Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin Chats LINCOLN on NBC's 'Meet the Press'
In this week's "Meet the Press" PRESS Pass conversation, David Gregory sat down with author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to talk about the backstory behind Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, out now in theaters.
It only took three chapters of Kearns Goodwin's nascent and unfinished biography of the country's sixteenth president to spark Spielberg's interest.
"He found out that I was doing Lincoln, and so he had me shake hands that he'd have the first look," she said of the initial encounter. So when she finished the first three chapters, she gave Spielberg a sample and the deal was done -- he bought the rights to the film. From then on, the Academy Award-winning director had the world's pre-eminent Lincoln biographer at his side. "He would call me up and just … say … 'What did Lincoln do today?'" Kearns Goodwin said recalling speaking to Spielberg's attention to detail during production.
In the conversation with Gregory, Kearns Goodwin said President Obama, who is famously a fan of Team of Rivals, should follow Lincoln's example of achieving compromise with a difficult Congress by using his presidential influence over the American people in his second term.
"The one thing that President Obama said he's learned from his first term, is that his communication skills were not as he wished them to be. … It's not a question of his not having the words; I think he needs to connect himself more with the people in this second term."
A full transcript is below:
GREGORY: I'm David Gregory and this is PRESS Pass, your all-access pass to an extra Meet the Press conversation, and we've got a special one today. The story behind the new movie 'Lincoln' with Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book of course 'Team of Rivals' inspired the Steven Spielberg film. And she's of course a Meet the Press regular and she's back here, Doris. And of course, all of your books should inspire Steven Spielberg to start making big films, but he did this one here, and talk about that. Take me behind the scenes of that relationship with Spielberg, taking him to Springfield and how this project was born.
KEARNS GOODWIN: Well he's wanted to do Lincoln, he told me, for many, many years. He just wanted to wait until he was ready, he thought, to take him. He's thought about Lincoln a long time. So I met him way back in 1999 in a historian's panel on a documentary he was doing on the millennium. And he found out I was doing Lincoln, and so he had me shake hands that he'd have the first look, as if there would be 25 people lined up to do a historical movie about Lincoln. Then he went off and made a bunch of other movies, and he would call me up and just, as relaxation, say 'What did Lincoln do today?' And I'd tell him whatever Lincoln had done that day -- 1860, 1864, 1840. And he decided he didn't want to wait for the book -- I had only written three chapters -- so he bought it, and that meant he had it ready in his hands. And then he put Tony Kushner on it in 2006, 6 years ago, so this has been a long time in the making -- but he always wanted Daniel Day-Lewis so that was the big thing, to get him.
GREGORY: And before we get to him, what is it about Lincoln, the aspect about Lincoln, that he wanted to share with a broader, younger, new generation in this movie?
KEARNS GOODWIN: I think he wanted to make Lincoln a person that you could identify with intimately, and that's why he chose a short story rather than this big fat thing -- so that he could show his humor, he could show his sadness, he could show his conviction, his willingness to compromise, his political skills. And he wanted to show that a politician can be a great guy at a time when we're cynical about politics.
GREGORY: Right, and feeling that politics is letting us down so much. Daniel Day-Lewis --
KEARNS GOODWIN: Unbelievable character. So I got to meet him when he first agreed to become Lincoln, but he hadn't been announced yet. So they asked me to take him to Springfield under an assumed name. So I worked with all my guys at the Lincoln house, the law offices, the museum – 'don't let anybody know it's us going around.' And we made it perfectly through everything until somebody wanted a sandwich -- there were some other people with us -- and somebody in the sandwich shop suddenly saw him, took a picture, and then they had to announce that Daniel Day was Lincoln. But even then, he was absorbing it. I remember I took him through Mary and Lincoln's house, and the ceilings are low and he couldn't wait to get out of the house, he said, 'I felt claustrophobic in that house.' And it wasn't only the low ceilings; Lincoln was claustrophobic in that house.
