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Doris Kearns Goodwin returns with Lincoln

Author was mired in controversy after plagiarism accusations in last book
/ Source: The Associated Press

For the casual tourist or college student, the Great Hall in Cooper Union might seem little more than an ornate auditorium, with its oil paintings, white columns and bright wooden stage.

But for Doris Kearns Goodwin among others, the Great Hall is a landmark graced by history: Abraham Lincoln was here. He stood on that stage and spoke in early 1860, an address that established him as a national candidate, not just an Illinois lawyer and orator, and helped get him elected.

“You can’t imagine what it’s like for somebody who has tried to bring him to life to know he was actually here alive, and at such an important moment of his career,” she says, looking toward the back of the room, where a portrait of Lincoln hangs.

For the past decade, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian has dwelled with the spirit of Lincoln, the most scrutinized of all American presidents. It was a needed break for Goodwin from a time when she herself was scrutinized. Her new book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” has just been published.

Mired in controversyThree years ago, well into the Lincoln book, Goodwin acknowledged a Weekly Standard report that her 1987 release, “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys,” contained sections of text taken without attribution from another author, Lynne McTaggart.

Goodwin, 62, has said the copying was accidental, the result of a longhand note-taking system that didn’t distinguish between her own observations and passages from other texts. Both she and McTaggart said they had reached a settlement years earlier that included an undisclosed payment and revisions to Goodwin’s book.

But the controversy grew. After discovering additional passages that closely paralleled the original sources, Goodwin ordered the book removed from stores and promised a new edition, which has yet to be written.

“I just got right back to this [the Lincoln book], which was more important,” says Goodwin, who has no plans to revise her work until after her tour.

Once the most public of historians, especially after winning the Pulitzer in 1995 for “No Ordinary Time,” she became untouchable. Numerous colleges withdrew offers for speaking engagements. She resigned from the Pulitzer board and stopped appearing on PBS’ “Newshour With Jim Lehrer.”

She apologized, defended herself and relied, more than ever, upon history. If the scandal didn’t actually affect the content of “Team of Rivals,” it did make her that much happier while writing it.

“All along I felt an enormous attachment to the book, and, more important, an attachment to him,” she says. “And being able to have that, and to know I was proud of what it was becoming, was the best way of dealing with it.”

Whatever damage she caused herself, it has not lowered expectations for her new book, which contains more than 100 pages of source notes. Simon & Schuster announced a first printing of 400,000 copies and “Team of Rivals” quickly entered the top 10 on Steven Spielberg has acquired film rights.

Many welcome her return. Book sellers have liked her all along, as an individual and as a historian; just two months after the scandal broke, she was received warmly at the industry’s national convention, BookExpo America, where she was a featured speaker.

She also remains highly respected among her peers, with Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Sean Wilentz and Robert Dallek among those who defended her. Some top Lincoln scholars, including Harold Holzer, Michael Burlingame and Goodwin’s friend, David Herbert Donald, have praised her new book.

“You don’t want to keep a person with her talent in perennial handcuffs,” says Holzer, author of 23 books on Lincoln and the Civil War. “To have someone with her dazzling writing ability turn to Lincoln is a great boon to the Lincoln field.”

‘A great man and a good man’Besides reaffirming the public’s trust in her integrity, Goodwin’s greatest task is reaffirming interest in Lincoln, the subject of more than 1,000 books. Her approach was a group biography in which his rise is set against the lives of three former political rivals who became cabinet members after the 1860 election: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Edward Bates.

“Whenever I read a Lincoln book, I look to see if there’s anything new, and in this case there was,” says Holzer, noting Goodwin’s use of material from Seward’s family.

As Goodwin notes, all three foes were better known and seemingly more qualified to be president than Lincoln, who had never held high political office. But Lincoln overlooked competing ambitions, past insults and other political sins and assembled a cabinet unusual for its depth of experience and diversity of opinions.

“The qualities of decency and compassion and empathy and kindness are, in the hands of a great politician, great political resources,” she says.

Calling him a “great man and a good man,” Goodwin adores Lincoln. Too much so, according to New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who wrote that her book “belongs to the hagiographic tradition” as opposed to recent works that have questioned everything from his morality to his mental health.

Goodwin did offer some criticism during the interview, citing his undue patience with George McClellan, the famously battle-shy Civil War general, and his repeated failures to transcend the racial views of his time. Still, compared to other leaders she has written about, she found him admirable, if not saintly.

“There were times when I was working on Franklin and Eleanor [Roosevelt], I wanted to say, ‘Franklin, c’mon, you have to understand she does love you,”’ Goodwin says, referring to “No Ordinary Time,” a portrait of the Roosevelts during World War II.

“You know this man [Roosevelt] is a great public figure, and you don’t want his private values to be different. I had much less reason to criticize Lincoln privately, and much less to criticize publicly.”

Goodwin is an easy interview, at least when not discussing her recent problems. A confident speaker and a commentator for NBC TV, she is sandy-haired and slight of build, with a bright smile and an undeniable spark that makes her the rare scholar given to exclaiming, “Wow, that’s so cool!”

Friends rally around GoodwinShe lives in Concord, Mass., with her husband, former presidential speechwriter Richard Goodwin. Days are often spent in their respective writing quarters, and nights at a local restaurant, Serafina, where the liberal Goodwins engage in friendly debate with the restaurant’s owner, Sam Cannarozzi, a conservative Republican.

“There are nights we literally stopped making drinks at the bar because everybody gets so caught up in the discussion,” Cannarozzi says. Referring to the historian’s recent troubles, he comments: “We sort of rounded up the wagon and protected Doris, because that’s what Doris would have done for us.”

Goodwin grew up in Rockville Centre, on Long Island, and viewed her childhood with great warmth and underlying sadness in “Wait Till Next Year.” She was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan who lived in a middle class, postwar community so close that “I could have maneuvered my way in the dark through every house on our block,” she wrote.

But what seemed permanent was only a moment in history. The Dodgers left for Los Angeles, neighbors sought out wealthier places and Goodwin’s family moved, too, after her mother died in 1958. Her father eventually remarried.

Goodwin retained her memories, and her talents. Storytelling was natural for her, first honed when she would summarize for her father the daily results of their beloved Dodgers. Goodwin attended Colby College as an undergraduate and received a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University.

As a student, she also actively opposed the Vietnam War. Her questioning of authority would lead, ironically, to extraordinary access to the country’s ultimate authority figure: President Lyndon Johnson.

As recounted in her first book, “Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream,” Goodwin was selected in 1967 to the White House Fellows program, which enabled young people to work with Washington officials. Goodwin began in the Labor Department, but ended up an assistant to Johnson, despite what appeared to be every effort to drive him away, including writing an anti-Johnson article for The New Republic and lecturing the president during a White House dinner.

The president was enraged, and fascinated. He summoned her to his office and demanded that she work for him so he could educate “you Harvards” about American politics. He later asked her to help him write his memoirs, a task that could be likened to serving as court stenographer for King Lear.

“I was able to see what it was like to be in the White House and see the power and the protection and the cocoon,” she says. “But at the same time, I was able to see this man ['ack in Texas] who was waking up in the morning and really didn’t know how to spend the day and was having reports given to him ... on how many eggs had been laid or how many people had gone to his birth house.”

Her work has evolved from a skeptical, firsthand account of Johnson to a narrative of praise for Lincoln. Along with needed changes in her research methods, she also feels she has matured as a writer, learning how to fully craft a narrative history.

“And that’s what I love: to be able to tell a story, and hopefully be able to analyze as you’re telling it,” she says.