By Ed Smith
She shared that love, and some of the lessons she’s learned along the way, at the closing General Session of NCSL’s 2012 Legislative Summit in Chicago Thursday.
Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, is best known for her books on Lyndon Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, the Kennedys and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But it was Theodore Roosevelt, the nation’s 26th president, who was the focus of her talk. Her biography of TR will be published in the fall of 2013.
Roosevelt, who became president following the assassination of William McKinley, took office at a time of “great economic unrest.”
“Our states, at the turn of the 20th century, faced threats very similar to the ones states are facing today. The country struggled to deal with the massive changes wrought by the new industrial order and great disparities in wealth.”
The ability to overcome significant challenges early in life shaped all the presidents about whom Goodwin has written. Lincoln, she noted suffered from crippling depression. For a young Theodore Roosevelt, it was physical frailty.
“The crucible that defined Theodore Roosevelt was the life-threatening asthma that he suffered when he was young,” Goodwin said.
To say that he overcame those limitations would be a significant understatement. Theodore Roosevelt is remembered as the nation’s most physically robust president, one who delighted in dragging everyone from cabinet members to foreign ambassadors on hikes through the woods around Washington and on hunting trips.
More substantively, he’ll be remembered for curbing the power of large corporations, allowing labor a seat at the table, reforming working conditions and championing the rights of women. He was, of course, also the nation’s first great conservationist president. He also had a knack for a catchy phrase: the “bully pulpit,” “speak softly and carry a big stick” and even came up with the Maxwell House slogan, “good to the last drop.”
(Goodwin did not bring it up in her talk, but she has a very personal connection to state legislators. Her son, Joe Kearns Goodwin, is running for the state Senate in Massachusetts. He faces a September primary.)
Summing up Roosevelt’s accomplishments, Goodwin told the lawmakers and legislative staff in the audience that they can take a lesson from his life.
“The man who counted, he always said, was not the critic but the man in the arena,” Goodwin said. “So all of you here today who have chosen similarly, to fight in the arena, to struggle to make lives better for your towns and your cities and your states can feel similarly. By doing so, you will make memories that can be handed down over time.”