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Dartmouth News > News Releases > 1998 > June >  

Doris Kearns Goodwin
Commencement address
June 14, 1998

Posted 06/14/98

It is indeed a particular honor to stand before you today, for I feel I have come full circle to the moment when, as a 10-year-old girl, I vowed with the ferocity that perhaps only a 10-year-old can muster, that Dartmouth was the only college that I ever wanted to attend. I had spent a magical summer here with my older sister, who was a nurse at Mary Hitchcock Hospital, and her husband who was at Dartmouth Medical School, and I could not wait to grow up and come back as a college student. But sadly, my timing was off by a decade or more, for Dartmouth had not yet opened its doors to women, so as I stand here today in the year that celebrates the 25th anniversary of coeducation, the dream of a 10-year-old has finally been realized: I shall receive my Dartmouth degree at last!

I would like this morning to turn time on its head, in order to focus on old age looking backwards instead of youth looking forward, the more typical theme of graduation speeches. I would like to share with you at the outset the experience I had with President Lyndon Johnson in the last years of his life during his retirement at his ranch, as he looked back on the choices he had made, wishing he had chosen differently, feeling despair and terror at the thought of death. I started working with him when he was still in the White House, when I was, I admit with some trepidation these days, a 24-year-old White House intern. But our relationship had a less promising start.

Indeed, the very next day after a ball at the White House to celebrate the selection of the White House fellows, the president discovered that I had been actively involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement and had written an article entitled "How to Dump Lyndon Johnson." I thought for sure he would kick me out of the program, but instead he said, "Oh, bring her down here for a year and if I can't win her over, no one can."

So I worked for him in the White House his last year of the presidency and then accompanied him to his ranch to help him on his memoirs. Now on the surface he should have had everything in the world to be grateful for: His career in politics had reached a peak with his election to the presidency; he had all the money he needed to pursue any leisure activity he wanted; he owned a spacious ranch in the country, a penthouse apartment in the city, a half-dozen cars equipped with traveling bars, a sailboat, a speedboat, a movie theater in his own home, and an incredible swimming pool equipped with floating rafts, on top of which were floating desks and floating notepads and floating sandwiches and floating drinks. He had servants to answer every whim and the opportunity to travel anywhere in the world. And yet the man I saw in his retirement had spent so many years in pursuit of work, power and individual success that he had absolutely no psychic or emotional resources left to commit himself to anything once the presidency was gone.

So dominant had politics been, constricting his horizon in every sphere, that once the realm of high power was taken from him, he was drained of all vitality. Years of concentration solely on work meant that in his retirement he could find no solace in recreation, sports or hobbies. As his spirits sagged, his body deteriorated, until I believe he slowly brought about his own death.

A month before he died, he spoke to me with immense sadness in his voice. He said he was watching the American people absorbed in a new president, forgetting him, forgetting even the great civil rights laws that he had passed. He was beginning to think his quest for immortality had been in vain, that perhaps he would have been better off focusing his time and attention on his wife and his children, so then he could have had a different sort of immortality through his children and their children in turn. He could have depended on them in a way he couldn't depend on the American people. But it was too late. Four weeks later he was dead. Despite all his money and power he was completely alone when he died, his ultimate terror realized.

As I understand the implications of this story, it reinforces a central wisdom I learned years ago at a seminar taught by the great Harvard psychologist Erik Erikson. And he taught us that the richest and fullest lives attain an inner balance of work, love and play, in equal order, that to pursue one to the disregard of others is to open oneself to ultimate sadness in older age, whereas to pursue all three with equal dedication is to make possible an old age filled with serenity, peace and fulfillment.

As for the first sphere of work, I've come to realize the older I get that the key is enjoyment of the process itself, notwithstanding the end result. Perhaps Johnson's retirement might have been less difficult if all his life he had enjoyed the process of politics for its own sake, for that process could have continued even in his retirement in his home town. But for him, sadly, it was the end result that mattered, the victories won, the power achieved, and once that was taken away, everything was lost.

