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A historic discussion with Doris Kearns Goodwin

Alan Pergament

Today’s column brings you the unlikely duo of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Taylor Swift.

Goodwin stood alone after speaking to the nation’s television critics in Pasadena, Calif., last month to promote a three-night, six-hour History Channel miniseries, “Washington,” that includes dramatic reenactments and interviews and runs 8 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

As she stood there, I heard a voice in my head saying, “Go talk to her. She’s an icon.”

The voice was from my late father, who told me when I was young to approach famous people when you get the opportunity, or you’ll regret it.

One of the more memorable times came when I was about 10 and spotted New York Giants football hero and future announcer Frank Gifford in Yankee Stadium before a baseball game.

I followed Dad’s orders and talked to him.

One of the few times I regretted not taking Dad’s advice was when I was at a party held by Buffalo writer Tom Fontana at Chateau Marmont, the legendary restaurant-hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles where John Belushi died.

I saw a woman who looked to be an awful lot like Cher, but I didn’t talk to her. Later, I told Fontana how much the woman looked like Cher.

“That is Cher,” he replied. Turns out I was an idiot. They are friends.

I passed my dad’s philosophy down decades later when I spotted Brooklyn and Los Angeles pitching great Sandy Koufax at an NCAA basketball game in Florida, telling my young son to talk to him.

So naturally, I wasn’t about to ignore an opportunity to speak to Goodwin, the legendary presidential historian who is the executive producer of the "Washington" series.

“For more than 50 years, I have spent my days waking up with dead presidents – with AL, TR, TAFT, FDR, JFK, LBJ – thinking about them when I go to bed at night, waking up with them in the morning,” she told critics. “It may seem an odd profession to spend one’s days and nights with dead presidents, but I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.

“But the one president I had not had the chance to live with – the one whose presidency set the standard for all the rest – is George Washington. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when History asked me to do this.”

She explained the miniseries, which is narrated by Jeff Daniels, “traces Washington’s transformation from a young man seeking to rise as a military officer, into a determined revolutionary who led a ragtag army against the British Empire. He learns from his mistakes. He grows through adversity. He develops the confidence to surround himself with strong-minded people. At moments of challenge, he summons courage and perseverance to mobilize the troops and the public. He becomes a great leader when his ambition for self becomes an ambition for something larger – to lead a fledgling new nation that will become a beacon of hope for the world at large and a lodestar for every president who followed.

“In Washington’s Farewell Address, considered by many to be one of the greatest documents in American history, he warned against the baneful effects of sectionalism and the spirit of party, which could open the door to foreign influence and corruption.

“His sentiments have been repeated by presidents Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower and Abraham Lincoln, who found his ideal in Washington.”

She added that bringing Washington’s story to life “is more important than ever. We ignore history at our peril, for without heartening examples of leadership from the past we fall prey to accepting our current climate of uncivil, frenetic polarization as the norm. The great protection for our democratic system, Lincoln counseled, was to ‘read of and recount’ the stories of our country’s history, to rededicate ourselves to the ideals of our Founding Fathers.”

Needless to say, when I saw Goodwin standing alone after her address, I was inspired to have a seven-minute interview that started by asking her if the U.S. Senate, which was about to vote on whether to remove President Trump from office, should watch the series.

“Absolutely hope so,” she said. “I really think that the more we can be imbued with what it was like when people had difficult times, and yet they got through them, it can give you a feeling we're not stuck forever. I mean often when I talk … I'm giving them hope by talking about the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II and now the Revolutionary War. But we know that they ended because there was a combination of leadership and citizen activism and people remembering where we were, what we were supposed to be.”

I couldn’t help but note she left one president off her list of leaders referencing Washington’s warning about foreign influence and corruption in his Farewell Address.

“You mean the current one,” she laughed. “I didn't write about (President Trump) in my book, either. He actually went to Mount Vernon (Washington’s home). He took a tour of Mount Vernon with Doug Bradburn (the president and CEO for the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens).”

She addressed the current political climate of division.

“I read this article long ago that said that parents are more afraid of their child marrying outside their party than they are even outside of their religion now,” she said.

“It just makes no sense. It used to be in the 19th century, parties really were important in your lives -- they were where you socialized. Before sporting events, you'd go to big debates as a sporting event. You only read your party newspaper, the Republican, the Whig or the Democrat, and then comes the 20th century and you've got national newspapers and the parties no longer even control the conventions.

“So it's the emotional side of the parties has something that's out of whack with the actual power that the parties have. ... It’s exactly what George warned against.”

She believes people’s lives are so busy these days they don’t have time to think about political decisions being made about the environment, the national debt and how immigrants should be treated.

“I think that it's just the way news is delivered to the country today with breaking news, and with one story upending another, and no time to absorb what you really are hearing or feeling. People's lives are full, and this is not a time when they're spending time thinking about politics,” Goodwin said. "In another era, in the early '60s, politics was at the center of people's lives, there was a sense of that being something larger than themselves, an important thing to themselves.”

But she did end the conversation with hope – because that’s her history.

“Although when you saw the midterm elections, more people standing in line, more women running than ever before, more veterans joining, there was an outpouring of concern that showed itself to come up to the midterm, so we'll see what happens in this election. It is still completely up for grabs.”

• • •

Now on to Swift, the Grammy-winning singing sensation who is the subject of a fascinating Netflix documentary, “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana.”

I was drawn in by how open Swift was about her lack of self-confidence, weight issues, being bullied – and most surprisingly – being drawn into politics in her home state of Tennessee despite potential backlash from some ticket buying and music buying fans.

It may be hard for some people to fathom that someone as successful as Swift can lack self-confidence, which is why I recommend putting this on a list of things to watch.

I was hesitant to watch it because it seemed like a "chick flick," but I enjoyed watching the documentary almost as much as I enjoyed the movie “Little Women” (which would have been my choice as picture of the year), which isn’t just a "chick flick," either.

Needless to say, if I ever see Swift at an interview or at a party, my embarrassing Cher experience will remind me to follow my dad’s advice and talk to her.

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