Updated: May 10, 2014 6:26AM
Doris Kearns Goodwin is a petite person who writes about towering figures — Lyndon Johnson, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, the Kennedys.
She sat in a hushed meeting room at the University of Chicago’s hushed Alumni House, where David Axelrod asked her unhushed questions.
“People ask, ‘Why can’t Obama be more like Lyndon Johnson?’” Axelrod, director of the Institute of Politics at the university, said. “Why can’t he command the bully pulpit the way Teddy Roosevelt did?”
“The bully pulpit, the platform a politician has to mobilize citizens, has changed,” Goodwin replied. “Lincoln would write a letter to a newspaper, and it would be reprinted word for word and then pamphletized. Things changed at the turn of the 20th century.”
Presidents could be heard on phonograph records — quite good copies exist of Teddy Roosevelt speaking in a clear and precise voice — and then came radio.
Listening to Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats — he made only 30 in 12 years — became a national pastime. “Saul Bellow used to tell the story of walking down the streets of Chicago and hearing Roosevelt speak from radio after radio, in house after house, all tuned to the same station,” Goodwin said.
But today? Today you see moments, glimpses, summaries, roundups and, of course, the talking heads. “Now you just see parts of speeches,” Goodwin said and added ruefully, “And then you see commentators like David and me.”
Goodwin described a Washington of a bygone era in which Democrat LBJ spent weekends with Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen. “They didn’t run home every weekend to raise money,” Goodwin said. “It was a club; there was a comity to it.”
Then Goodwin homed in on the real evil in our current political system. “Money is the poison in our system, and we know it,” she said and then turned to the students in the audience. “If I were you, I would be working on a constitutional amendment to change the effect of money on politics. I would be like Susan B. Anthony on this.”
A constitutional amendment — a purposely difficult undertaking to achieve — would almost certainly be necessary because our high court believes that money is a form of free speech and that the more money you have the more free speech you ought to be able to buy.
Whenever Goodwin speaks, the issue of whether Abraham Lincoln could get elected today comes up. Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie “Lincoln” was based in part on Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” and it made Lincoln hot once again.
“If I didn’t believe Abraham Lincoln could win today, I might as well give up,” Goodwin said and then added: “OK, shave the beard, and get rid of the stovepipe hat. But I think he was actually sexy.”
Goodwin then gave an example of the kind of humor that gave Lincoln such public appeal: “People say I am two-faced,” Lincoln once said. “But if I had two faces, would I be using this one?”
Goodwin said that in the 1960s, some 90 percent of Americans thought the government would do the right thing most of the time. “We must return to the belief that our collective energy can restore faith in our daily lives,” she said.
Axelrod said that “voters have to be willing to handle the truth. As Robert Kennedy said, ‘the future isn’t a gift; it’s an achievement.’”
Goodwin is one of America’s greatest living historians, a person who has managed to achieve commercial success — six New York Times best-sellers — while still maintaining her academic credentials. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for “No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.”
She was also the first female journalist to enter the Boston Red Sox locker room.
But one thing has eluded her. Instead of her writing about famous public servants, why didn’t she become a famous public servant?
“Take the risk of helping somebody with a campaign or working in a neighborhood,” she told the students. “If I hadn’t gotten married and had a bunch of kids, maybe I would have gotten involved in politics.”