THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Doris Kearns Goodwin
Title: “Another Dynasty: The Kennedys”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And today’s program represents something of a personal imperative. For late in 1966 as an erstwhile American historian, I wrote a concerned, even angry letter to the New York Times. We were 1000 days then into Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, so enormously achieving as it was in domestic matters. It was that long, too, since an assassin’s bullets had ended John F. Kennedy’s own 1000 extraordinary days of national enrichment when, for a people that seemed to have forgotten, the dynamic underlying principles of the American heritage were somehow given new meaning and new strength in the very person of a vigorous and courageous leader. Yet, in The Times, distinguished historian Thomas A. Bailey had just argued that since, in his words, “History is written by intellectuals” – those likely to be more impressed with Harvard than with Southwest Texas State Teachers College – “In future decades we will probably rate Kennedy somewhat above and Johnson somewhat below their desserts”. My concern, however, was that history is written merely by historians, who in judging presidents, too frequently resort to the dichotomy of deeds versus ideals, to the inadequate calculus of legislative acts passed, who ignore the various yardsticks by which we might measure our leaders, who lack either the wisdom or the compassion that would permit us to evaluate the greatness not alone of deeds done, but of ideas and ideals inspired. And now, after all these years, I have the enormous pleasure of speaking here on The Open Mind with the superb writer/historian who has so perceptively dealt with both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, perhaps the yin and the yang of American life: Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose new Simon and Schuster volume, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys – an American Saga, is truly compelling…and really ought to be read along with her earlier study of Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. So I welcome you here and thank you for this wonderful book. And wonder whether, in this instance, the sins of the father had been visited upon the sons as we read of tragedy after tragedy in the Kennedy home?
Goodwin: Well, you know, as I came to think about the question, and it’s one of the ones I think all of the American public always asks, “How could they have endured so much tragedy? How could they have reached such heights?” The two are connected, in a way. Not that they brought about their tragedies, but here was a family that lead enormously adventurous lives, that always were pushing against rules of convention, from the earliest times. The book opens with the birth of an immigrant in the North End, the slums of Boston. He made his way from that situation to become the first child of immigrant parents to be the mayor of Boston. In order to do that you have to keep pushing, you have to defy convention. And when you break the rules, things happen to you sometimes. And then you have his daughter, Rose Fitzgerald marrying Joe Kennedy, they break even more rules and they become millionaires and their child becomes the first Catholic to be the President of the United States. And always that tendency to push against the rules, it’s almost Shakespearean in a certain sense. Something happens. Not Kennedy’s death, but much earlier in this family where you see Joe Jr. dying in World War II on a mission he didn’t have to fight. But he had to fight it because of himself, not because they told him to. Kathleen Kennedy dies in a plane crash because she wanted to get somewhere, the weather was bad, but she went anyway. So that sense that characters fate is really interwoven in this tale, and it’s what makes it so absorbing for me.
Heffner: Not in the same way, of course, but then the two younger brothers, John and Robert, dead too, by assassin’s bullets. You know, all of it made me wonder, I identify you so with that extraordinary book on Lyndon Johnson, why the movement from Johnson to Kennedy?
Goodwin: Oh, I’ve thought about that so many times, there are so many times when I imagined Lyndon Johnson sitting there and thinking “How could you have betrayed me and now turned to my nemesis, John Kennedy?”. But there’s lots of reasons why the movement. You know as much as I got to know President Johnson and really had become a close friend of his, in the last years of his life, I always felt an outsider to Texas. I was brought up in New York,, my family were Irish immigrants, and every time I’d pick up a book in the library about the cowboys and the western myth, I knew it wasn’t my background and I couldn’t really understand it. He would try and show me all these things, he’d try to get me on a horse and he’d try to make me feel at home in Texas, but I never really was. So in a certain sense the genesis of this book was that their story starts in the Catholic immigrant slums. And that’s where my family came from, so I felt much more at home with that story. But I think the other side of it is in a sense what you were saying at the start of the program. Which is that Kennedy and Johnson do represent opposite things. One had it all, it seemed, in terms of projecting ideals and inspiring the country, the other one was going a long distance as Lyndon Johnson was, to making those ideals real. And we feel very differently about those two people. And I wanted to try and think about that because it’s so much a part of our heritage to have that practical side and the ideal side mixed together.
