History offers strange consolation: No matter how alarming current events (or a presidential election) may be, historians can usually point to analogous episodes we survived in the past.
So who better to consult about our imminent election than Pulitzer-winning presidential historian and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin and MSNBC host and political commentator Rachel Maddow?
Goodwin, 73, has written five critically acclaimed and best-selling presidential biographies, including “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” the basis, in part, for Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln”; “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II”; and “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream,” which grew out of Goodwin’s tenure as a White House fellow at age 24. She worked directly with Johnson in his last year in office and later assisted him with his memoirs. Goodwin received her Ph.D. in government from Harvard.
Maddow, 43, has hosted “The Rachel Maddow Show” weeknights on MSNBC since 2008. It is currently the network’s highest-rated program. Like other shows on MSNBC, it leans liberal. But Maddow has been praised by many for the civility with which she treats all guests, prioritizing information and context over the hysteria so often evident on cable news.
She is the author of the best-selling book “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power.” Maddow earned a doctorate in politics from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes scholar.
Over an early lunch of eggs and toast at the Gotham Lounge in the Peninsula Hotel in midtown Manhattan, a few days before the final presidential debate this month, the pair discussed the coming election in historical terms: the temperamental forebears of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump among our presidential ranks, the ambitions of candidates and their skills for the job.
Philip Galanes: So, in terms of crazy, does this election have a historical peer?
Rachel Maddow: For sure. It’s not like we’ve never had a figure like Donald Trump in public life before.
RM: There’s some Huey Long there, and some P.T. Barnum. Some George Wallace.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: We’ve had plenty of populist figures in our past, but they had a different degree of substance than Trump. William Jennings Bryant (the Democratic nominee for president in 1896, 1900 and 1908) came out of a period like today. The industrial revolution was like our tech revolution and globalization. The pace of life had sped up and made people anxious. Telegrams and telephones were fast. Immigration was huge. And Bryant’s supporters, like Trump’s, were fearful about the way the country was changing.
RM: I’m more interested in whether there are parallels for political parties falling apart. As Doris wrote in “The Bully Pulpit,” our democracy unofficially depends on two major parties that can carry their own weight.
DKG: This is where history can give us solace. When parties split up, as the Whigs did in the 1850s over slavery, we got the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln, our greatest leader.
PG: I feel better already.
DKG: But then you have 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt decided to run against (William Howard) Taft. He knew that Taft had the Republican delegates, so he created the primary system: “Let the people rule!” It was democratic, no doubt about it. But the race was so vitriolic, it sounds like today. Taft calls Teddy a dictator; Teddy calls Taft a pinhead. And The New York Times says, “If this is the first attempt at the primary system, we sincerely hope it’s the last.”
PG: Has the temperament of a candidate ever been so center stage before?
RM: In 1964, for sure. The bead on (Barry) Goldwater was that he was a nut. LBJ successfully characterized him as someone who couldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes.
DKG: But it’s come to the surface more today.
RM: Maybe because we get more access to the president as a human being than we used to. With the White House photographer posting all those moments on Instagram. And so much attention on his family.
DKG: Good point. Before, the candidates were leaders of one party or the other. The parties had platforms, and you were voting on what they promised you. You didn’t really know them as human beings.
PG: And is temperament just code for hotheaded?
DKG: No, temperament is your basic orientation toward life. The Elizabethans boiled it down to four types: You were choleric or sanguine or melancholy or aggressive. You can be a good leader from any of them. Lincoln was melancholy, but what a president! It’s more to do with how you grow, how you learn from your mistakes.
PG: How do you feel about Hillary’s guarded temperament?
RM: I think it’s a form of emotional maturity. It takes intellectual stamina to stay open, as a leader and a mind, to absorb information and adversity.
DKG: And criticism. That’s what Eleanor Roosevelt decided. When people were against her, it meant they were against her ideas, not against her personally. True or not, it gave her enormous leeway not to take criticism personally.
RM: That’s a form of strength.
DKG: Where Trump goes wrong is when he says, “I have the best temperament of anyone who’s ever run for president — a winning temperament.” That’s completely ahistorical. Our best presidents have all gone through adversity. Whether it’s Lincoln’s suicidal depression, or Teddy Roosevelt losing his wife and his mother on the same day in the same house, or FDR getting polio, they all went through trials by fire and emerged stronger for it. Nobody wins all the time.
