Author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has a word or two of hope for citizens distressed by the failures of the political system.
“Things are not out of control. It may feel that way right now, but it isn’t,” she said Saturday evening to a crowd of 1,250 that filled the Unity Temple on the Plaza. She spoke at an annual Truman Library Institute event, the Bennett Forum, and she said Harry Truman is missed.
“Oh, we need him now more than ever. Character. Integrity,” she said.
Goodwin’s books include “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism,” “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt – The Home Front in World War II” and “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” which was the basis of the 2012 movie “Lincoln.” She is working on a book on presidential history.
The event was headlined, “The Presidency in the Post-Truth Era,” and Goodwin did not shrink from sharp criticism of President Trump.
“What we’re accepting as normal language today is really scary, I think,” she said.
She acknowledged what she called “authoritarian tendencies” in the White House but said, “You know, the one thing that gives me hope is the checks and balances in the system.”
She and moderator David Von Drehle – based in Kansas City, columnist for The Washington Post – agreed that successful presidents share certain qualities. They need self-reflection, the ability to take blame, the ability to listen and learn, and humility in the sense of growing and learning as you go along with confidence that you’ll get the job done. Truman had those qualities and Trump doesn’t, Goodwin said.
And she pointed out that Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter once said the only presidents who are any good at it enjoy the job. Again, Truman yes and Trump no.
“He doesn’t love the job,” she said.
Winning presidential candidates adapt to their times, the two said. Lincoln wrote well in an age of writing and reading, Franklin D. Roosevelt understood the intimacy of radio, Kennedy and Reagan excelled at television. With Trump, it’s Twitter, and Von Drehle said he was able to create the impression that both press and parties could be stripped away.
“ … that was great during the campaign,” Goodwin said, “but your words matter when you become president. And he’s been unwilling to make the shift.”
Von Drehle said there’s an “unfounded pessimism in the nation today,” and Goodwin largely agreed.
“There’s always solace,” she said.
She added some advice for citizens: “I think the best way to deal with anger and frustration and sadness is to do something about it.”
She ticked off specific issues that she said need to be addressed: the gerrymandering of legislative districts, the amount of money in politics that “is still the poison in the system,” and the idea of mandatory national service to bring Americans closer through common experience. All three of those notions got strong applause.
Has America been here before? Goodwin pointed to the turn of the 20th century, when new technology was disrupting the economy and the workplace, when the nation had high levels of immigration and when rural America felt isolated.
“So I think that’s the echo from the past,” she said. That time was followed by what’s today seen as a progressive era that brought, among other things, women's right to vote.
The Bennett Forum was established in 2005 through a gift by Mary and Michael Johnson of Independence, celebrating Howard Bennett’s role in founding the Truman Library.