Feb 192014

In this episode of the Wait Wait… Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written a series of presidential histories — covering Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Her book about Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, helped inspire the movie Lincoln, and her latest book, , is about Teddy Roosevelt.

Since Goodwin is an expert on presidents of the past, we’re going to quiz her about presidents of the future — three questions about leaders from science fiction.

And now the game where really smart people are asked really dumb questions, it’s called Not My Job. So historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is probably the smartest person to ever appear on a cable news program. OK, that’s pretty lousy praise. Let me try again. She’s written a series of acclaimed, prize-winning best selling presidential histories, including her book about Lincoln, “Team of Rivals,” helped inspire the movie “Lincoln.” Her new book, “Bully Pulpit,” is about Teddy Roosevelt. Doris Kearsn Goodwin, welcome WAIT WAIT…DON’T TELL ME!
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
SAGAL: You know, one thing I found out about you, I knew obviously that you wrote about presidents very well and very successfully. I did not know that you once worked for a president. That’s in fact almost how you got your start. It was LBJ, right?
GOODWIN: No question. I mean, I was chosen as a White House in – when I was in my early 20s, and unfortunately after a dance in the White House to celebrate the White House fellowship, it turned out I had written an article against LBJ while I was involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. He dances with me in the White House, whispers that he wants me to be assigned directly to him in the White House, but it was not to be that simple for two days later comes this article I had previously written that was talking about the need for somebody to get rid of LBJ because of the anti-Vietnam feeling that I had.
But somehow, surprisingly, he said oh, bring her down here for a year, and if I can’t win her over, no one can. So that was the beginning of my fascination with the presidency, this character LBJ.
SAGAL: Really? And did he win you over to his side?
GOODWIN: Not on Vietnam, but I certainly came to feel more empathy for him as a person. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody as interesting as LBJ. I mean, who else, when they’re in the middle of going to the bathroom, would have you come in and talk to them in the middle of it all?
SAGAL: Now wait a minute, we had heard that story about LBJ, that he would actually, in the middle of a conversation, often with the press, just walk into the bathroom, lower his pants, do his business while continuing the conversation. Did he do that with you?
GOODWIN: I mean, I was a staff member. It’s fine, it’s fine.
GOODWIN: I just didn’t get embarrassed. I just kept talking. I didn’t really look a lot, but I talked.
P.J. O’ROURKE: That was probably the best way to handle that, the not looking a lot part.
SAGAL: You went on, you’ve written – I mean, you’ve known primarily you won the Pulitzer Prize for your book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. Of course your book about Lincoln, “Team of Rivals,” was a huge bestseller, inspired a movie. Your new book is about Teddy Roosevelt, a huge, colorful figure.
Aren’t you cheating by just writing about the interesting ones?
GOODWIN: Yeah, I suppose so, but you know what? When it takes me so long as it does to write these books, it took me longer to write about FDR and Eleanor and World War II than the war took to be fought. It took me 10 years to write about Abraham Lincoln, seven about Teddy and Taft.
You’ve got to want to wake up with that person in the morning. So who are the most interesting presidents that most people want to write about? It’s these guys. So that means you have to come up with some angle if you can that’s a little different, which is why I ended up with the Cabinet of Lincoln or Teddy and Taft’s friendship instead of just Teddy. But it’s worth it to be able to wake up and love these guys that – I could never write about Hitler and Stalin. I’d never want to wake up with them in the morning or certainly go to sleep with them at night.

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