Christian Long

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Learning from Past Presidents

In TED Talks on April 12, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Reflection by SUSIE C.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Doris Kearns Goodwin:  Learning from Past Presidents

The great psychologist Erik Erikson believes that the secret to a happy and successful life is finding the balance between work, love, and play, and now, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who attended a seminar with Erik Erikson during college, is taking that idea to heart and using her passion for history to bring it to life.

Abraham Lincoln’s greatest goal in life was to be remembered. He had a childhood filled with many losses; his mother, sister, and first love all died before he was 22. Right before his mother died she told him “”Abraham, I’m going away from you now, and I shall never return.” This scared the young Abraham, who was only nine at the time, but he found comfort in a Greek idea that if you did something memorable and worthy with your life you would live on in the memories of others.

This belief gave Lincoln a purpose in life and helped him to push and persevere for his political career. He defeated three very experienced candidate in the run for presidency and when he became President, he appointed all three men to his Cabinet to great uproar and amazement. He know and recognized that they were the most able men for the job and did not begrudge their superiority to him in certain regards, but rather accepted it and used it to help the nation as a whole.

Lincoln was very dedicated and had great ambition, ambition that helped him to self-educate himself, become a presidential candidate, and eventually win the Presidency.

Another great American President Lyndon B. Johnson, also worked very hard. However, LBJ did not balance that work with love and play. He had achieved great accomplishments during his Presidency; three civil rights laws, Medicare, and aid to education. However, his focus on work to the exclusion of all else meant that after his term ended he found no joy in his life. Doris Kearns Goodwin, who personally knew him, said, “It was almost as if the hole in his heart was so large that even the love of a family, without work, could not fill it. As his spirits sagged, his body deteriorated until, I believe, he slowly brought about his own death.”

Lincoln, however, did know how to balance his life. He loved story telling, and had many jokes and stories stored in his brain from his days as a travelling lawyer that he would use to lighten the mood at meetings. He also enjoyed the arts. He made time to go to the theatre almost one-hundred nights during his presidency.

Lincoln’s balance of work, love, and play gave him a successful, memorable, and hopefully satisfying life. His greatest desire has come true, and he shall live on forever in the memories of future generations, not just Americans.

My favorite part of this talk is when Goodwin discusses an interview with Russian writer Leon Tolstoy that she found from a newspaper in the early 1900’s. This interview really shows that Lincoln’s reputation and accomplishments will remembered for far longer and on a far grander scale than he could have ever imagined. In the interview Leon Tolstoy tells of his recent trip to a remote region of the Caucasus. At this time, the people of there were wild barbarians who had never left their small region. Knowing that Tolstoy was visiting them from the outside world, they asked him to tell stories of the great men of history.

He told them many stories of Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Frederick the Great, and Julius Caesar. However, when he was done telling the stories, the chief stood up and said, “But wait, you haven’t told us about the greatest ruler of them all. We want to hear about that man who spoke with a voice of thunder, who laughed like the sunrise, who came from that place called America, which is so far from here, that if a young man should travel there, he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man. Tell us of Abraham Lincoln.”

I am sure that Lincoln would have considered his life a success if he could have heard this one chief in this one small region on the opposite side of the world who considered him greater the Julius Caesar. All because he had a balance work, love, and play, which even a barbarian chief could recognize and comment on: “a voice of thunder(work), who laughed like the sunrise(play).”


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