Heffner: You know, the viewer doesn’t know, the book ends as John F. Kennedy takes the oath of office. And that’s a very touching scene, as his father stands, as he passes in the motorcade, and as he stands to greet his father. You had to be making comparisons between the two men. Your book here ends before the presidency, really. Johnson, the story is of what his Presidency becomes, and of the nature of the man who was President of the United States. How do you…this question is going to be asked again and again and again, let me ask it now.
Goodwin: Well, you know, the interesting thing is, before I did the research on the book, which has taken, I’m embarrassed to admit, ten years and I had access to Joe Kennedy’s private papers, so there was a treasure chest of letters to those kids and, and the kids themselves, as young people that I had never understood before, my perception is that the comparison would have been, the difference between a confident man, as I saw John F. Kennedy being, who was at ease with himself and projected that ease to the country versus Lyndon Johnson, who I saw fundamentally as a vulnerable man, who needed love from so many people and was always reaching out for that love and as a result was more susceptible to being hurt, than John Kennedy was. But in fact, as I got into this book, it was clear to me that John Kennedy while he had enormous confidence in his intellectual ability, and in his ability to charm people, had had a much tougher childhood than I had realized. He had been much sicker than I ever knew. I mean out of school for months, for years at a time, living with pain almost every day of his life and had a much tougher time in his family situation, being the second brother with Joe Jr. being the one that everything was expected from. And I think the way he worked himself out of that situation, of personal pain and of psychological pain, was to charm people in smaller and then larger and larger circles. Which is exactly what Lyndon Johnson did. I mean it’s a certain commonality in political people when there’s something sad inside them that can’t be met, then they need to have larger and larger numbers somehow filling that up. So they were less dissimilar than I thought by the time I finished this book.
Heffner: But that’s true of achievers, generally, isn’t it?
Goodwin: I think that’s right. I mean if you’re really getting love from the people you need it from, then why in the world would you ever want to go and talk to millions of people and, you know, the thing I used to think about Lyndon Johnson when I saw him so sad at the end of his life, sitting alone and wanting to have millions of people around him, was why can’t he get enough comfort the, a wife and children who loved him. But they can’t. It’s as if some hole has been taken place in their soul and it’s, it’s too big to fill up. But if you have that inside you, you don’t need to go out. I mean, who would want to?
Heffner: The better president?
Goodwin: The better President between Johnson and Kennedy?
Goodwin: Oh, very tough question.
Goodwin: I mean in a certain way, you can see them separately because without Kennedy having set the stage by helping to bring forth the forces of the civil rights movement, of the concern with poverty, of the concern with making America more in turn, in touch with its ideals, then Lyndon Johnson would never have been able to have that momentum going to get all that stuff through the Congress. Without Johnson getting it through the Congress, John F. Kennedy’s career would have fallen short. So they really belong together in a way that neither one is as full without the other.
Heffner: I think that’s so interesting. I, I read at the beginning, referred to the letter that I wrote in, in anger at the assumption that what you had here was a man of some ideas, who accomplished nothing and then the real President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson. But you see them as opposite sides of the same coin.
Goodwin: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Heffner: You know you, you used the word “nemesis” before, you said what would Johnson have said if you had moved then to his nemesis? But you make, so touchingly, the point when you, when you do refer to both men in the other volume on Johnson. You say that there was real respect and affection between the two men.
