As his two-term presidency draws to a close, Barack Obama is looking back—at the legacies of his predecessors, as well as his own—and forward, to the freedom of life after the White House. In a wide-ranging conversation with one of the nation’s foremost presidential historians, he talks about his ambitions, frustrations, and the decisions that still haunt him.
by Doris Kearns Goodwin
His presidency is winding down. A contentious election—fought largely over his record and legacy—is about to be decided. With that in mind, Barack Obama recently invited the presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to the White House for a long, personal, open-ended conversation. The meeting, arranged by Vanity Fair, took place in the president’s private dining room, just off the Oval Office.
Doris Kearns Goodwin is no stranger to these precincts. She has been in and out of the West Wing ever since 1967, when, as a 24-year-old White House Fellow, she worked closely with Lyndon Johnson during the last year of his presidency (and then afterward as he wrote his memoirs). She has earned a raft of literary prizes, including a Pulitzer, for books about J.F.K., L.B.J., Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and, most notably, Abraham Lincoln—the subject of her landmark history, Team of Rivals, whose title gave America’s political language a new and permanent catchphrase. (Steven Spielberg would use Goodwin’s book as the basis for his film Lincoln, and when Daniel Day-Lewis won the 2012 best-actor Oscar for his portrayal of the president, he entered the Vanity Fair after-party with the author in tow.)
Goodwin likes to tell the story of the day in the spring of 2007, when a young Illinois senator phoned her, out of the blue, requesting that they meet because he’d just finished readingTeam of Rivals. That call would begin a friendship. Since taking office, Obama has occasionally invited Goodwin, along with a small cohort of presidential historians, to come to the White House to discuss past presidents, their legacies—and his. And over the years she has had the president’s ear and provided historical context and, on occasion, counsel.
In their conversation, the president and Goodwin exhibit an easy camaraderie, sometimes completing each other’s sentences. They touch on everything from comedy Web sites to bodysurfing in Hawaii. But the central focus is on history, and on enduring questions. What is presidential temperament? How does a leader maintain perspective? When does the job of president feel the heaviest? What is good and bad about ambition?
Obama and Goodwin spent more than an hour over coffee, water, and scones (“I won’t be eating those,” said the president), followed by a brief chat in the Oval Office. Obama, in shirtsleeves, sat in a straight-backed chair, his long frame relaxed, legs crossed, as he responded or parried—always thoughtfully, sometimes intensely. V.F.’s Annie Leibovitz photographed at the start of the session and then re-entered, periodically, but mainly let them be.
The walls of the private dining room and the hallway nearby are lined with telling mementos: images of Martin Luther King Jr.; a photo of the president with Nelson Mandela; and a Life-magazine cover showing the 1965 march on Selma, signed by civil-rights leader John Lewis (who, inside the House chamber the next morning, would lead a sit-in against gun violence). Tables in the room hold framed family photos, a bust of J.F.K., and a pair of Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves.
Looming over everything is The Peacemakers, an oil painting of Lincoln and his war council. And in its way the picture, by George P. A. Healy, with its none-too-subtle rainbow shining above Lincoln’s shoulder, seemed to visually reinforce the discussion at hand. Obama, for his part, noted at one point that even in the nation’s darkest moments he gains strength—and perspective—by tapping into an abiding sense of optimism. It is a heartening notion in an era of blaring headlines, instant analysis, and perishable sound bites.
The conversation between Obama and Goodwin, above all else, is a conversation between two writers, each steeped in history.
SOURCE: Vanity Fair