Eleanor Roosevelt's last days provide a sharp contrast. All her life she took pleasure in her daily work, in using her power and celebrity to help others less fortunate than she. As first lady she provided a voice for people who did not have access to power, poor people, migrant workers, tenant farmers, coal miners, blacks and women. Indeed, at her weekly press conferences she invited only female reporters, knowing that newspapers all over the country would be forced to hire their first female reporter in order to have access to the first lady. An entire generation of female journalists got their start as a result. And after her husband's death she remained a powerful inspiration to activists in the civil rights movement and the international struggle for human rights. As a consequence, at the close of her life, she was neither haunted nor saddened by what might have been. On the contrary she sustained an active engagement with the world until the very end.

So as you figure out the kind of work you want to do, the challenge is to find work imbued with meaning, work that provides enjoyment on a daily basis. If you choose a career for money or prestige or security but dislike going to work more days than not, it will never be worth it in the long run. As for the sphere of play, I've learned over the years that even with sports and recreation and hobbies, there's a need for a level of commitment of time and energy deep enough to really enjoy something and be able to derive relaxation from it.

In my research on Franklin Roosevelt, I concluded that a central aspect of his leadership during World War II was his ability to relax at the end of the day, to cast off his worries and enjoy himself for a few precious hours, thus replenishing his energies to meet the struggles of the following day. Because of his paraplegia, he was unable to relax in traditional ways by playing golf or tennis or taking long walks, so his found his relaxation through conversation with friends and associates. At the end of each day he loved nothing more than sitting in his study over the cocktail hour with his friends, telling old stories and jokes. Indeed he had a rule in his cocktail hour that nothing serious could be brought up; discussion of the war or the problems of the day were strictly forbidden. He was also able to relax with marathon poker games at night with his cabinet officers where the only thought was how to beat the other guys at poker and win the game.

Indeed in order to facilitate his ability to relax at the end of the day, he invited his closest friends to actually live in the family quarters of the White House during the war, turning the White House into a small intimate hotel with permanent house guests, including besides Franklin and Eleanor, his secretary Missy LeHand who started working for him in 1920, was his hostess in the White House when Eleanor was on the road; his closest aide Harry Hopkins, who stayed over after dinner one night early in the war and never left until the war ended; Eleanor's closest friend Lorena Hickcock, who had a bedroom next to Eleanor's; a beautiful princess from Norway, Martha, in exile in America during the war, and of course the incomparable Winston Churchill, who spent weeks and even months at a time in a bedroom diagonally across from Franklin Roosevelt's, bringing his valet, his cigars and his ever-present brandy with him.

Well, I found myself so intrigued by the fabulous conversations that all these interesting people must have had as they wandered the corridors at night in their robes, that I kept wishing I could see the second floor of the family quarters of the White House once more. I had been up there with Lyndon Johnson when I was 24, but I never thought of asking, "Where did Eleanor sleep?", "Where was Churchill?", "Where was Franklin?"

I happened to mention this on a radio show in Washington which Hillary Clinton happened to hear so she called me up and promptly invited me to sleep overnight in the White House. She said we could then we could wander the corridors together and figure out where everyone had slept 50 years before. A couple of weeks later she followed up with an invitation to a state dinner, after which between midnight and 2, the president, my husband, Mrs. Clinton and I did indeed with my map in hand go through every room up there and figure out whose it had been during the war, and the best part is that we realized we were sleeping in Winston Churchill's bedroom. So the whole night there was no way I could sleep, certain he was sitting in the corner, drinking his brandy and smoking his cigar. In fact it was the scene of my absolutely favorite story of World War II which was on January 1, 1942, when Churchill was sleeping there, he and Roosevelt were set to sign a document that put the Allied Nations against the Axis powers. The Allied Nations were calling themselves then the Associated Nations, and no one liked the word. So early that morning Roosevelt awakened with a whole new idea of calling themselves the United Nations -- this is where the word gets born. He's so excited he has himself wheeled into Churchill's bedroom, our bedroom, to tell him the news. But it so happened that Churchill was just coming out of the bathtub and had absolutely nothing on. So Roosevelt said, "I'm so sorry, I'll come back in a moment." But Churchill, ever able to speak spontaneously in a very formal voice said, "Oh no, please stay, the Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the President of the United States." Can you imagine, you're dripping from the tub and your stomach is sticking out and you can think of something like that?