Goodwin: Oh, I think that’s true. I mean, I think John Kennedy always had a respect for a person who was in touch with, with other people. And he could see that Lyndon Johnson had an incredible psychic ability to understand other people. And he loved the stories Johnson told. Johnson was one of the best storytellers we’ve ever had in American politics. If he hadn’t been so curtained by his terrible appearances on television where he sat there with those glasses and that podium, we would have known that. Kennedy knew that. He loved the old Irish stories that the old crazy politicians used to tell in Boston. So there was a side of Kennedy that really liked that and was interested in that. And at the same time, I think Johnson respected that Kennedy had that breeding and that class that he seemed to project and could speak in front of an audience in a way that he, Lyndon Johnson, knew he never could. And it was only Bobby Kennedy that became the person that Johnson allowed all of his anger that might have been unconsciously there toward John Kennedy, to be taken out on, because Bobby didn’t have what John Kennedy had in his judgment, and he was getting all the benefits from John Kennedy’s association.
Heffner: You know, in the beginning of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, you say, “It is a tale repeated in three generations of great achievement, followed by decline and failure. Self-inflicted or at the hands of a merciless fate”. Does that tell us something about the Kennedys who remain with us today?
Goodwin: I don’t know, you know, I mean I think certainly one of the things we know about the Kennedys who remain with us today and it, we’ve just been through the campaign of young Joe Kennedy up in Massachusetts and it was treated as almost front page news on the newspapers every day. That fascination is still, prevails with the family. So too does the public legacy, prevail that those kids feel, and there’s so many of them out there, I mean there was a cartoon in one of the Boston newspapers of Congress in the year 2000, and the speaker calling the role, “Miss Kennedy? Aye; Miss Kennedy? Aye; Mr. Kennedy? Aye”. You know, it’s probably going to happen, there’s going to be a group of them that are going to go into public life, because the legacy that came down from John Fitzgerald is the first Mayor of Boston of Irish immigrants is still inside those kids and it makes that value a preeminent value that they want to follow. So, in that sense, that’s with us. Whether they, they too will seems to have that defiance of the rules and that sense of living beyond what ordinary people can, some of that comes from publicity, some of it comes from celebrity hood, some of it comes from having lived with what they’ve lived with in the past, the deaths of their parents, the deaths of their grandparents, they feel different from other people and sometimes that can lead to this kind of cycle that i mention which tragedy comes in the end.
Heffner: The book is called, of course, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. I had the feeling starting and I admit, even at the end of the book, that it was the Kennedys and it was the Kennedy heritage maybe because Joe Kennedy loomed so much larger than I had expected him to.
Goodwin: Well, there’s no question that at the heart of the story of the Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds, is Joe Kennedy. But what interested me as I got into this is that, remember one time when I was down interviewing Rose Kennedy in Florida and she said to me, “You know no one really knows that it’s the Fitzgeralds that got us into politics in the first place” and she was really feisty about. She used to take these walks at night with me, and I would be always so worried that she would fall in a pothole and hurt her, you know, hip and that I would be the one responsible. Meanwhile she knew where every pothole was and she’d say, “Be careful, dearie, there’s one over there, now don’t fall in”. And as she walked, she would talk and she would say, “You know my family was in politics long before Joe’s was and my father was the Mayor of Boston, and his father was a boss of East Boston, and that’s where my kids got the heritage from”. And that, I think is true. When, when they were little she’s the one that used to take them to the Bunker Hill Monument, to all the historic sites in Boston and instill in them the glory of public service. Joe at that time was a businessman, it was only later that Joe came into politics. But once he came into the New Deal and once he got his heart set on his kids breaking all those social barriers that he couldn’t break, he becomes the dominant figure by far.
Heffner: You know the two people who I see as parallel, not Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy, but Lyndon Johnson and Joe Kennedy. There seems to be a strength there that is unmatched, paralleled though between those two men.
