Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!
9:33 am
Sat January 18, 2014

Not My Job: Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin Gets Quizzed On The Future

Originally published on Sat January 18, 2014 10:02 am

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, The Bully Pulpit, 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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

PETER SAGAL, HOST:

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.

(APPLAUSE)

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: Yes.

AMY DICKINSON: No.

GOODWIN: I mean, I was a staff member. It's fine, it's fine.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Have you ever, like, gotten into a subject and realized oh my God this is dull, or I hate these people?

GOODWIN: Well if I do I stop because you can't go on. I mean, I was going to write about Pamela Harriman, a very interesting woman, but in the end I realized I wanted to write about somebody who would exercise power in her own right. So I ended up not doing that book.

I was going to write about Nelson Rockefeller once because somebody gave me the great opening scene, as you may know, that...

SAGAL: I have a great closing scene, if that's what you mean.

GOODWIN: That's what I mean.

SAGAL: I should say just for people who don't know this, Nelson Rockefeller, the vice president and governor and New York, died - I believe the phrase used to be...

O'ROURKE: In the saddle.

SAGAL: Or in flagrante delicto. Ms. Delicto was his secretary at the time, I think.

DICKINSON: But he was at his desk.

GOODWIN: No, I think what happened is when they realized what had happened, that he died in bed, the woman who was with him brought her friend over, and they seated him in a chair as if he were reading the Wall Street Journal.

(LAUGHTER)

GOODWIN: But the story that I heard was that the cop came in and knew that something was wrong because his left shoe was on his right foot and vice versa because they were so nervous.

SAGAL: Really, so you're saying...?

GOODWIN: So that would've been the opening of my book, but I decided I didn't know where to go after that, and I don't know how much of that was true, but it was a great story.

SAGAL: When you're focused in a book like you, I assume for the last seven years you were with this book about Roosevelt and Taft, do you get so focused that you can't stop focusing on it? When people say Doris, would you like some lunch, you say you know who ate lunch, Teddy Roosevelt ate lunch.

(LAUGHTER)

GOODWIN: I think you do, actually. I think that's what happens. You think about these people. You know, every time I saw somebody who was heavy, I'd think about William Howard Taft and wishing that he could stay on his diet. He had sort of like a (unintelligible) diet, and he was able to lose from 350 to 280 when he was happy, and then when he was sad he went up to 350.

SAGAL: Oh my God. Are you telling me - well, I wanted to ask you about this because your book is about Roosevelt and Taft, but as you say, we know a lot about Teddy Roosevelt. He's on Mount Rushmore. He's famous. Taft, all we know about him, all I knew about him, was that he had to have a custom-made bathtub in the White House because he was too big.

GOODWIN: And that is true. I mean he could fit four workmen into the bathtub. But I'll tell you what: He was a really decent guy, and there's more to him...

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: As it were. But you finished this book. It was a labor of seven years. It's out now. I mean, don't you want a break? Don't you want to write, I don't know, like a Shakira fan biography, say?

LUKE BURBANK: I already did that, so hands off.

DICKINSON: But she wrote - you wrote a baseball book and a novel, right?

GOODWIN: Well, the baseball book was the one book that was the short book, thank God, "Wait 'Til Next Year." It was about growing up in love with the Brooklyn Dodgers and my father having taught me how to keep score when I was a little girl so that I could record for him the history of that afternoon's Brooklyn Dodger game.

And I really did love doing that. I didn't have to do tons of research. It was memory. It was my childhood, and it brought my parents back to life. You know, instead of bringing these big old presidents back to life, my parents died when I was young, so it probably meant a lot more to me than all these other ones put together.

SAGAL: Wow.

DICKINSON: I love that book.

SAGAL: So I have to ask, Doris Kearns Goodwin, how about them Sox?

GOODWIN: Oh, it was the best summer of my life. It was so awesome. I mean just - you know, I promised myself as the summer was going along, because I was finishing this book, and I couldn't even be on television talking about the news because I wasn't even following it. The only thing I did was read the sports pages every day. Every day it seemed the Red Sox won.

So I kept telling myself I don't care if they win the World Series. I don't care what happens in the playoffs, they made me happy so long. But then of course they won the World Series. And I was at every playoff game and every World Series game. I even wore a beard one of the days.

SAGAL: Did you really?

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: And speaking as an esteemed historian, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, do in fact, in your scholarly opinion, the Yankees suck?

(LAUGHTER)

GOODWIN: Without a question.

SAGAL: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Well Doris Kearns Goodwin, we've invited you here to play a game we're calling...

CARL KASELL: To heck with dead presidents, these are the presidents of the future.

SAGAL: So you're an expert on the Presidents of the past, but what about the presidents of the future? We're going to ask you about three presidents yet to be, taken from science fiction movies and books. If you answer two questions correctly, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners, Carl's voice on their home answering machine, voice mail, whatever device they may have. Carl, who is historian Doris Kearns Goodwin playing for?

KASELL: Doris is playing for Julie Watson of Cooper City, Florida.

SAGAL: All right, you ready to play?

GOODWIN: Julie, you're in trouble, I can tell already.

SAGAL: This is going to be great. In a book by author Marc Winsland, President Fraser Bush takes office in 2505. What's notable about President Fraser Bush? A, he takes over for President Keith Richards, who lived a surprisingly long time given everything we know about him; B, he's the 27th member of the Bush family to hold the office; or C, in 2558, Robot Doris Kearns Goodwin writes a bestselling biography of him.

(LAUGHTER)

GOODWIN: I will say he's the 27th member of the Bush family.

SAGAL: You're right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: He is in this book, a novel a dystopian future, Mr. President Fraser Bush leaves office when he executed for collaborating with al-Qaeda.

In the book "The Accidental Time Machine," President Billy Cabot oversees the One Year War in the year 2180, which begins when what happens? A, the second coming of Jesus Christ happens in the Oval Office, Jesus appears; B, a nationwide shortage of maple syrup inspires to a surprise invasion of Canada; or C, President Cabot pushes the wrong button when ordering lunch and instead launches a nuclear weapon at Bermuda.

(LAUGHTER)

GOODWIN: Well, C is the most fun, so I'll choose C.

SAGAL: No, I'm afraid it is actually the second coming of Jesus.

GOODWIN: Maple syrup?

SAGAL: No.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Jesus comes back in the Oval Office, it turns out Jesus not nearly as much of a pacifist as we've been led to believe and has the president start a war.

OK, you have now one more chance to win. It comes down to this. We will go to a classic. It is "The Simpsons Movie." In "The Simpsons Movie," Itchy, the homicidal mouse from the "Itchy and Scratchy" cartoon show in "The Simpsons," Itchy gets elected President. Who does Itchy choose as his running mate? A, Dick Cheney because he wants someone, quote, with the same thirst for blood as I have; B, Homer Simpson, who campaigns under the slogan Yes We D'Oh; or C, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

GOODWIN: Well I don't think Hillary's funny, so I'd have to say Cheney (unintelligible).

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: That would be funnier. I'm afraid it was in fact Hillary Rodham Clinton.

GOODWIN: No kidding?

Oh my poor - I knew that poor person was not going to be happy with me.

SAGAL: No. Carl, how did Doris Kearns Goodwin...?

KASELL: She had one correct answer, Peter, but not enough to win for Julie Watson.

SAGAL: Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book, "The Bully Pulpit," about Teddy Roosevelt and his relationship with William Howard Taft, is out now. Doris Kearns Goodwin, thank you so much for joining us. What a pleasure to talk to you. Take care, Doris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAGAL: In just a minute, Carl meows in the listener limerick challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT, to join us on air.

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