On a Friday morning in April, Doris Kearns Goodwin sounds slightly panicked. The famed historian and writer is in a hurry to get home, and her driver is late.
“I have to get home in time,” Goodwin says firmly.
For what? you might ask. A book event? A conference on the progressive period? A historian’s roundtable?
No, “We have opening day today for the Red Sox.”
Goodwin’s passion for the Red Sox is almost as well-known as her passion for history. And that’s saying a lot, considering Goodwin, whose latest work is, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism,” has devoted most of her life to studying the past and writing about it in award-winning books on presidents.
She will share that passion in Greenville this week as featured speaker at an American History Book Club fundraiser.
The Thursday event benefits AMHC’s newly formed Scholars Fund, which will help create an internship for a Furman history major and create a stipend for a high school history teacher or student to research Southern history.
“The hope is that you’ll help create another Doris Kearns Goodwin, someone who will fall in love with history,” says Emilyn Sanders, spokeswoman for the book club.
That Goodwin is able to capture those seemingly peripheral details is part of her mastery. She spends years and, in some cases, decades scouring newspaper archives, boxes of letters and collections of diaries to discern a full picture, not just of her subjects but of those around them.
Goodwin says she often ends up feeling as if she knows the presidents she writes about personally, like they were old friends. In conversation, the writer often refers to the presidents that have become her book subjects by their first names or as “my guys.”
“It’s true, I’ve spent my life with these dead presidents,” Goodwin says with a hearty laugh. “You wake up with them every morning and you’re thinking about them when you go to bed at night. You do feel like you know them.”
Goodwin’s books have won acclaim for her ability to give history energy and make it relevant to readers today. She won the Pulitzer Prize for “No Ordinary Time,” which explored the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” was inspiration for the Oscar-winning film, “Lincoln.” And DreamWorks already has purchased the film rights to “Bully Pulpit.”
Goodwin’s mastery is in her ability to describe extraordinary events while also conveying the details of everyday life, Sanders says.
“History is simply telling stories,” Sanders says. “I don’t think anything strengthens a nation like reading a common story. And she is a marvelous storyteller.”
Goodwin has spent many years honing her ability to recreate periods of times past in informative and compelling ways. She spent seven on “The Bully Pulpit” and a full decade on “Team of Rivals.”
“I know it’s going to take me so long to work on it that I have to find somebody that I feel respect and affection for, even if they have their flaws like everybody does,” Goodwin says. “I don’t think I could write a book about a Hitler or a Stalin, and have to wake up with them every morning.”
Goodwin didn’t set out to become the go-to writer about presidents, but Lyndon Johnson pushed her toward that path. She worked as an aide to the president after college and later worked on his memoirs. Her first book was “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” in 1977.
“You take it for granted when you’re young, but when you’re older you realize what a privilege that was,” Goodwin says. “To spend hours listening to this formidable, fascinating, incredibly interesting character.”
Before she travels to Greenville, Goodwin will be in Austin to participate in a summit commemorating Johnson and the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
“In time we can look back, and he did more for civil rights than any president since Abraham Lincoln,” Goodwin says. “It’s one of those moments, I think, when anniversaries really can recall a second look at a president, and he deserves it. He really does.”
You might say it has become Goodwin’s pseudo-mission to tell the lesser known stories of well-known people. Her passion for finding the peripheral stories has developed out of her penchant for choosing popular subjects to write about, she says.
“You have to figure out a fresh angle if you can,” Goodwin says.
And by all accounts, she has. In “Bully Pulpit,” that meant looking at Roosevelt and Taft’s friendship and the muckrakers of the day. In “No Ordinary Time,” it meant examining the Roosevelts’ partnership and the home front, and in “Team of Rivals,” it meant looking at Lincoln’s rivals.
“This is my rationalization about why the books take so long,” Goodwin says with a laugh.
Goodwin’s research has illuminated the value of certain sources. Some of the most useful information has come from letters, personal diaries and newspapers, all of which can help cast light on a single day long gone. It makes one wonder how today will be written about in the future.