Last year, Barack Obama invited the presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to the White House for a long, personal, open-ended conversation. The meeting took place over coffee and scones in the president’s private dining room, just off the Oval Office.
The walls of the private dining room and the hallway nearby are lined with telling mementos: images of Martin Luther King Jr.; a photo of the president with Nelson Mandela; and a Lifemagazine cover showing the 1965 march on Selma, signed by civil-rights leader John Lewis. Tables in the room hold framed family photos, a bust of JFK, and a pair of Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves.
Goodwin is no stranger to these precincts. She has been in and out of the West Wing ever since 1967, when, as a 24-year-old White House fellow, she worked closely with Lyndon Johnson during the last year of his presidency (and then afterward as he wrote his memoirs). She has earned a raft of literary prizes, including a Pulitzer, for books about JFK, LBJ, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and, most notably, Abraham Lincoln – the subject of her landmark history, Team of Rivals, whose title gave America’s political language a new and permanent catchphrase.
Goodwin likes to tell the story of the day in the spring of 2007, when a young Illinois senator phoned her, out of the blue, requesting that they meet because he’d just finished readingTeam of Rivals. That call would begin a friendship. Since taking office, Obama has occasionally invited Goodwin, along with a small cohort of presidential historians, to come to the White House to discuss past presidents, their legacies – and his.
In their conversation, the president and Goodwin exhibit an easy camaraderie, sometimes completing each other’s sentences. Their interview, above all else, is a conversation between two writers, each steeped in history.
Goodwin: Preparing for this conversation today, I realized that it was nine years ago that you first called me on my cell phone: “Hello, this is Barack Obama. I’ve just readTeam of Rivals and we have to talk about Lincoln.” Soon afterward, I came to see you in your Senate office. So what was it about him? What made you give your announcement speech in the shadow of the Old State Capitol? What spoke to you about Lincoln to make you say, “I love this guy”?
Obama: Look, I’m from Illinois, and I spent eight years down in Springfield. So the location and the announcement, to some degree, made sense optically. My particular passion for Lincoln, though, dates back from my earliest memories of politics. And we’ve talked about this before – that there’s no one who I believe has ever captured the soul of America more profoundly than Abraham Lincoln has.
Not just his biography, of somebody who genuinely rose from nothing, self-taught, striking out along the borders of our Great Frontier. Somebody who worked with his hands and then worked with his mind, and somehow became one of the greatest writers in the English language. And I think, most importantly, somebody who was able to see humanity clearly, see the fundamental contradictions of the American experiment clearly, and yet still remain hopeful and still remain full of humor, and still have a basic sympathy for the human condition, even in the midst of a terrible war and having to make terrible decisions. And having a forgiving spirit.
I mean, I could go on and on for hours about Lincoln. For me, Lincoln is like just a handful of people – a Gandhi, or a Picasso, or a Martin Luther King Jr. – who is an original and captures something essential.
When Lincoln was 23, and running for office the first time, he said, “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.”
Then, a decade later, when he was in the midst of a depression so severe that his friends took all the knives, razors, and other dangerous things from his room, he said he was more than willing to die but that he had “done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived.”
Isn’t that incredible? So how would you describe your “peculiar ambition” that every man has? And when did it develop?
It’s always dangerous to amend the words of Abraham Lincoln, but let me see if this is a friendly amendment. I actually think, when you’re young, ambitions are somewhat common – you want to prove yourself. It may grow out of different life experiences. You may want to prove that you are worthy of the admiration of the demanding father. You may want to prove that you are worthy of the love of an absent father. You may want to prove that you’re worthy of other kids or neighbors who were wealthier than you and teased you. You may want to prove that you’re worthy of high expectations. But I do think that there is a youthful ambition that very much has to do with making your mark in the world. And I think that cuts across the experiences of a lot of people who end up achieving something significant in their field. I think, as you get older, that’s when your ambitions become “peculiar”…
“I don’t want ever to be a president who is comfortable and at ease with killing people.”
Oh, well said, sir. We can amend Lincoln.
