Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to kickoff Rider's sesquicentennial celebration

The Pulitzer Prize winner will appear Sept. 16 to share the leadership lessons of Abraham Lincoln
Adam Grybowski
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to kickoff Rider's sesquicentennial celebration

Doris Kearns Goodwin is the author of six critically acclaimed and best-selling books, including “Team of Rivals."

Before it belonged to the University, the name "Rider" belonged to a person. Andrew Jackson Rider was a 23-year-old teacher when he moved to Trenton in 1866 and became the burgeoning Trenton Business College’s third principal. By 1881, he was part owner and, in 1897, when Trenton Business College was incorporated under the name Rider Business College, he was named the first president.

Knowing the namesake's story is important, says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, because "otherwise institutions can become rather invisible. 

"It makes you feel connected to all those generations that came before you," she continues, speaking by phone during an interview. "You know that you’re standing on a foundation that other generations built. It means you’re not living your life alone but are part of who your forebearers were and part of who your successors will be.” 

The author of six critically acclaimed and New York Times best-selling books, Goodwin will appear at the University's 150th celebration kickoff and constitution day event on Sept. 16 in the SRC. Her talk, which is open to the public, will focus on the leadership lessons of Abraham Lincoln. 

As a historian, she says, “Your hope is that people looking back into the past can see the contours of the present and feel a sense of depth to their own lives and the lives of their countrymen so they don’t feel like they’re confronting problems totally alone.” 

Readers of history can take solace in the fact that, as dysfunctional as Washington, D.C., appears to be today, it pales in comparison to what some of the country's forefathers endured. Obama faces a recalcitrant congress; Lincoln presided over a civil war. Another Goodwin subject, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, inherited the Great Depression and confronted Nazi Germany in World War II. She wrote about him and his wife, Eleanor, in her third book, No Ordinary Time, a portrait of their relationship and the home front during the war. The book won the Pulitzer in history in 1995. 

After writing about the Roosevelts, “It’s hard to go back to a more minor figure because you’ve enjoyed the treasure of living with these big figures who made such a difference in such an important part of history,” she says. 

Goodwin turned her historical lens to Lincoln, embracing a project that would engulf 10 years of her life as she tried to find a measure of freshness for one of the most written-about men in history. She initially thought to model the book on the husband/wife structure of No Ordinary Time before realizing that, unlike Eleanor’s story, Mary’s was largely private. 

Goodwin was already two or three years into the research for the book before she landed on the idea of illuminating Lincoln through the eyes of the cabinet he assembled from his defeated rivals for the presidency. While visiting upstate New York, she stopped at the house-turned-museum of William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state and chief rival for the presidency. “I got a feeling for Seward from being in that house,” Goodwin says. “I had read about him, but I didn’t know much about him. I started reading more about his life and that got me interested in Lincoln’s other rivals.” 

She would incorporate the biographies of Seward, Salmon Chase, Edward Bates and Edwin Stanton — all of whom served in Lincoln’s cabinet and believed they were his superior — into Team of Rivals, her 2006 book that became a bestseller. Steven Spielberg later adapted the book into a movie that earned 12 Academy Award nominations. Pundits leaned on the phrase “team of rivals” when then newly elected President Barack Obama chose his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state. 

Team of Rivals opens in 1860, with Lincoln anticipating the results of the election. The story then jumps back in time before unfolding more or less in chronological order — a technique Goodwin relies on in her other books as well. To carry readers through events that have long since concluded, with well-known outcomes, Goodwin writes with the intention of positioning the reader as a person living through history. 

“You want the reader to experience events as they were experienced at the time,” she says. “I think people can absorb a lot of what happened as long as it’s told through the stories of the people who lived then. If you do it right, they are as alive as we are to ourselves.” 

Goodwin tends to write about people she admires. Knowing she has a finite number of books she will write, she wants to spend time in the company of historical figures she genuinely likes. Lincoln maintains a special place for her. “There is no question that living with Lincoln affects anyone who spends time with him,” she says.  

Besides being companionable, Lincoln holds a number of personal qualities that make him a model of leadership. “You do feel that because he had these extraordinary emotional strengths — not looking back on people who had hurt him, tamping down feelings of envy or jealousy — that somehow if you could have him by your side he could help you in your private life,” Goodwin says. “I think there’s something special about Abraham Lincoln that anyone who’s studied him feels for the rest of their lives.” 

Moving on from Lincoln was difficult, she says, but a lifelong interest in Teddy Roosevelt made transitioning to the Trust Buster "an easy landing.” 

Her latest book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, again embraces the multiple-biography format, this time folding in the two principal characters, their wives and a cast of muckraking journalists. Goodwin has also written a memoir about life as a Boston Red Sox fan, Wait Till Next Year, but the rest of her books focus on the American presidency, starting with her book about President Lyndon Johnson, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. 

Goodwin served as an assistant to Johnson in his last year in the White House, later helping him in the preparation of his memoirs before writing her own book. If not for that experience, she says she probably would have become a historian of the Supreme Court, the topic of her Harvard doctorate thesis. 

Becoming a presidential historian "wasn’t a design at the beginning,” Goodwin says. “Having written that first book on the presidency, suddenly I felt like I learned something about the institution and before I knew it, I was considered a presidential historian.” 

For her next book, Goodwin is considering pooling her subjects to draw conclusions about the leadership qualities they all share. “It just happens that what you’ve learned from one person at one time helps you see leadership in another time,” she says. “You learn from what they learned. Some of them may seem different from us, but they’re probably similar, especially concerning leadership.”