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Los Angeles Times Interview : Doris Kearns Goodwin : Of Privacy and the Press: The Dilemma of Modern Politics

October 23, 1994|By Steve Proffitt | Proffitt is a producer for Fox News and a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." He spoke with Goodwin from her home in Boston

Doris Kearns Goodwin tells a story about how, if she were a journalist, she would have been kicked out of the business. In August, 1976, she traveled to Plains, Ga., to interview presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. Goodwin, a political-science teacher at Harvard, had just published her first major biography, "Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream." The Ladies' Home Journal had hired her to write an article. She asked Carter about morality and fidelity. He told her that his greatest feelings of guilt came from the lust he felt in his heart for women other than his wife.

Goodwin returned home, and talked about the lust comment with her husband, the former Kennedy aide Richard N. Goodwin, and friends. But when she wrote her story, she left it out. A few days later, Carter made similar comments in what was the first-ever presidential contender's Playboy magazine interview. "I have lusted in my heart," became a headline and a political flash-point of the Carter campaign.

Today, politicians appear on Oprah, MTV and Howard Stern. California gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown reveals the date rape of one of her daughters during a televised political debate. Prince Charles confesses he never loved his wife, and that his father forced him to marry her.

Yet, as the historian and biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin reminds us it was not so long ago that political figures could draw a line between their private and public lives. Her latest biography, "No Ordinary Time," focuses on the private and separate lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt -- and on his longtime affair with Lucy Mercer. These details, while now the fascinating stuff of history, were not considered news at the time.

These days, such details are reported without delay. Hillary Rodham Clinton appears with her husband to answer infidelity charges on "60 Minutes." Mainstream news organizations station reporters in Little Rock to canvas bars for "bad stuff about Bill." Every part of a public person's life is open to scrutiny, and Goodwin, along with a number of other Americans, is not sure that's such a good thing.

Goodwin, 51, has written biographies of three Democratic Presidents -- Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Johnson. She recently appeared as an oft-quoted voice in Ken Burns' "Baseball." In a conversation that ping-ponged across 60 years of political history, she talked about the presidency, the press and the distinction between historical insight and momentary prurient interest.


Question: In the 1930s, when a candidate like Franklin Roosevelt ran for President, didn't he naturally assume that a certain part of his life was private?

Answer: Absolutely. It was an assumption as natural to them as the air they breathed. They understood they had protection for that part of their life they wanted to reserve for themselves, and there was not a worry that someone would intrude upon it. Part of it for FDR was his confidence, and the lines that he drew. He understood that public life had certain demands, but I think he believed that there was a certain core about his life which would never have to be revealed publicly.

Tonight, on the evening news on TV, there was a rundown of the political races in the country, and of all the places where people with absolutely no experience in politics are overtaking incumbents. That has something to do with the fact that people who are in politics are now diminished simply by being there. And many are saying it's better to have someone who's never held office, who has no record. There's no other craft, no other skill where we prefer someone with no experience. Something has happened in politics where people have lost their private side, and lost themselves, somehow. In FDR's day, there was the sense that one could hold onto the most private parts of one's life, the parts that one valued the most.

Q: Wouldn't John Kennedy have had a similar expectation of privacy in 1960?

A: There may have been some perception--which proved to be wrong--that once he got into the White House, there would have to be more discretion. But I think once he got in there, he realized the White House was a very easy place to live his life privately. It allowed him to have the kind of private life which we later discovered but, at the time, people were not aware of.

Q: So how did we get from a place where FDR could have essentially a surrogate wife in the White House, and JFK could exercise an incredibly active libido, to a place where every alleged peccadillo is now common knowledge?

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