A Love Letter to Concord: A Conversation with Doris Kearns Goodwin
BY JENNIFER C. SCHÜNEMANNN
Nestled in the sitting room of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s beautiful Concord home, I find myself in a cozy atmosphere that downplays the importance of the leather-bound volumes surrounding us as we chat. Photos of Doris and her late husband, Richard N. Goodwin (Dick Goodwin, as he was widely known), are hung alongside images of the Queen of England, Presidents – both Democrat and Republican, and even Che Guevara.
These portraits are intermingled with family photos and treasures brought back from faraway lands. The impressive woman in front of me is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a frequent guest on news channels and talk shows, a world-renowned speaker, a powerful role model, and a sought-after mentor. Today, however, in this inviting home designed as much for family and entertaining friends as it is for creating award-winning books, I have the true pleasure of sitting with my friend and neighbor to talk about her amazing life.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s interest in leadership began more than half a century ago, as a professor at Harvard. Her experiences working for Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House and later assisting him on his memoirs led to her first book Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. She followed up with the Pulitzer Prizewinning No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor and the Home Front in World War II. She earned the Lincoln Prize for the runaway bestseller Team of Rivals, the basis for Steven Spielberg’s award-winning film “Lincoln”, and the Carnegie Medal for The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. These presidents became affectionately known to Doris as “her guys” and they form the basis of her discussions around leadership.
“After five decades of studying presidential history, examining these men through the lens of leadership allowed me to discover so many new things about them that I felt as if I was meeting them for the first time,” she said. “Their stories have provided me a lifetime of joy as an historian and continue to be a source of great inspiration.”
That inspiration produced another New York Times bestseller in the form of her latest work Leadership In Turbulent Times, which was released a year ago to international acclaim. While the book focuses on historical examples of leadership, readers will draw important lessons as they relate to our current times. A paperback version will be released on October 1st of this year.
Of Presidents and Politics…
Doris’ late husband, Dick Goodwin, was a luminary in the world of politics and public policy. He was often a key witness to – and sometimes an instrumental engineer of – important political events at home and abroad. After John F. Kennedy’s assassination, it was Dick Goodwin who arranged for an eternal flame to be lit at the presidential burial site in Arlington National Cemetery. Later that year, when Robert F. Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles, it was Dick Goodwin who sat vigil with family members and other aides, until Kennedy was pronounced dead.
Dick drafted many important political speeches, including JFK’s first major address on Latin American Affairs, Robert Kennedy’s 1966 “Ripple of Hope” anti-apartheid speech, and even Al Gore’s concession speech after the 2000 election.
President Johnson relied on this young advisor to craft one of the most famous speeches in Presidential history after the Selma demonstrations in March of 1965. “Dick had the night off that Sunday,” recounted Doris. “So they assigned the speech to someone else. President Johnson came in the next morning to ask ‘how is Dick Goodwin coming along with my speech?’ So Dick was pulled in that Monday morning to write one of the most important speeches in modern history in just nine hours!”
The resulting “We Shall Overcome” speech propelled a nation forward and led to the historic Voting Rights Act. Dick referenced the importance of what would become his hometown with the momentous line:
“At times, history and fate meet at a single time, in a single place, to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom,” drawing a direct line from our shared American history at Lexington and Concord, to the events at Appomattox and Selma.
The events in Selma in 1965 inspired Dick Goodwin to write one of his most important speeches - propelling the nation forward and leading to the historic Voting Rights Act.
In Search of Community, Culture, and Calm
When Dick and Doris met and married, they sought out a home that could bring her love of the city together with his yearning for the quiet contemplation of the countryside. The town of Concord – with its transcendentalist heritage and a thriving town center - was the ideal fit for them both. “I was always a city girl, while Dick loved the beauty of the countryside,” said Doris. “Concord was this perfect combination of what we both were looking for. There is a delightful town center with so much of what was important to me – great restaurants, curious shops, culture and history just all around us. Boston was close by. Dick could have his pond and his garden, as well as rolling countryside and natural treasures like Walden Pond.”
Together, the work of Dick and Doris Goodwin would both bridge and continue the important traditions that form the basis of Concord culture – a passion for social justice, drawing inspiration from nature, and a dedication to holding leadership accountable and speaking truth to power.
Thoreau was on to Something…
Anyone who knows Doris will tell you that she travels the world and routinely signs up for demanding speaking tours. And yet, her orbit brings her back home with regularity. She routinely joins friends at one of the local bars and restaurants several times each week. Why come all the way back to Concord for just an evening, only to catch a flight to Singapore the next day?