RM: It’s also too on the nose. You can never say, “I am humble.” You have disproved the assertion by saying it. Same with “best temperament ever.”
PG: Which president does Hillary most remind you of?
RM: Fascinating! It’s so hard not to factor gender. Which dude is she most like?
DKG: It would have to be someone who had a lot of experience in different forms. Teddy Roosevelt probably came to the presidency with most experience: police commissioner, Civil Service commissioner, state legislator, governor, vice president, president. (George H.W.) Bush Sr. also had a lot of title positions and brought an array of experiences.
RM: But there’s often an alienation factor when people — like Hillary or Bush Sr. — come to you with all those experiences. They’re no longer seen as a person to have a beer with. It makes it harder for people to empathize with them. I think George H.W. Bush suffered from that enormously.
DKG: They become personages rather than people.
PG: Have you met the candidates?
RM: I met Hillary in a professional capacity. I interviewed her. But what happened off-camera was almost more interesting. I don’t think of her as an extrovert, but when we were done, she met every single person on set, my entire staff, the whole floor, including the cleaning crew. Shook hands, took pictures. She was being kind to people who had an interest in her. But to see her do that, willingly, at the end of her 11th event of the day, that surprised me.
PG: And Trump?
RM: I’ve only spoken to Trump on the phone. He was warm and charming. I enjoyed talking to him. But a funny thing happened when I was negotiating with his staff. They insisted that the conversation was off the record. I could never even refer to the fact that it had happened. But at the end of it, Trump said: “Well, this has been a good conversation. You can run it.” I said: “I’m not taping it. Your people said I couldn’t even refer to it.” And he said, “This wasn’t on TV?”
PG: I bet you’re a go-to person for candidates, Doris, with your presidential patina.
DKG: I was on the radio when my Roosevelt book came out, talking about how most of the action takes place on the second floor of the White House. Roosevelt invited all these people to live with them during World War II: His foreign policy adviser moved in and never left; Lorena Hickok, who had a crush on Eleanor; Princess Martha from Norway. Winston Churchill would stay for weeks at a time. So, I said, “I’m obsessed with all the great conversations they must have had in their bathrobes.”
It turned out that Hillary was listening. She was in the White House then. And she called me up at the radio station and said: “Come stay overnight at the White House, and we can figure out where everyone slept.” And she followed up on her promise. So, the president and Mrs. Clinton and my husband and I go through every room on the second floor with my map, and we figure it out. Bill and Hillary were sleeping where FDR was. And my husband and I are in Winston Churchill’s room. No way could I sleep — with Churchill in the corner, drinking his brandy and smoking his cigar.
RM: Have you stayed in touch with Hillary over the years?
DKG: Not for a while. I went to see her after they won the race in 1996. Chelsea was going off to school, and my kids had gone to college. We talked about missing them. And she told a funny story about Jackie Kennedy telling her which designers to wear. Hillary said, “Clearly, I’m never figuring that out.” She was very open.
RM: Does she seem different to you now?
DKG: Oh, I don’t know. Maybe a little more defensive. But my guess is that if she’s able to win, knowing: “I’m the first female president of this country,” that is such a huge thing. It’s been totally overshadowed in this election. That would give her the confidence to say, “I’m going to be like FDR and meet the press twice a week.” She could get out of that insular world.
PG: Let’s stick with that: ambition and evolution. Most of us can track our ambitions in life to some childhood hurt: chilly parents, poverty. We work to overcome it. But when I talked with Jimmy Carter for this series, he spoke about a transformational moment — a political defeat and deep depression — that galvanized his desire to help all Americans. Does that happen with the great presidents?
RM: You mean, they stop thinking about themselves and start thinking of the world?
DKG: Without question. Lincoln was rare. He had it from the beginning. When he’s 23 years old, he’s already talking about leaving the world a better place for having lived in it. Franklin Roosevelt may have been president without polio. But once polio happened, he identified more with people whom fate had dealt an unkind hand. He was more empathetic than he would have been. Even LBJ, who always had this strain of caring about ordinary people. He went for power after he lost the first Senate race. Then he has an almost fatal heart attack in ’55 and comes all the way back to his New Deal ambitions. He was more ready than we knew to be the liberal president.