Goodwin: I agree with you. They reminded me a lot of each other, in both of them there was a certain scar from their childhood in not feeling that they were fully accepted. I mean Lyndon Johnson was one of the smartest men I ever knew, but the fact that he had gone to Southwest State Teachers College and not to Harvard always grated on his soul. So, too, Joe Kennedy was one of the most charming men, when he wanted to be, that anyone ever knew, but the fact that he hadn’t been accepted earlier in these ridiculous social clubs, at Harvard, the Porcellian club and then later at the Cohasset Country Club, because he was Irish, always grated against him. So they brought that bitterness with them to their arenas, but it became a forge for them and they drove on, both of them and they, nothing could stop them because nothing could satisfy them. You don’t even know, in a certain sense, like at the end of the book when, when Joe Kennedy stands there and his son, the President, is bowing to him really and saying “You did it, Daddy”, you’ve got to feel that he may have reached his sense of satisfaction. And yet on the other hand, you would have thought Lyndon Johnson had it when he won by the overwhelming majority in ’64, and he didn’t, he never had it. When you don’t’ have it inside you, as neither one of those did, you can never be satisfied. But it means that you’re titanic and they’re both titanic figures.
Heffner: What Joe Kennedy did have inside of himself and that impressed me so, was a feeling toward war that…you treat him, it’s interesting, you, you of course touch on, you do more than touch on, you develop the matter of Kennedy’s period as Ambassador to the Court of St. James, of his negative attitude toward our involvement in the war, of the indifference that Joe Jr. and Joe Sr. had to, or the seeming difference that they had to what was going on in Hitler’s Germany. And yet I come away from the book not so much with the older feeling that I’ve always had that he didn’t’ care about what happened to the Jews in Germany, but rather that he was a man who, in particular, was concerned about war and the ravages of war, and that is what informed his actions. Is that fair?
Goodwin: I think that’s absolutely fair. I mean I came away from reading all of his papers, feeling that if he’d only had the courage of his convictions, he should have been from World War I on, a pacifist. But he was too practical-minded to allow himself to label himself and as a result he got into a real mess later on because it seemed like he was acting from other motives and those other motives were there, but…starting way back in World War I, I mean there was this incredibly interesting story when a bunch of his friends were about to go into the war and they were all excited and enthusiastic about it, a all he could see, even before others saw what a waste World War I was, was what a waste war is. Here’s a very practical man, who wants business to go on, who wants to produce things, who wants the world to go on making things. He sees war as the antithesis of all that. He’s like a Dreiser character in a way, who’s so preoccupied with making the world work, that he does understand the craziness of war. And he really felt that, he got no pleasure from the patriotism, the marching soldiers, he was very against World War I and then he was very against any kind of possibilities that world War II might happen. But as I say, because he was involved in that world of public affairs, he couldn’t label himself because he would have thought he would have looked like a wimp, impossibility. So as a result he never was believable as, as being a pacifist.
Heffner: What do you think? It’s one of those “iffy” questions, what do you think of that heritage would have meant for John F. Kennedy’s Presidency had he lived and had Vietnam come to loom larger?
Goodwin: Well, you know, in a funny sense John Kennedy had a part of that distaste for war in him, but it was countered by that heroism that he was projected as having had in World War II. When you look at his letters from the Pacific, what they’re mostly about is “I don’t understand really why everybody’s feeling so pleased at the prospect of this war going on longer, because all I see is the waste”. I mean he had, he had absorbed some of his father’s attitudes on that. And then suddenly he’s in a situation where he’s made a hero, he comes back and his whole political campaign is premised on being a war hero. So it seems as if he feels very positive about war, but underneath he shared his father’s feelings. And yet he comes into the 1960s at a time when Communism is still a threat that people are feeling, at least politically you have to feel it’s a threat. So that macho side of him is the side that gets projected because that’s the politically important side to be projected. And I think that’s the side that helped to string him into the very Vietnam that later un-did Lyndon Johnson. Whether he would have been able to stop if before Lyndon Johnson did is one of those “ifs” of questions that I don’t know the answer to.
Heffner: Of course, you’re not going to have to off the answer if you don’t go back and finish this book.
Goodwin: That’s right.
Heffner: Are you going to?
