The L.B.J. Book, Tenure, Her First Child: Doris Kearns Plays a Tranquil Waiting Game

Doris Kearns Goodwin is entertaining a guest in the living room of her Lincoln, Mass., home. Her husband, Richard, petulantly yells down from the second floor, “Doris!” Mrs. Goodwin excuses herself and goes upstairs to tend to his needs. She moves slowly because she is eight months pregnant.

Is this any way for a liberated woman, a Harvard professor and the author of a widely praised, briskly selling book on Lyndon Johnson to act? Yes, says Mrs. Goodwin; yes, it is.

At 33 her professional career is blossoming and so is she. Still settling into her six-month-old marriage with Goodwin, a writer, she is preparing for the birth of their first child, auspiciously due around July 4. She is also trying to figure out where her profession should end and domesticity begin. “I am working now,” Kearns says deliberately, “to keep a balance between one’s own private concerns and doing something in public which matters.”

It is easier said than done. During the months before publication of Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream, Kearns found herself grudgingly making public more and more details of her private life, like someone in a lifeboat doling out dwindling crumbs of food.

This was probably inevitable, given the personal nature of her book, which defies traditional categories. It blends biography, history, political science, psychology, memoir and the new controversial “psychohistory,” a Freudian spinoff that relies heavily on the impact of childhood experiences to explain the adult behavior of the world’s manipulators.

Kearns came to explore the Johnson psyche by an odd sequence of events. A Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude graduate of Colby College in Maine in 1964, she went to Washington as a congressional aide. In 1967, while a Ph.D. candidate in government at Harvard, she was named a White House Fellow under a program bringing young men and women into relatively high levels of federal government.

Though she was writing an article for The New Republic, “How to Remove L.B.J, in 1968,” at the time, she accepted the fellowship on condition that her assignment have nothing to do with Vietnam. Johnson knew about her article but was nonetheless cordial to the intense, husky-voiced blonde when it was her turn to dance with him during a welcoming White House party. She was given a job in the Labor Department, but shortly after Johnson’s March 1968 announcement that he would not seek reelection, he called Kearns into the Oval Office. “You should be happy now that you’ve had your way and I’ve removed myself from the race,” he said, then asked her to join his staff. “I want to do everything I can,” he told her, “to make the young people of America, especially you Harvards, understand what this political system is all about.”

For the next nine months Johnson met with her frequently in the evening to describe what his presidential day had been like. He gave her presents, a favorite technique with people he wanted to impress. She eventually got a total of 12 electric toothbrushes bearing the presidential seal. He promised her a teaching job at the University of Texas, introductions to millionaires, trips all over the world and “a fabulous salary so you can look beautiful all the time” if she would help him with his memoirs and plans for the LBJ library.

Suddenly picturing herself, Kearns says, “wearing a Lyndon B. Johnson outfit, sitting by the Lyndon B. Johnson Lake, making conversation with a Lyndon B. Johnson millionaire,” she refused. Later she relented and agreed to try it part-time.

Flying from Boston to the LBJ Ranch near Austin on long weekends and vacations, Kearns assisted in the research and writing of The Vantage Point, Johnson’s own pedantic version of his Presidency, published in 1971. (“Get that vulgar language of mine out of there,” he instructed her after seeing a draft of one section. “What do you think this is, the tale of an uneducated cowboy?”) Then, having apparently resolved to write nothing more himself, Johnson began to regale his young friend with intimate stories of his youth and political career. He recalled his parents, an esthetic mother and a machismo-inclined father. Some of the family tales, like one about an ancestor who died at the Alamo, were palpable lies. He described nightmares that had plagued him all his life, of being paralyzed or caged or swimming in endless circles in a river.

On some mornings Johnson would barge into Kearns’s room as early as 5:30. Expecting him and already dressed, she would sit in a chair while he climbed into her bed, pulled the sheets up around his neck and reminisced to the biographer he sometimes called “Miss Doris.” She denies persistent rumors that their relationship was more passionate than that usually found between historian and subject. “If I say I have no comment, it sounds incriminating,” she once told the Boston Globe. “If I say we were just friends, it sounds soppy. On the other hand, if I start explaining, I begin to think it’s none of their business.”

Why did Johnson select her to be his confidante? She once said it was because of “what I stood for: youth, the antiwar movement, the Harvard intellectuals.” In her book she writes that Johnson said she reminded him of his mother. Now she is saying, “It had less to do with me than the fact that he wanted to talk about his life and was faced with long, unplanned days.”

