the ranch, I would always take notes, as he always wanted the staff people to do at everything he said, 'cause he thought it might be important.

And then sometimes when he'd be saying things like about a congressman who was currently alive, and I would dutifully be writing it down, and he'd look over at me and say: "don't you ever write that down. Don't tell that to your children or your grandchildren."

And so then I'd stop taking notes, when in the next breath he started talking to me very honestly about the sadnesses he felt in his relationship with his mother and his father. And then he'd look over at me and say: "Why aren't you writing this down? This could be important someday."

So it got very confusing for me to figure out what it was that he was telling me for my own use and what it was that he was telling me, really, for his desires. And when I came to write the book, I had the hardest time sorting that out. I ended up not writing down some of the things that he said which were just mean-spirited about living people. I knew that's the kind of thing that would make great publicity, but that one conversation I had made me realize he didn't want to -- with my using it -- hurt them in that way.

Whereas the things he told me about his parents I thought were critical to understanding him. So I tried to make my own standard, that if the things he had told me in private really did reveal his character and could make the readers understand him better, then it was fair usage. Whereas if it was just some gossip that he was sharing with me, I did indeed hold back on that.

With the Kennedys it was somewhat complicated as well, because I had access to the private papers that Joe and Rose had kept in the attic of Hyannisport for over 50 years. And they'd saved everything -- every letter from every child; every movie stub; every tax check that they had kept. And they didn't have any kind of restrictions on me. I was just given access to this material.

So I came across, for example, an anti-Semitic letter that Joe, Jr., the oldest boy, had written from Germany in 1934. I came across the fact that Joe, Sr. had had a lobotomy performed on Rosemary and hadn't known that before -- the retarded daughter -- somehow hoping it would take away her frustration by giving her the chance to take that part of the brain away where we dream and anticipate the future.

And I knew those things would be hurtful for the family, but on the other hand, I thought they were important things for the reader to understand the other side of the Kennedy story -- and had to be prepared when the book came out that they might be very sad that they had actually given me access to these papers.

But I still used the same standard, that if what I found -- I wasn't out there to protect them. I was simply out there to tell a story about their family. If it was something extraneous that was gossipy and wasn't going to tell something about them, I probably did hold back on some of those things.

GROSS: Has anything that you've been written been misinterpreted by the public, and you're sorry that it was interpreted in that way?

GOODWIN: Well I think that when the Johnson book first came out -- in some ways, my whole relationship with him became such a forum for great gossip and misunderstanding. Because I was young, because I was a woman, because I spent so much time with him -- it was so easy to assume that something must have been going on between us. Rather than recognizing that I was at that time a young professor at Harvard, I was presumably legitimately qualified to help him on his memoirs, and more importantly, that just we had become friends.

And I'm not sure that I helped it along, to tell you the truth, because I did write that scene, which was a true scene, of his coming into my room in the mornings at 5:00 a.m. with his pajamas on to talk to me. And it seemed to me such an important scene to give the reader an understanding of how lonely he was, and how he needed and was so vulnerable to have company that he came into my bed. I would sit up in a chair and talk to him.

But I think if you're 24 years old, I should have had a little more sophistication to realize once you start talking about that, there's no way they're not going to think: she's in the bed, too, rather than sitting in the chair.

So for a while, I just had to deal with some of the fall out. But eventually, it did sort of fall out correctly and I think people did take the book in its own right. And I was very fortunate that way.

GROSS: Would you like to some way -- to some day write a book about the Clintons?

GOODWIN: I don't know. I mean, I think the relationship between Hillary and Bill is a fascinating thing to deal with and relationships are what I love.

My next book is going to be about Abraham Lincoln and I'm hoping to tell the story of Lincoln through his relationships, not only with his wife and his kids, but even more importantly through several of his cabinet members who started off feeling a great sense of disdain for him, and eventually came to a great feeling of respect for him. And that's the way I think the reader will get to understand how great Lincoln was, through these relationships with these other people.

So in that sense, I think the Clintons -- what their relationship is like and their larger circle of friends and colleagues -- would be interesting, but I think it will take many years to sort through how he's going to stand in history. And until that's got some perspective, I think I'd better wait. But anyway, Lincoln will take long enough that there's plenty of time left.

GROSS: Well, Doris Kearns Goodwin I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

GOODWIN: Oh, it was a great pleasure. I'm delighted to have done it.

GROSS: Doris Kearns Goodwin has a new memoir about her childhood called Wait 'Til Next Year. Her book about the Roosevelts is called No Ordinary Time.

Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on turning nouns into verbs, and the new coinages that are resulting.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Doris Kearns Goodwin
High: Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The Pulitzer Prize winning author of "No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II" has written a memoir about her own life, "Wait Til Next Year" about growing up in the suburbs of New York in the 1950s.
Spec: Family; Cities; New York; Sports; Baseball; The Brooklyn Dodgers
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Wait Til Next Year
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: OCTOBER 16, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 101602NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Nouns to Verbs
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: When we notice a change in the language, we often wonder: is this a good thing? Linguist Geoff Nunberg has some thoughts on one of the current trends that is giving us lots of new coinages: turning nouns into verbs.

GEOFF NUNBERG, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: "I don't think we should wordsmith this in public." That was the response of Joseph Cammarata at the time one of Paula Jones' attorneys, when somebody asked him about the possibility of a settlement on Meet The Press a couple of months ago.

It's the sort of usage that language critics love to jump on. Nothing raises the ire of the correcting classes so readily as the shifts from nouns to verbs. Even the comic strips Calvin got in his two cents, as he put it: "verbing weirds language."

Actually, though, it isn't that easy to say why the noun to verb business gets such a bad rap. The psychologist Steven Pinker (ph) estimated that fully 20 percent of English verbs began their lives as nouns.

You can face the enemy, nose around the office, mouth the lyrics, shoulder the burden, elbow your way in, finger the culprit, knuckle under, toe the line. You can milk the cow, in which case you remove some liquid; or milk the veal, in which case you add it.

And it's true, the language adds new coinages like these every day, with most of them passing unnoticed. The verb "to telephone" was introduced just four years after Alexander Graham Bell patented his new invention. And since then, it's been joined by the verbs radio, fedex, fax, keyboard, and dozens of others with nobody raising an eyebrow.

And you have to admit the process can give rise to some new and colorful coinages. Not long ago, I was reading a novel by Bruce Olds (ph) where he talked about blood rooster-tailing from a wound. It was a pretty graphic effect, and one you could never achieve in a language like French or Italian, which doesn't permit this sort of syntactic switch-hitting.

But not all of the new coinages have that macabre charm. When you listen to corporate managers, you could be put in mind of a language like Eskimo, where words can migrate freely from one part of speech to another. We have a "team partnering with IBM that's tasked with architecting the new standards. They've been officing across the street, but they conference down the hall."

But it would be wrong to single out corporations as the lone perpetrators here. As for academics, I did a search of a humanities and social science database and found more than 4,000 citations of the new use of the verb "privilege" as in "realism privileges interiority." The psychologists have been talking a lot lately about journaling -- a process a lot like keeping a diary, only with a spiritual dimension that's absent in old-style diarists like Boswell or Give (ph).

And it's the Baptist Pentecostals and the like who have managed to make a verb out of the noun "fellowship," as in "I fellowship at the Assembly of God on Winchester Avenue." Actually, I saw a news story a while ago about a woman who was "dis-fellowshipped" from a Texas Church of Christ after her husband divorced her.

The question is: what makes these usages fishy, when nobody troubles only most other shifts of nouns to verbs? I often hear people say that the new verbs don't add anything to the language, but I suspect the problem is that they do: the presupposition that any activity worth mentioning ought to have a verb of its own.

And even though the pattern's been around for a long time, there does seem to be something in this urge to verb that's a genuine novelty on the linguistic scene. You hear it not just in corporate or academic jargon, but in everyday speech.

The night before Diana's funeral, I heard a guy on the BBC talking about crowds of people "vigiling" outside Buckingham Palace. The Book-of-the-Month Club features a book called "Classy Knitting: A Beginner's Guide to Creative Sweatering." An NYU psychologist gives the following advice for home redecoration: "Don't think about the bedroom -- a static concept. Instead, think of bedrooming."

It occurs to you that people have been knitting sweaters for a couple of thousand years now, and doing whatever they do in bedrooms for longer than that. But they'd never before felt the need to turn those nouns into verbs to denote those activities. But maybe it's no less than our active lifestyles deserve. That's what modern life feels like -- it's just one damn thing after another -- breakfasting, carpooling, officing, keyboarding, stairmastering, journaling, bedrooming.

Why shouldn't be wordsmith new ways to talk about it?

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

We'll close with Thelonious Monk's "Rhythmning" (ph).

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, THELONIOUS MONK PERFORMING "RHYTHMNING")

Dateline: Geoff Nunberg, Palo Alto; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest:
High: Linguist Geoff Nunberg on nouns to verbs.
Spec: Language; Nouns; Verbs; Gerunds
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Nouns to Verbs
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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