Doris Kearns Goodwin on 'Lincoln' and Her Conversations With Obama About the 16th President

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian tells THR whether she thinks Lincoln would succeed today ("he'd be great on 'Colbert'") and her thoughts on the 2012 election, among other things.

Daniel Day-Lewis has already earned SAG and Golden Globe nominations for sinking underneath the bronzed legend and bringing to life the towering figure of President Abraham Lincoln, but his conjuring came in large part from the texts of Doris Kearns Goodwin.

A former aide to President Lyndon Johnson, she is now a world-renowned biographer and commentator, and her best-selling book about the 16th president's tumultuous and history-shifting time in the White House, Team of Rivals, helped inform the political and personal drama of Steven Spielberg's new film, Lincoln. A Pulitzer Prize-winner (for her work on another course-setting president, Franklin Roosevelt) and still-active author, Kearns Goodwin spoke with The Hollywood Reporter in November about both her great admiration for Lincoln and her relationship with another lanky, groundbreaking president from Illinois, Barack Obama.

The interview below has been edited and condensed.

THR: So, 150 years later, would Lincoln, with all his wisdom, be succesful in politics today?

Kearns Goodwin: I do think Lincoln would do well. People keep saying could he possibly win today. I think he could. Obviously he hopefully wouldn’t be wearing the beard, he wouldn’t be wearing the hat. He doesn’t need to be any taller than he is. But when I think about his intelligence, his quick wit, his humor, he’d be great on Colbert and Jon Stewart. He could match them one on one and young people would love that. Then the older people would be reading his words that still have a historic meaning, and people writing today they would see the beauty of that language. Plus he loved politics. He was warm and knew how to do with people.

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THR: You have spoken to President Obama about Lincoln, right?

Kearns Goodwin: Oh yeah. I first heard from him in 2007 when he was running for the nomination. One day I pick up my cell phone and on the other end was "Hello, this is Barack Obama. I’ve just read your book about Lincoln, and we have to talk." So we met in an office building. And we’ve become friends since then. I’ve been to the White House a number of times. I’ve put together with some other people some dinners of historians where once a year all the people who represent Truman or Jefferson or Jackson or LBJ, maybe 12 people or 15, sit around a dinner and talk to him about our presidents and what they might do in our times.

I really think the world of him. It’s all because of Lincoln, the fact that connection was first made. Then he used the Lincoln bible when he got inaugurated and a photo of the Lincoln team at his inauguration. So I’ve gotten to know him and the speech writers and they’re good people.

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THR: How will history look back on the 2012 election?

Kearns Goodwin: Well, I had hoped before it had begun that it would be a more real argument about the role of government. I’m writing a new book about Teddy Roosevelt in the turn of the 20th century and it was the same arguments then that are really relevant today. What should government’s role be with private enterprise? At the turn of the century they said in the census said that one percent of the people had 99 percent of the wealth. It was just this sense of inequality in income and all of those issues and to some extent they got expressed, but with the way campaigns are today with all of the negative ads and the debates… the debates were interesting.

These debates did seem to matter, but I think that whatever happens in his second term Obama’s already made history in the fact that the health care bill will not be repealed now. No president in 100 years was able to get that happening. Plus, if the economy really does continue to improve, then history will look back and say that it started in that first term.

Maybe most importantly just as Lincoln became a lot stronger in those last months after his election because he was able to learn from that first term that he had been such an inexperienced person, Lincoln, when he got in, so I think that Obama has learned a lot. He’s the person who I think can look at these last four years, he’s already talked about it, he knows his communication skills weren’t what he hoped they would be. He mentioned that night of his victory speech to the reporters. "You’ve made me a better president. I’ve listened to your stories and I will be more inspired by you." I think that’s a really healthy thing when a leader can take what they’ve learned and grow from it.

THR: There was a debate about the role of government to a certain degree, and you see it in Romney’s comments about “gifts.”
Kearns Goodwin: I was stunned by that. In fact, Obama’s press conference he was very grateful to Mitt Romney and I think Mitt Romney on the night of his loss was pretty grateful too. But then yesterday I just saw the things where he said the reason he won was because he gave young people student loans as gifts. He gave the Hispanic, the immigrants… It’s just… I don’t know whether he was again imagining that he was telling his donors that. Was it just something he meant to say? I wouldn’t think this would be his first speech after losing, at least I had hoped not. But I don’t know.

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THR: How do you think Lincoln would handle the press today? It's obviously much more all-encompassing and aggressive 150 years later.