Goodwin: I don’t know. You know, for me the reason I stopped at the inauguration…there were lots of reasons. I think one is that in addition to writing about the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, these incredibly interesting families, I also wanted to write about the story of the immigrant saga in America. Because here was one of these enormously important immigrant groups, the Irish, who had never really fully broken through, until John Kennedy became president. So it ended when he was president. And it was also a story about family. I mean what interested me…coming away from the Lyndon Johnson experience, what so saddened me was here was a man, though his family loved him, who got no sustenance from them at the end of his life because he was too alone, too driven by his power. And I saw him so sad down there on the ranch with no hobbies, no interests, nothing to keep his days going, because power had been taken from him. And I got frightened in myself that if that ever happened to me, I was then single, I was the same way as him in miniature, I loved my work so much that i would do it twenty hours a day.. So I retreated. I went back to Harvard and then eventually I got married and had children and what so fascinated me about this family is that though they, too, are driven, there’s no question their drive is as strong as Lyndon Johnson’s, but it somehow is mediated by the family. And the family was always there as a crutch for them, as a shield and a protection at times and sometimes in bad ways. But that family story also comes to an end at the presidency. Because once you get into the presidency, you can’t be writing about how they’re relating to one another, you have to write about the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, you have to put your focus in a different way. And as an old Presidential historian, I couldn’t have really gotten away with just caring about the family. I care about public policy in this book as history. But I had to stop there. Whether I’ll ever go back later, I don’t know.
Heffner: That’s still, for me, the question.
Goodwin: Someday, maybe. Not right away, though. I mean after you’ve been living with something for ten years…what kept me going on this book so long was that each stage was a different part. You start with the life of the immigrants in the thirteenth century and then you get to World War I and then, the stock market of the twenties, which I loved learning about, I never knew anything about what it was like and o try and understand Joe, the buccaneer and the twenties, I have to understand that. So then another year I’m on the New Deal, another year I’m on World War II and then the fifties and finally 1960 and 61. It was such a rich historical period. In comparison, at the moment, the 1960s would be going over the same ground again that I went through with Lyndon Johnson. So sometimes I think I’d like to go back to somebody way back…Abraham Lincoln, George Washington.
Heffner: We’re not going to let you get away with that. I mean you’ve got to bring the Kennedys up to date. But you know, when you do, there was something that made me wonder whether you were commenting…in, in your book…whether you were commenting not negatively necessarily, but less than positively or enthusiastically about JFK. You said “It was a decade marked by the decline of political parties, the rise of television and the transformation of politics into public relations. A decade perfectly suited to the engaging personality of John Fitzgerald Kennedy”. And to me it was almost as if you were saying his surfacing as president of the United States was more a function of the way we were and of what was happening on the public relations scene and the politics scene, etc, than of the inner strength and the inner meaning of this man to the American people.
Goodwin: Well, that’s partly true. I mean I think the timing of his success was related to the decade, in the sense that he was so young and he emerged much more quickly than other people thought he would. There were all these professional politicians who had been around so much longer than he was, why did he make it? And I think part of the reason he made it was, as I suggested, that he had the qualities that were necessary at that time. He was the first television personality. However, if he hadn’t made it then and if, if that personality hadn’t been so suited for the time, I think he had the drive, I think he had the intelligence and I think he had the fortitude more than I would have realized until I took this study on, to have kept going. I don’t think he was going to get out of politics had he lost that first time. They’re not used to losing, the Kennedys. So it would have been a really interesting test to see what would have happened had he lost to Nixon and whether or not that had strengthened him or whether that had taken away that inner core of confidence that came from…essentially, essentially being winners all the time. ’56 wasn’t really a loss, when he lost the Vice Presidency, it was immediately interpreted as a victory. So that’s the question you never know. How politicians handle defeat tells you enormous amounts about them and we don’t’ really know that about John Kennedy.
Heffner: But, of course, I remember in, in 1960 when so many of my friends, my liberal friends, were dismissing Kennedy and after his victory saying he was the right man but only in terms of the right time. He was there at the right place in the right time.