… because I think that at a certain stage those early ambitions burn away, partly because you achieve something, you get something done, you get some notoriety. And then the particularities of who you are and what your deepest commitments are begin expressing themselves. You’re not just chasing the idea of “me” being important, but you, rather, are chasing a particular passion.
In my case, you could analyze me and say that my father leaving and being absent was a motivator for early ambition, trying to prove myself to this apparition who had vanished. You could argue that me being a mixed kid in a place where there weren’t a lot of black kids around might have spurred on my ambitions. You could go through a whole litany of things that sparked me wanting to do something important.
But as I got older, then my particular ambitions started cohering around creating a world in which people of different races or backgrounds or faiths can recognize each other’s humanity, or creating a world in which every kid, regardless of their background, can strive and achieve and fulfill their potential.
And at some point politics becomes the channel for that, right?
For example, young FDR seemed a pretty ordinary guy. At 28 he’s a clerk in a law firm. He hasn’t done anything particularly great in college or law school. He gets his first chance to run for the state legislature, and somehow, when he’s out there on the campaign trail, something clicks in. William James said, “At such moments, there is a voice inside which speaks and says, ‘This is the real me.’” And FDR knew then that’s what he wanted to be.
I think FDR is a great example of what I mean. If you look at his early life, it is ambition for ambition’s sake.
It’s like he’s just checking off boxes. There’s no sense of what he wants to do with power; he wants power. There’s no clarity about where he wants to take his notoriety; he just wants to be famous.
That brings us to the question of temperament, which is probably the greatest separator in presidential leadership. There’s that quote when [retired Supreme Court justice] Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who met with FDR after his inauguration, famously said Roosevelt had “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” How would you describe your temperament and why it’s fit for this office if, in fact, you think it is?
Well, whether it’s fit for this office or not is up to historians like you to determine. I think it’s fair to say that my temperament is steady – and on the buoyant side.
Do you think of yourself as an extrovert?
No. On the spectrum of successful politicians, I’m not introverted the way some have been, but I’m not an FDR or a Bill Clinton, who are just constantly in a crowd and just relishing it. I like my quiet time. There is a writer’s sensibility in me sometimes, where I step back. But I do think that I am generally optimistic. I see tragedy and comedy and pain and irony and all that stuff. In the end I think life is fascinating, and I think people are more good than bad, and I think that the possibilities of progress are real.
I think people are born with that spirit. My father was orphaned when he was 10. My mother died when I was young. But despite these sorrows my father remained an optimist. And that optimism was the greatest gift he gave to me – a sense of excitement about life that has carried me through everything.
Yes. I can tell you what I think served me well in this office, and that is this basic optimism and a capacity to take the long view on things. I don’t buy the hype when everybody is saying how wonderful things are and how great I am, and I don’t get too down when people say, “This is a disaster and he’s done for.”
Early in my presidency, I went to Cairo to make a speech to the Muslim world. In the afternoon, after the speech, we took helicopters out to the pyramids. And they had emptied the pyramids for us, and we could just wander around for a couple hours [at] the pyramids and the Sphinx. And the pyramids are one of those things that live up to the hype. They’re elemental in ways that are hard to describe. And you’re going to these tombs and looking at the hieroglyphics and imagining the civilization that built these iconic images.
And I still remember thinking to myself, There were a lot of people during the period when these pyramids were built who thought they were really important. And there was the equivalent of cable news and television and newspapers and Twitter and people anguishing over their relative popularity or position at any given time. And now it’s all just covered in dust and sand. And all that people know [today] are the pyramids.
Sometimes I carry with me that perspective, which tells me that my particular worries on any given day – how I’m doing in the polls or what somebody is saying about me, for good or for ill – isn’t particularly relevant. What is relevant is: What am I building that lasts?
And here in the United States, hopefully, what we’re building are not just pyramids, are not icons to one pharaoh. What we’re building is a culture and a way of living together that we can look back on and say, “[This] was good, was inclusive, was kind, was innovative, was able to fulfill the dreams of as many people as possible.” And that part of my temperament I think has served me well.
