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TED2008: Doris Kearns Goodwin and the balanced life

Doris Kearns Goodwin has spent her life looking into the lives of presidents who are no longer alive. This can be odd, as you find yourself “waking up with President Lincoln.” She references a mentor, Eric Ericson, who argued that the richest and fullest lives achieve balance between work, love and play. Ignore one of the three, and you’ll reach unhappiness in old age.

She analyzes Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson in this context. With Lincoln, she sees evidence that “fierce ambition is a good thing.” Lincoln had heroic dreams, even from when he was very young, a desire to “accomplish something worthy enough in life to make the world a better place” that it literally kept him alive through the tragedy of losing his mother, and fighting depression.

Lincoln’s career was one of amazing success in the wake of failure. After two unsuccessful senate bids, he somehow managed to win a Presidential nomination. It was more amazing that he defeated three men with much greater experience and education. And it was even more amazing that he invited these three men to join his cabinet. LBJ might have offered the logic, “It’s better to have them in the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.”

Lincoln was amazingly good at repairing feelings, and assuming responsibility for the failures of his subordinates. “These are the qualities we should look for in our candidates.” Lincoln never could have imagined how far his reputation had reached. She recently read an interview with Tolstoy, who travelled to the Caucuses and met with a group of “wild barbarians.” They asked Tolstoy for stories of great generals, and he told them of Napoleon and others – they wouldn’t let him leave until he spoke of “the greatest ruler of them all,” Lincoln.

Kearns Goodwin had a much closer relationship with the living LBJ than she did with the memory of Abraham Lincoln. When she was 24, she served as a White House fellow, and danced with the President. He whispered in her ear, “I want you to work with me in the White House.” But this wasn’t so easy – she’d just written a piece about the Vietnam War for the New Republic about how to remove LBJ from power. But LBJ hired her anyway, saying, “If I can’t win her over, no one can.”

LBJ told amazing stories, but “with one problem – half of them were not true.” She was worried about his reputation for womanizing, and tried hard to talk about boyfriends, even when she didn’t have them. At one point, LBJ invited her to a romantic picnic to talk about their relationship – she was terrified, until LBJ said, “More than any other woman in the world, you remind me of my mother.”

The tragedy of LBJ, she believes, is that with years of concentration solely on work, he could find no solace in family or recreation. Once he left office, the “hole in his heart was so large, his family could not fill it.” Watching the American people adopt a new president, he couldn’t accept his marginalization.

Lincoln had passions outside of work. During the civil war, he watched Shakespere in the theatre more than 100 nights. And Lincoln had a hilarious sense of humor. Visiting an English camp, he visited the outhouse, where a portrait of George Washington had been hung, an unkind swing at national pride. Lincoln commented that it was a great place to hang the work, because “there’s nothing to make an Englishman shit faster that the sight of General George Washington.”

Kearns Goodwin credits her own sense of play with maintaining her sanity – her irrational love of baseball. She learned how to tell stories by listening to Brooklyn Dodger games, scoring them and telling the events to her father at night. Now that she’s moved to Boston, she’s now an irrational Red Sox fan, and credits this balance between life, work and family with maintaing her sanity in the long term.

TED announces three new conferences at the end of the session: the next TED Africa, this summer in Cape Town, TED Europe in Oxford next July, and a forthcoming TED Global in Mumbai.