Goodwin: But you see what he had, which I think I discovered and, and more than I had realized was, because he had been sick for so long as a child, more than the other kids in the Kennedy family who had an enormously active life, and were so active sometimes they didn’t contemplate very much. He had read more than most of them and as a result of reading he had a sense of history, I mean certainly a greater sense of history than this Mr. Reagan has brought with him to the Presidency. And I think as an historian that matters a lot. He brought with him a sense of where America was, where it had come, because he had read a lot. And not to say he was an intellectual, he certainly wasn’t. He was too active to be that. But that was something substantial inside of him, he wore it lightly, he didn’t go around quoting it so that people didn’t see that. But I think that that’s what would have worn out as time went by, had he stayed in office longer.
Heffner: Well, Harry Truman had that sense.
Goodwin: Absolutely. And it was one of the best things about Harry Truman.
Heffner: And FDR had that sense. Did Lyndon Johnson?
Goodwin: Curiously, he didn’t. I mean Lyndon Johnson had a visceral sense of history. He had a sense of his favorite presidents, they were Jackson and Lincoln and FDR, of course. And he knew who he was there at certain and that he wanted to be the greatest president that ever lived. I mean Johnson had that obsession of being the greatest of anything. The tallest, the biggest, the fattest, the greatest. So in that sense he compared himself to other people in history, but he didn’t have a feeling for what’s possible at certain times. And, and where the limits are. Or he would have seen the limits of Vietnam earlier, I think.
Heffner: Then the others did have that sense?
Goodwin: I think so. I mean I do think they had that and I think maybe the best thing that can be said about Kennedy is perhaps he didn’t push the limits enough in the first part of his presidency. He saw the limits all too clearly, of the small majority he had, of the Congressional opposition. Lyndon Johnson was such a bull that he could go through those limits and he had less limits when he got in there because of Kennedy’s death as I said earlier. But in some ways that constrained Kennedy but hopefully that might have constrained him on the other end, to realize that you can’t do what you want. Johnson was…had to believe “I can make Vietnam work”. Cause he didn’t have that historical sense of limits.
Heffner: You know, I’m getting the signal we only have a couple of minutes left and I want to ask you a question. I don’t know quite …it’s an indelicate question in a sense. But it has to do with the biographer’s obligations. On this program we talked about docu-drama. And the responsibilities that you take on when the impression that the public receives is that this is the way it was. when you write biography and you do it on the intimate events of your subject’s life, what is invention, how much invention do you permit yourself and how much in this book can we assume is “Well that’s the way it is”, it isn’t Doris Kearns Goodwin’s approach to it, it’s what happened.
Goodwin: Oh, it’s a wonderful question. You know…and the best way I think I can answer its…I, I did as much research as I could to create scenes, so that I could create for the reader the situations in which the characters were making the decisions of that time in their own light. So that it wasn’t’ me projecting years later on to them. And I thought I had enough material that I really understood it, but I remember one day when I was in Palm Beach and house was so quiet and I was the only one there and I kept saying to myself, “Suppose I could really be back forty years ago, seeing it as it really was at the time, wouldn’t I trade that insight or the readers could see it as it really was, for all of this stuff that I’ve put together”, and I had to say to myself, “Of course”. All you can do as a biographer is to shape it the way you saw it. And you have to let the reader know when you’re doing that. And that’s why I have so many footnotes in the back, they can check everything because I really think that’s important. But that’s the best you can do and hope that it seems legitimate as they understand the characters that you’ve portrayed.
Heffner: Charles A. Beard once said or once wrote that all written history is an act of faith and I wonder whether that isn’t’ even truer of the biographer.
Goodwin: Oh, I think that’s right. You start out and you know there’s got to be some design to these people’s lives, but you’re not sure there even will be. And when it finally turned out in my judgment that these three generations had patterns in them, it was as if my faith had been answered.
Heffner: Doris Kearns Goodwin, I’m so grateful to you for being here today and for having written The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Thank you.
Goodwin: Thank you very much.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; the Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A Wein; and the New York Times Company Foundation.