I’m reminded of another moment that had to do with Team of Rivals – and you. You were in Boca Raton late in May of 2008, and somebody asked you if you’d really be willing to put into your inner circle one of your chief rivals, even if his or her spouse were an occasional pain in the butt. [Laughter.] And then you referred to Lincoln. You said, “I don’t want to jump the gun, [but] I will tell you, though, that my goal is to have the best possible government.” And you explained: “Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet because, whatever personal feelings there were, the issue was ‘How can we get this country through this time of crisis?’” And then when you chose Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state, of course, “team of rivals” emerged as a term to characterize her selection.
I am a firm believer that you don’t do anything significant by yourself. Again, maybe there are exceptions. There’s the Picasso or the Mozart.
Yes, Teddy Roosevelt wrote that there are certain geniuses, of which he was not one. But Lincoln was one. Keats could write a poem that nobody else could write.
I don’t fall in that category. I marvel at those people who are true geniuses of that sort. What I’ve seen in my own life is that when I get something important done it’s because of a lot of other people – some who get credit, some who don’t.
You look at something like health care, the Affordable Care Act. I don’t see myself doing this alone. There were staff people here, whose names nobody knows, who worked tirelessly to make this happen. Legislative folks, who were up on the Hill till 4 in the morning trying to get a particular provision done. Teams here who were crunching the numbers to figure out how we could pay for it. Members of Congress who voted for this thing knowing that the politics were really tough for them, that they might lose their race[s]. There were a lot of people who ended up making enormous sacrifices – and I’m the frontman of the band. But it doesn’t work without them.
“There were a lot of people during the period when these pyramids were built who thought they were really important. And now it’s all just covered in dust and sand.”
When you get upset with the lack of discourse [in Washington], what do you do? When FDR was very upset about isolationists, when he knew we had to deal with World War II, he would actually write drafts of speeches. He would do draft two, draft three, draft four, and one of his young speechwriters said, “Oh, my God, you can’t say this.” And then by draft six, the offending phrase was gone. Lincoln, as you know, wrote hot letters to people. And then he’d cool down and didn’t send them. Have you ever written any drafts of speeches or hot letters?
I do it all the time.
What do you mean you do it all the time?
I do it all the time. I will write a response – a full rant.
No kidding? [Laughter.]
And then I’ll crumple it up. Every once in awhile, my team here will hear me go on a rant. Generally speaking, people who know me will tell you that my public persona is not that different from my private persona. I am who I am. You sort of get what you see with me. The two exceptions are that I curse more than I should, and I find myself cursing more in this office than I had in my previous life. [Laughter.] And fortunately both my chief of staff and my national-security adviser have even bigger potty mouths than me, so it’s OK. And the second thing is that I can be much more sarcastic and, I think, sometimes withering in my assessments of things than I allow to show in my public life.
You’ve said you’d rather be alive now than any other time. But do you ever wish you had been president in another era? Suppose you’d been around in Lincoln’s time, when your written word would be pamphletized, when everybody would be reading the entire speech and they’d be talking to each other about it. You’re governing in the age of the internet, with its divergent voices and sound bites.
It’s an interesting question. As I said earlier, there is a big part of me that has a writer’s sensibility. And so that’s how I think. That’s how I pursue truth. That’s how I hope to communicate truth to people. And I know that’s not how it is always received. Because it gets chopped up. Or if it’s too long, then it’s dismissed as being professorial, or abstract, or long-winded.
But I tell you what, though. [Long pause.] I’m named Barack Hussein Obama. I’m African-American. And I’ve been elected twice to this office with the majorities of the American people. So something is working.
What do you regret the most that you wish you had done – or that you might have been able to deal better with?
The list of things I wish I had gotten done is long.
I don’t mean what you didn’t get done, but what you might have done differently.
What I might have done differently. Yes, even that list is perpetually renewing itself because each day I say, Maybe if I had done that just a little bit different or that a little bit better. I know there are problems that I say to myself, If maybe I was a little more gifted I might have been able to solve. But that’s not because I believe what I did was a mistake. It’s that maybe it required the talents of a Lincoln.