On a personal level, I will always be grateful to my father for instilling in me an irrational passion for baseball, so deep that it remains a large part of my life today and gives me a field of play that occupies me for more than half the year. I can still remember as if it were yesterday sitting on our porch when I was six or seven years old, waiting for my father to return from work so I could share with him the results of that afternoon's Brooklyn Dodgers game, which I had preserved play by play, inning by inning, in the red score book he had given me. No doubt my love of history was planted in those nightly sessions when he sat by my side in seemingly rapt attention as I recounted in excruciating detail the entire history of that afternoon's game. In fact for years my father never told me that all of this was actually described in the newspapers the next day. So I thought that without me he would never even know what happened to our beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. Little wonder that history held a magic for me as a child which it still continues to hold to this day. And even in these past years, as I settled in Boston and became an irrational Boston Red Sox fan, I have found myself following many of the same rituals with my son at Fenway Park that I followed with my father, who died before any of my children were born. It may all sound a little crazy, but such is the spell cast by these rituals that if I close my eyes against the sun at Fenway, I picture myself back at Ebbetts Field with my father, watching the players of my childhood, Jackie Robinson, Peewee Reese, Duke Snider. And when I open my eyes and see my three sons in the place where my father once sat, I feel a bond among our three generations, linking my sons to the grandfather whose face they never had a chance to see, but whose person they have come to know through the magic of baseball.

And as for the final sphere of love and friendship, I can only say it gets harder once the natural communities of college and home town are gone. It takes work and commitment, demands toleration for human frailties, forgiveness for the inevitable disappointment and betrayals that come even with the best of relationships. For me the most moving moment in the story of Franklin and Eleanor's life was Eleanor's ability to forgive Franklin in the months after his death for the deep hurt she had endured upon discovering that he had been with a woman he once loved, Lucy Mercer, when he died. Though it seemed at first as if the hurt would be too much to bear, she was eventually able to come to terms with the combination of flaws and enormous strengths that her husband possessed. With a strength of will that never faltered, she deliberately chose to remember only the good times that they had shared, never the estrangement and pain, which allowed her to go forward in life without bitterness, to build on the foundation of love, respect and affection that they had shared for nearly half a century.

What is more, beyond the difficulty of engaging oneself deeply in each individual sphere of love, work and play, it is extremely hard to find the right balance over time. I know that my own life was far too tilted toward work and ambition in my 20s, and then the painful experience of watching Lyndon Johnson die tilted me back toward family and friends. I got married, had children, was a professor at Harvard trying to teach and write and be with my kids, doing nothing right. I finally decided to give up teaching so I could have time to write and be at home with my family. And even then it still took 10 years to write my second book, on the Kennedys. I remember being at a party during this time while still struggling with the book and I overheard somebody say, "Whatever happened to Doris Kearns, anyway?" as if I had died by not being at Harvard anymore and not producing anything. But the book finally came out, and I'd like to think it made no difference to the world how long it took but it mattered to my kids when they were young. It all goes so quickly. My oldest son is now out of college, the younger two at Amherst and Harvard, it seems like yesterday they were five and six years old. To be sure some opportunities were lost. When the boys were toddlers I was approached about being the head of the Peace Corps, a job I would have relished a decade before. But there was no way I could be away from home as much as it entailed. When I talked to the people in the White House to explain why I couldn't consider it, they understood perfectly about the family obligations, but when I added, "And you see we also have season tickets to the Red Sox, and I think this is the year, so I can't be out of Boston," there was this huge silence at the other end. I'm sure they were saying, "Thank God this woman didn't take the job -- what is the matter with her anyway!" But the point is, even if some opportunities were lost by the choices made when the children were little, there's still plenty of time now to move in new directions. It was just a matter of trusting in the choices that were made.

So in closing I would leave each of you with the hope that as you make your own choices over time, you will choose in such a way that allows your drive for achievement to be balanced by an equal commitment to love and to play, to family, to friends and community. I hope that none of you, no matter how successful you become, ever have to experience the sadness and the loneliness that Lyndon Johnson experienced. For nothing, no amount of power or success is worth that. I hope instead that when you are "old and gray and full of sleep," as the poet William Butler Yeats once wrote, that you can say that your goal in life was not the perfection of work alone but the perfection of a life. It is that wish I leave you with today, along with my heartiest congratulations on this day that means so much to you and to your families. Thank you very much.

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