Is she perhaps tapping into the same ‘something’ that moved Henry David Thoreau to exclaim in 1856: “I have never got over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in all the world, and in the very nick of time, too.”
She may not have been born here, but moving to Concord definitely shaped Doris’ career as a presidential historian. “When you love history as much as I do, you find yourself living layers at the same time. A big part of the history of the country is right here in Concord. To be able to walk across the North Bridge, to see the re-enactment of the battle of April 19th, to know that our literary legacy is all around us – Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau – and to feel that sense of time being ALIVE right now…I can’t imagine a better place to let my own history come alive every day.”
The rhythm and ritual of meeting up with friends at the end of a long day is also something that has always drawn Doris back to Concord. “To me, Concord is home. Concord is stability. Concord is friends. Once the children were grown, it became part of our routine – for more than 20 years – that Dick and I would go out at night. We would meet up at one of the neighborhood bars to talk about our day, to laugh together, and to relax with friends. Getting home in time for ‘dinner’ became a loadstar for me.”
Even when her husband became ill with cancer, their tradition did not waver. “We would still go out to dinner. And afterward, on our way home, Dick would say, ‘I love Concord. This is the most beautiful town in America.’ It gave our marriage a circle of friends that we would see night after night… and there is something in that ritual that gave us a sense of having an enlarged home.”
Life changed for Doris a little over a year ago, when her beloved husband passed away at the age of 86. “My close friends and family helped me so much through a very hard time. My son, Michael, moved back to the house to be there for me. He and the grandkids being here was so important. My son Joe and his family were also close by. I appreciate all that love and support so much.”
In a statement issued just after his death, Doris commented: “It was the adventure of a lifetime being married for 42 years to this incredible force of nature – the smartest, most interesting, most loving person I have ever known. How lucky I have been to have had him by my side as we built our family and our careers together – surrounded by close friends in a community we love.”
In this new chapter of her life, Doris plans to complete Dick’s unfinished book. “My husband had an extraordinary life of public service. His book is really about his unwavering belief that – as difficult as times might be – the ideals of America endure.”
“Dick didn’t just write amazing speeches. He was a major influence on public policy. He organized the task forces, crafted the messages, helped pass the legislation, and then crafted the celebrations. And he saved everything!”
“More than 100 boxes of White House files, letters, memos to presidents, photographs, and memorabilia traveled with us everywhere we went,” said Doris. “Through Dick’s collected papers, the promise and heartbreak of the dramatic decade of the 1960s comes to life as never before. We are in conversations now with several universities and presidential libraries to find the right home for this extraordinary archive.”
But for Doris, it’s about more than the archive. “All of us want our story told,” she said. “It may not be told on Mt. Rushmore or through monuments in Washington as is true for the presidents I have studied, but I can help make sure that my husband’s extraordinary story is told, and that people will continue to remember Richard Goodwin for generations to come.”
You can find a signed copy of some of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s books right in Concord Center at the Concord Bookshop. To learn more about the amazing woman we here in Concord have the privilege of calling friend and neighbor, please visit www.DorisKearnsGoodwin.com
A House of Books
The amazing body of work built over the lifetimes of both Richard N. Goodwin and Doris Kearns Goodwin represents a true national treasure. Together, the work they produced has helped to not only shape policy and politics, but also to produce insightful perspectives on the impact that leaders have on our country. “It’s almost impossible to separate our work from each other,” said Doris. “It made an enormous difference that we both loved history – and that he had had such a life in public service.” With Dick’s passing, Doris eventually realized that their large home with so many memories was going to be too much to manage on her own. So she made the decision to downsize to a condominium in Boston. But Concord will never be far away - geographically or in her heart.
“In simplifying my life, I find myself going back to my city girl roots where I don’t need to worry about who will plow the driveway or tend to the garden while I travel…but I know that I’ll be back in Concord most every week,” she said. “This town – my grandkids, my friends, my family, the incredibly special people who live here – they are all part of who I am. Just as I chose Concord years ago because it was close enough to allow me to go into the city, I am now moving to Boston precisely because it is close enough to Concord to allow me to come back to see the people I love so dearly. These two places have always been connected in one orbit for me – it’s just that the balance of it will shift a little bit in this new chapter of my life,” said Doris.
Leaving the rambling house that has provided space for the thousands of books the Goodwins have collected over the years will not be easy. Fiction resides in the great room, presidential works line one hallway, poetry and drama live in an upstairs study, while history and biography are side by side in floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookcases on each wall of a library that was once a three-car garage.
A fellow Concordian, Henry David Thoreau, once wrote: “Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.” And we here in Concord will forever be grateful for the sparkling treasure gathered here by this brilliant couple.