Someone who might be able to answer the question better—Johnson’s widow, Lady Bird—has never publicly discussed her husband’s relationship with Kearns. (Kearns sent a copy of her book and a letter to Lady Bird, who thanked her and congratulated her on the marriage.) A former Johnson aide, John Roche, believes Kearns was “possibly the victim of LBJ’s last con job.” Roche says Johnson told him “he liked her and thought he could ‘cure her of Harvard and that Bobby [Kennedy] crowd.’ ”

The book is complimentary. It depicts Johnson as a man who thrived on giving—whether it was an electric toothbrush or the Great Society—and who sputtered in frustration at the “ingratitude” of ghetto rioters and antiwar protesters. “I liked him immensely,” Kearns says today. “He was an extraordinary person. To be around him was always to be fascinated.”

Less enthralling was the literary and legal brouhaha Kearns brought upon herself before the book was published. She originally had contracted to write a Johnson biography for Basic Books, popular enough to earn back her $20,000 advance and serious enough to insure her being awarded tenure at Harvard. She worked closely with Erwin Glikes, president of Basic Books, from 1970 until April 1975.

At that point she said she wanted to write the book in collaboration with Richard Goodwin, who had a reputation as a brilliant if abrasive speechwriter for John Kennedy, Johnson and Eugene McCarthy. She and Goodwin had met in September 1972 at Harvard’s Kennedy Institute, where she was teaching government and he was writing a book. She says now that she was attracted to “his strength and capacity to be close and vulnerable in a private relationship” (traits which she admits she found in LBJ as well). Kearns says of her romance with Goodwin, “It wasn’t one of those star-gazing things.” Indeed, their relationship underwent a tragic turn after only a few months. Goodwin and his son had gone to Martinique on vacation. Unexpectedly, Goodwin’s wife, long mentally ill and living in an asylum, was granted a holiday pass. She came home to an empty house, took an overdose of sleeping pills and died.

In the aftermath, Kearns and Goodwin grew closer and eventually concluded they could pool their experiences with Johnson and write a more meaningful book. When Kearns returned Basic Books’ advance, Glikes sued. Kearns charged that Glikes had been showing more affection than she required from a publisher. Glikes denied this and claimed that Goodwin was profiteering and in one meeting “did everything short of banging his shoe on the table.” Finally everyone worked out an agreement. Goodwin dropped out of the project altogether.

In other ways, Kearns’s and Goodwin’s collaboration continued, and they were married last December in the library of their rented 18th-century home. The bride entered to the strains of Dulcinea from Man of La Mancha. A Catholic priest assisted by a Jewish layman performed the service. The guests were equally ecumenical, including Sen. Edward Kennedy, Nixon lawyer James St. Clair, Norman Mailer, Rolling Stone writer Hunter Thompson and Boston Mayor Kevin White.

Kearns says she grew up with “one part of me thinking I’ll get married at 18 and have five children and the other thinking I’ll go to college for a while, while I’m waiting.” She was raised in Rockville Centre, Long Island, the youngest of three daughters of a bank examiner. Her mother died when she was 14 and her father, whose own education ended with high school, never pressured her to attend college. But after Colby she went on to graduate school. “I kept thinking that at some point I’d stop, when I started having children.”

Now on leave from Harvard, Kearns plans to return in the fall to teach her popular course on the Presidency. (If granted tenure, she will be the youngest tenured full professor among the faculty women at Harvard.) She is working on an idea for a campaign-related television interview show this summer, having successfully taken on local TV assignments and interviews for the nationally broadcast Assignment America series in 1975. (A Brooklyn Dodger fan as a youngster, she says her favorite subject was former pitcher Carl Erskine, for a program on Brooklyn.) She is starting research on her next book, a study of social reform, and recently completed a limited promotion tour for her LBJ book. Goodwin himself writes an occasional column for the Boston Globe and Kearns hopes he will try a historical novel someday—”He’d be terrific.”

Goodwin’s 10-year-old son, Richard, who lives with them, calls her “Doris” most of the time, but “Mom” when she is being motherly, a role she enjoys. Kearns says now she “can’t imagine” not being married. “I couldn’t have gone the marriage-at-20-seven-kids route. I was too committed to forging out a career. But I have a sense of peace and calm now that I don’t have to compete.”

Meanwhile she is attending natural childbirth classes with Goodwin (“nine pregnant women with big bellies and husbands”), relaxing and not thinking about possible names. (Lyndon, if it’s a boy? “Oh, Christ,” she laughs.) She wants to have two or three children, “even a year apart.” They would not conflict with her career, she says—”not if I had them in the summers.”

Doris Kearns putters happily around their ancient house. “Before, I was afraid that any continuing success would prevent my having a real committed family life,” she says. “Not that men wouldn’t fall in love with me, but that I could not settle down with a family as a base. Now I have the time and psychic energy to pursue the work I love and a family. If only I’d trusted that would happen, I wouldn’t have had all those anxious days.”

Related Articles