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PG: How about your ambitions?
DKG: My parents died when I was young — my mother of a heart attack when I was 15, my father when I was in my 20s. I think it made me want to tell stories of people who were dead to somehow bring them back to life. I didn’t think about it at the time. But it is stories that keep people alive. That’s where my ambition for history came from.
RM: My ambitions were scattershot. I’ve never been a planner. I find myself with an opportunity and decide if I want to take it. Then I dig in. I just want to be good at it. And I’m more motivated by fear of failure than ambition to succeed.
PG: But that makes sense for someone who started as an AIDS activist.
RM: I grew up in the Bay Area, which was the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic. And when I came out, it was a community that was fighting for survival. People my age and immediately older were dying. There aren’t many circumstances in life, unless you’re in the military, when you know a lot of people in your marching order who die before you’re 25. That’s humbling in terms of ambition.
DKG: It does what Teddy Roosevelt did: It makes you want to do well whatever you’re doing at that moment.
RM: Because you don’t know if there’s going to be another.
PG: It’s the empathic crisis that Jimmy Carter talked about. Do you see that in Hillary or Trump?
DKG: I see it in her. There’s a doubleness of purpose there. That’s what you’re looking for in a good politician. Of course they want power. But you also hope that they want to do something with it. That’s what LBJ said when he first got in: “I’m not just going to strut to ‘Hail to the Chief.’ I want to do something for poor people, for black people.” And when you look at what Hillary’s done through her career, it’s been there, too. She needs to communicate that: not just what she did for children, but what she wants to do for all of us.
PG: For a long time, I put irrational hatred of Hillary down to sexism.
RM: There’s some of that.
PG: But hasn’t it gotten worse? “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
DKG: Hatred of “the other” has grown exponentially. It started with the Clinton impeachment, then the hatred of (George W.) Bush, then the hatred of Obama. I agree, it’s of a different level when you say, “Put her in jail.” But once I was on “Meet the Press,” and they put up this demographic map that showed that people don’t even want to live near people who think differently than they do.
RM: That’s a profound way to look at it. But there’s a simpler way: We saw the partisan hatred directed towards Bill and also Hillary Clinton when he was president. Now she’s getting Round 2. Nobody else gets Round 2.
PG: At the beginning of the Trump phenomenon, I thought he was going to play it very “Morning in America”: “I’ve got a zillion dollars and a million friends with a thousand ideas to make things better.” But it didn’t go that way.
DKG: Because he’s so vulnerable underneath.
RM: And it’s turned very dark now that he’s talking about Hillary Clinton and the cabal of global elites. I heard that speech before. It was translated.
PG: And now the election rigging ——
RM: Let’s imagine Trump wins. Anything can happen. Is there anything about him that could be a good building block for a leader?
DKG: You just have to hope. The worrisome thing is that we keep imagining that he’s going to become presidential at some point, that he’ll put behind him all the things he says about people, that he won’t react so personally. Then he keeps doing it.
RM: One thing that’s underappreciated about Trump is his sense of humor.
DKG: Where do you see this?
RM: When he talks about how great he is, sometimes I think he’s doing it in a self-deprecating way. And that makes me worry less about what seem to be his toxic insecurities.
DKG: Well, he has been a master at breaking news.
RM: Which is a kind of political genius, orchestrating coverage the way he has, if you don’t care about seeming offensive or hurting your party.
RM: Look, I’m not persuading you. I’m just trying to imagine him as president and prepare for it as a country.
DKG: There’s something about the office. In 2000, there was a fear that George W. Bush would never be a legitimate president. But he was, despite that incredible election and how it looked like it would shadow him. Something happens when they get in the presidency.
RM: And the worry with George W. was not just legitimacy. It was whether he was mature enough and intelligent enough to do the job. Then he got in there and did it.
DKG: He was a fuller person, we now know. Whether or not we agree with the decisions he made, he did fill the presidency. I guess that’s what you have to hope if Trump wins.
PG: But look at how everyone is gripping the table.