Kearns Goodwin: I think it would be hard for him because in his day when he would give a speech or write a public letter, which was the way he often communicated to the country, people would read the entire speech in the newspaper, or the entire letter would then get pamphletized. He didn’t like to speak spontaneously, to be caught without having something to say.

In fact there’s a funny scene in the movie where he’s raising a flag and he pulls out his little speech from his hat. He just says "My job is to raise the flag. That’s all." There were moments when the soldiers would come to celebrate victories, battle victories, at the White House, and he would be called out onto the balcony. He would just say I congratulate you all. He didn’t like to have to… I don’t know what it would be like if he were caught up. I think he had the intelligence to speak spontaneously clearly as well as anybody we’ve known today. But he liked to be prepared when he was saying something.

But in the modern world, you’re right, if he were on Jon Stewart or Colbert he would be prepared. But suppose he was just being hounded. "What do you think of this or that?" It wouldn’t allow him that preparation time that mattered to him. All of those speeches he worked on and worked on and worked on. He cared so much about the language itself. Nowadays before a president even finishes a speech, the blogs are pulling it apart. Or if someone interrupts him like that guy Joe Wilson did when Obama was giving that joint session of Congress speech on the health care, then that becomes the story.

With that kind of scattering of interest or scattering of attention today, I think it would be hard. Even the debates that he had in the 1850s with Stephen Douglas – they were four hours long, compared to these kind of debates now. They really had history and literature and they were tough sometimes, but they were of a different quality than the kind of debates they have today.

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THR: Did he evolve on the anti-slavery issue? Because at one point he wasn't always for abolition, though perhaps that was political.

Kearns Goodwin: Yes. In fact, there’s a scene in the movie when he talks about seeing slaves when he was young and how he hated it ever since then. But what happened is the Constitution protected slavery in the southern states. They defined slaves as property and you couldn’t take away their property. So when he became president he just didn’t think there was the power to do anything about slavery. And in fact the Republican party when it was formed wasn’t forming to end slavery. It was simply saying we have to prevent it from going to the western territories. Because then it would have gone on forever.

They did have power when a state was becoming a state from a territory, to say no to slavery in the new Constitution, so that was what the Republican party was [when it started]. But then I think once he got into office he saw that slaves were escaping from the south to come into the union camps and the north and fight… And realizing that he could use his War Powers as a measure to end slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation even though it was only temporary. And then of course he realizes he has to do it fully by the 13th Amendment.

But I think the friendships he formed with the black soldiers during the war, the friendship with Frederick Douglas the great abolitionist, did make him become much more intense that he was really willing to risk a lot in order to pass it. The problem with going after slavery even with the Emancipation Proclamation is there was a fear that some of the northern soldiers simply would stop fighting. They were only fighting to save the union. And there was a lot of anger at his extension of the war from saving the union to ending slavery. But once he did it, once you go down that path, then you stay on that path.

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THR: What pointers would he have for President Obama today?

Kearns Goodwin: I think the main thing, which is why the movie’s so timely, that you see in that movie is when he makes that comment, "I am President of the United States, cloaked in immense powers. You procure me that vote." That reminded me of Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson was able to do whatever he needed to do. I’ll trade this, I’ll give you that dam, and we now look upon that as something wrong. We have to remember at the time of Lincoln there was no civil service so giving jobs to people there was nothing wrong with that at that time.

But the most important thing is his willingness to compromise, his ability to get Thaddeus Stevens to moderate his radical views. To get that conservative Preston Blair to go forward. To give whatever those old Democrats who were going to lose needed to keep going. When you think about the need for this congress to somehow, as you bring up, manage to do something about the debt, the taxes and the fiscal cliff.

And that kind of leadership is really going to be critical to make something happen. They could never have imagined the timing. Here it is the whole movie taking place after an election has taken place before the next congress which is exactly what we’re in right now.

THR: The parallels to today are immense.

Kearns Goodwin: When you think about the level of anger in the congress, it luckily doesn’t approach the 1850s when the carried revolvers around when Charles Sumner got hit on the head with a cane and out of the senate for two years. So physically it doesn’t seem to be as bad as it was then. But it does seem like the political culture in Washington is as rough as I think I’ve seen it in the last 40 or 50 years. They used to stay in Washington, and I think money is part of the poison of the system. They go home on Thursday nights to raise money and come back on Tuesdays. They don’t form friendships across party lines. Their wives and husbands don’t socialize. The media rewards people who are extreme on either side and the districts are done that way. Even the 1960's and 50's, there was a lot more bipartisan movement across party lines --  even Reagan and Tip O’Neill. It’s just hardened I think in these last couple of decades in a pretty bad way.

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