Doris Kearns Goodwin's personal history in "An Unfinished Love Story"

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a rare presence on our national stage – an historian with academic cred and pop-culture cachet. Her work, of course, is serious, but she shares it with joy, and sometimes a laugh, as when she made an entrance on “The Late Show Starring Stephen Colbert” on a litter carried by Lincoln impersonators.

“It’s fun when a younger person comes up to you and says, ‘You know, my kids saw you on “The Simpsons”‘!” Goodwin said.

The Lincoln biographer is honored during a late-night appearance.

“The Late Show Starring Stephen Colbert”

Goodwin, now 81, is renowned for telling the story of America, often through the prism of the presidency, including with her biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, the Kennedys, and Lyndon B. Johnson.  

Her latest book does that, too, and it’s deeply personal. “An Unfinished Love Story” (to be published April 16 by Simon & Schuster) is about her late husband, Richard Goodwin, and his adventures in the turbulent 1960s, writing speeches for titans like John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and LBJ.


Simon & Schuster

And it’s about Richard and Doris. “He was an extraordinary character who somehow traversed almost every important moment in the 1960s,” Goodwin said. “He’s like Zelig in a certain sense in the ’60s.”

Some of the most iconic lines in the ’60s came right from Richard Goodwin’s typewriter: The Great Society. Ripples of hope. We shall overcome.

“Dick loved poetry, he loved drama,” Goodwin said. “I mean, using the anthem of the civil rights movement in the middle of [LBJ’s] great speech after the Selma demonstrations was almost a moment of genius that came to him.”

Before becoming a fixture at the side of presidents, Richard Goodwin had a fast rise: Harvard Law, Supreme Court clerk, and then Congressional investigator of the rigged TV quiz shows of the 1950s. President Kennedy later brought Goodwin into his inner circle. After Kennedy’s death, so did President Johnson, who looked to Goodwin for some rhetorical magic, as the LBJ tapes revealed. In one phone call Johnson asked, “Why not just ask [Goodwin] if he can’t put some sex in it? I’d ask him if he couldn’t put some rhyme in it and some beautiful Churchillian phrases…”

“The tapes were just so revealing,” said Goodwin. “Especially when you hear him talking about my husband that way.”

Doris Kearns was a 24-year-old White House Fellow while Lyndon Johnson (6’4″) was president.

Yoichi Okamoto, LBJ Presidential Library

She writes that LBJ could be flat and dry in his public remarks, but not in private. “If people had known the way he talks on the tapes, if they had listened to him tell stories, they were brilliant,” she said. “The private Lyndon Johnson is the most formidable, interesting, brilliant character I think I’ve ever met in my life.”

Doris Kearns first met Johnson in 1967, when the towering Texan asked the young White House fellow for a dance. “I mean, what a way! He really twirled me around the floor. And then he whispered to me that he wanted me to be assigned directly to him in the White House.”

Johnson’s advisers were initially on edge about the 24-year-old Harvard grad student’s anti-war views. But she quickly became someone he trusted, talking to her for hours during the bittersweet twilight of his life.

“He could be mean at times,” she said. “But underneath there was this force that wanted to make the country a better place. And the war in Vietnam cut much of that … without that, there’s no question he would have been one of the great presidents. But even now, he is one of those great presidents.”

Richard Goodwin and Doris Kearns married in 1975.

Marc Peloquin/Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris and Richard Goodwin met at Harvard after LBJ left office, and were married in 1975. They lived in leafy Concord, Massachusetts, raising a family and working, until Richard’s death in 2018. 

These days, Goodwin stays busy with history, but also keeps a close eye on politics.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, with correspondent Robert Costa, at Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord, Mass.

CBS News

When asked what is at stake in the coming election, Goodwin replied, “It’s not an exaggeration to say democracy is at stake. I mean, I think about Lincoln when he said, early on, that the central point of the fight of the Civil War was really whether democracy would exist. Because if you could decide, as a Southern set of states did, that they lost an election, so they’re going to secede from the Union, then democracy is an absurdity. And that’s the hallmark of our system, is that you lose an election and you accept it with grace.”

Costa asked, “What do you say to Americans who look at what’s happening with this election, and they just want to tune out, not pay attention?”

“Tuning out and not paying attention is an action,” Goodwin said. “In fact, somehow not participating is even worse than many other things you can do. Because it means you’re saying, I don’t care, it’s not important. And that’s a cowardly thing to say, because it’s not true.”

And Americans, she said, can always turn to the past for lessons.

“I still think if we look back at history, that somehow America’s pulled through each one of these tough times, and we’ve come out strengthened,” Goodwin said. “It’s hard to see exactly how that’s going to happen now, but it’s going to happen, [but] only if people start marching, only if people start fighting for the rights they believe are being taken away.

“When conscience is fired, and the majority will is exercised, we somehow come through,” she said. “And I think we will again.”

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Story produced by Robert Marston. Editor: Mike Levine.

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