So when I think about the polarization that occurred in 2009-10, I’ve gone back and I’ve looked at my proposals and my speeches and the steps we took to reach out to Congress. And the notion that we weren’t engaging Congress, or that we were overly partisan, or we didn’t schmooze enough, or we didn’t reach out enough to Republicans – that whole narrative just isn’t true.
But that narrative took hold, right?
What I can say is maybe if I had the genius of an Abraham Lincoln, or the charm of FDR…
Or, like Lyndon Johnson, you had them over every night for dinner.
Or the energy of Teddy Roosevelt, or the legislative acumen of LBJ, or all those things wrapped into one, maybe things would have turned out differently. On the other hand, when I read history, I [see] what typically happens to presidents and the other party during tumultuous times and how people react when the economy is collapsing and they’re losing their homes, losing their pensions – it sort of tracks, what ended up happening, because some of that is human nature.
So I guess my point is that there are always things that I think I wish I could have done better. I wish I could have persuaded the public more or my colleagues more, here in Washington, around a particular course of action. But there aren’t a lot of situations where I look back and I say, The decision I actually made or the course we actually pursued was the wrong course.
Was there ever a time, at the beginning of your presidency, when you were haunted? The night FDR was first elected, he told his son James, “All my life I have been afraid of only one thing – fire… .I’m just afraid that I may not have the strength to do this job.” He was a paralyzed man, so he never locked his door. Did you ever feel that? When confronting the explosion that you came into, with the recession and the difficulty we were facing?
[Long pause.] Honestly, no.
“There is a big part of me that has a writer’s sensibility. And so that’s how I think. That’s how I pursue truth.”
And that’s the only time I think FDR felt it, too. By the next day he was OK.
Anybody who gets into bed and turns out the lights the first night in the White House probably feels a little bit of a start, where you say, “Goodness … ”
“This is me, and I’m here.”
Right. “And I’ve got to make a bunch of decisions.” And so there’s a little bit of a jolt that you feel.
There wasn’t a time where I felt fearful that I couldn’t make the best decisions possible. The times where I had been anguished almost exclusively had to do with deploying our men and women overseas. The first Afghan decision to surge additional troops there because the situation was deteriorating. I remember giving a speech at West Point and seeing all those amazing young people and knowing that some would be sent and not every one of them would come back. Weighing that – those never get easy.
But that’s a feeling different than fear. It’s a feeling of the weight of the decision. And a different feeling, but related, is the decisions I’ve had to make to launch strikes. I don’t want ever to be a president who is comfortable and at ease with killing people. I don’t want my generals or my defense secretary or my national-security team to ever feel deploying weapons to kill people as routine or abstract, even if the targets are bad people. And that weighs on me.
So what is it going to be like when this weight is lifted? What are you going to be able to do that you haven’t been able to do for eight years?
Well, I’m hoping I can take a walk. [Laughter.] And …
Somewhere else, not just with…
Yes, not just around and around the South Lawn with my chief of staff and my team and my dogs. [Laughter.]
There are a couple of particular bodysurfing beaches that I’ve not been to in Hawaii for a long time that I want to go back to. [Laughter.] And there are places I want to visit where if I’m wearing a baseball cap and some sunglasses I think I can get away with and mingle in a crowd.
Having had this office has given me this incredible perch from which to see how the world works. The power of the office is unique and it is a humbling privilege. With that power, however, also comes a whole host of institutional constraints.
It must be so freeing, I think – because you now have this foundation to do the stuff you want to do, but also you’re going to become more of a human being without this.
That’s the hope.
There will be perks that you’ll miss, I’m sure.
I will miss Air Force One. I will miss Marine One.
I think I told you the story about Eisenhower, that he had not personally dialed a phone call for so long that when he finally was out of the presidency he picked up the phone and he hears this buzz, and he said, “What’s this buzz?” It’s the dial tone, Mr. President. [Laughter.]
I will say that, having a couple of teenage daughters, I’m a little more plugged into technology than maybe Ike was.