What Shaped Our Greatest Presidents? Doris Kearns Goodwin at Vanderbilt


Riley Black

On Thursday, October 31, Doris Kearns Goodwin gave remarks as part of this year’s Chancellor’s Lecture Series. Accompanied onstage at Vanderbilt’s Ingram Hall by fellow historian Jon Meacham, Goodwin discussed the qualities that shaped some of America’s greatest presidents.

Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian and recipient of Vanderbilt’s Nichols-Chancellor’s Medal, with notable books on Lyndon B. Johnson and Abraham Lincoln. Meacham is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian, as well as the Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Vanderbilt Department of Political Science and holder of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Chair in American Presidency. 

The lecture began with a question posed by Meacham: How has American government changed since the times of Lyndon B. Johnson (who Goodwin had worked directly with as a White House Fellow)? Goodwin disavowed the current ultra-partisan state of politics, characterizing current leaders as having loyalty to party over loyalty to America and its institutions. She argued past administrations saw bipartisan progress despite their partisanship due to both their loyalty to American institutions and a sense that their work was for a cause bigger than themselves. 

Goodwin wove this theme of legacy throughout her lecture. She argued that ambition to better the country was what gave presidents the opportunity to accomplish some of the most momentous feats in American history. A prominent example presented was LBJ’s push for civil rights, where he challenged his base in a courageous move to do what was right and go beyond the people who elected him. 

Goodwin also highlighted the setbacks that shaped America’s greatest presidents. Goodwin said that all great presidents overcame great challenges on their paths to success, from Abraham Lincoln’s near-suicidal depression to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s battle with polio. These setbacks, Goodwin argued, were necessary for shaping these men into the great leaders they were. 

Goodwin particularly noted that these presidents did not succeed alone, crediting the activist movements that supported LBJ’s and Lincoln’s endeavors. She credited the social environments that allowed these great leaders to succeed. Demonstrating how social movements often preceded presidential action, Goodwin cited LBJ’s use of the civil rights movement’s slogan “we shall overcome” in his famous 1965 speech following the racial violence in Selma. This speech (which Goodwin’s late husband wrote) helped change public sentiment on civil rights, contributing to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

Goodwin emphasized the role of context in leadership, pointing out that different political climates require different leaders. Goodwin demonstrated the role of context by comparing Lyndon B. Johnson’s and John F. Kennedy’s leadership styles. JFK’s strength was his robust rhetoric in foreign affairs contexts, perhaps best illustrated through his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. LBJ, by contrast, was a master strategist able to utilize his simple, story-based rhetoric to influence the Senate towards domestic victories. 

Goodwin did not entirely stray away from criticism of the greatest presidents during her lecture. Prompted by an audience question, she stated that hubris was the most common flaw in presidents, giving examples such as Theodore Roosevelt’s ill-fated attempt to win a third presidential term. Conversely, she argued that other mistakes, including LBJ’s doomed escalation of the Vietnam War, were the opposite of hubris — a lack of confidence spurred by the pressure not to appear weak in the eyes of the American people.

Closing questions saw Goodwin promoting a sense of optimism in the future of America. She claimed that history suggested something special about American democracy, and invoked Lincoln in promoting the ideals of the American Revolution for creating positive change. She concluded the night by arguing for a sense of pride in American democracy, and to be willing to acknowledge both the mistakes and progress of America. A standing ovation followed, showing a positive response to the nuanced, hopeful attitude presented in her addition to the 2019-2020 Chancellor’s Lecture Series.