THE ELBERT FILES: Putting problems in perspective
Friday, January 18, 2013 7:00 AM
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is a bit of an optimist; it comes with the job.
Taking a long view levels out events like the Vietnam War or Iran-Contra or even Watergate. For historians, events that seem disjointed and messy up close fold into patterns not always apparent in real time, but which ultimately determine how progress is measured.
Goodwin was the speaker at the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s annual dinner last Tuesday evening. She has written biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson and is working on a new book about the complicated relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
I spoke with her by telephone the week before the event from her home in Concord, Mass., and asked how the problems faced by President Barak Obama compare with those faced by presidents who were subjects of her books.
It’s not the problems that are causing the difficulty today, she said, as much as it is the culture.
“Forty or fifty years ago, there was a political culture in Washington where Congressmen formed friendships across party lines,” Goodwin said.
“They weren’t going home every weekend to raise money, as they do now. They would drink together on weekends, or play poker together. The districts were more swing districts, so there was more pressure for moderation on both sides.”
Another factor that bound both parties together was the shared experience of World War II, she said.
An attitude of “we are all in this together” continued into Johnson’s presidency when Republican Senator Everett Dirksen helped break the filibuster on civil rights legislation. And it was still evident in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was able to work with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Goodwin said.
As bad as it may seem today, she said, dysfunctional political cultures are not new.
“Certainly, it’s not as bad as the 1850s when they were carrying revolvers on the Senate floor and Senator (Charles) Sumner (of Massachusetts) was hit on the head” with a cane by South Carolina’s Preston Brooks, who continued to beat the unconscious Sumner bloody, Goodwin said.
“We are not at that level,” she said. But today’s problems are exacerbated by a news media that focuses on polarization and by the fact that people today have short attention spans.
When I spoke with Goodwin, she was still working on her presentation, which she said would focus on leadership and the relationship between FDR and Teddy Roosevelt and the business leaders of their times.
“FDR’s relationship with the business community in the 1930s was one of great hostility, until he finally realized in 1940 the only way to mobilize for the war and convert industries was for him to form a partnership with the business community,” she said. “That’s when he brings business leaders into his government and ends his war with business.”
Teddy Roosevelt also had complicated relations with business leaders, which Goodwin said she will explore in the speech.
When I asked about Obama’s place in history, she said, Obama will, of course, be remembered as the first African American president and the president “who got health care passed after 100 years of other presidents trying.”
“A lot depends on the second term, because all of the great presidents have had a second term, pretty much,” she said.
“The next year will make a big difference.”
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