GOODWIN: And then he said, 'I need another year," he told Spielberg, 'before you can start filming. I have to learn about this man.' So he would e-mail -- I would get messages from him, 'I need to read about Henry Clay, I have to know what's the best book on Daniel Webster.' He'd gone back in time. He's just an extraordinary character.
GREGORY: And once he became Lincoln, in the filming of this there was no more Daniel Day-Lewis.
GOODWIN: Oh, absolutely. In fact, when I went down to Richmond to the set, you know, they'd have pictures of Sally Field and Mary. They'd have pictures of Thaddeus Stevens and Tommy Lee Jones. But at the top it just said Lincoln-Lincoln. And all the actors had to call him Mr. Lincoln. The guy who played Stanton told me a great story: That he was so nervous about meeting Daniel Day, but he was told you're only supposed to call him 'Mr. Lincoln.' So he started off telling a story from the pasT. Stanton had hurt Lincoln in reality way back in the 1850's, so he said, 'I apologize, Mr.Lincoln, for having hurt you in that law case back in the 1850's.' And then Daniel Day said, 'It's alright, I've forgiven you.' So they all were -- they said whenever they heard him coming down the hall, they all thought, 'Oh my God, here comes the president.'
GREGORY: I think of you as a movie star, and in this case, you have, like a movie star, brought a clip from the film. Set this clip up a little bit in terms of what we're seeing in a brief look inside this movie, talk about what we're seeing here with this conversation with Seward pushing for the abolition of slavery.
GOODWIN: I mean, the main thing that happens is Lincoln makes a decision after he's won the election that he needs the 13th Amendment, because once the war ends, the Emancipation Proclamation will no longer have legal validity. He was only able to issue it because it was a war measure. And he's so afraid if the war ends without some permanent dealing with slavery, then slavery could come back. So he's taking this huge risk by going to a Congress that had already turned it down, but, he realizes a lot of Democrats there who've lost their seats -- and he can use his power, he can give them jobs, he can give them what he wants. So he trades -- I mean jobs were not illegal, that's important to remember – but he'll do anything he has to. And you see these raucous scenes of getting that Congress -- and you don't even know how the vote's going to end, that's what makes it work.
GREGORY: And so here's a clip that we have.
Clip from film 'Lincoln':
SEWARD: We'll win the war soon, it's inevitable, isn't it?
LINCOLN: Well, it ain't won yet.
SEWARD:, You'll begin your second term with semi-divine stature. Imagine the possibilities peace will bring. Why tarnish your invaluable luster with a battle in the House? It's a rat's nest in there. It's the same gang of talentless hicks and hacks who rejected the Amendment ten months ago. We'll lose."
LINCOLN: I like our chances now.
GREGORY: Why does he like our chances now?
GOODWIN: Well, because he just feels like it has to get done now. I mean, it was a -- it took a big risk for him to do that. But the great thing is he gets these lobbyists to run around and promising things to everybody, they chase around doing it. And even until the last minute of the film, you're not sure whether this amendment is going to pass. Spielberg somehow got extraordinary acting out of all the minor characters, so you watch their face when they stand up to go for the vote or not, and you can't tell what they're going to do, and suddenly their face falls and you say 'They're not going for it' or their face smiles, 'I'm going for it.'
GREGORY: I watched the trailers, and I have to say one of the things that stands out: Lincoln had a high voice?
GOODWIN: He absolutely had a high voice. I mean, people said, 'Why didn't he become a baritone in this thing?' There are people recording how he -- not recording, but describing -- how he talked then. The great thing about having a high voice in the 1850's, 1860's: You're speaking outdoors, there's no microphone. High voices travel over the crowd, so way back at the crowd, they could hear hiM. Stephen Douglas with his big voice, you couldn't hear him five rows back. So people wished he had a baritone voice. They also knew -- we also knew how he walked. There are people who describe that Lincoln walked like a laborer, that he had the world of burden on his shoulders, his hands behind his back. Watch the way he walks, it's the way Lincoln walked. Most importantly though, to me, was Lincoln's humor comes out in this film. The only thing I insisted when I talked to Tony and saw dozens of scripts was, 'Please put more stories in.' And you'll see there's a bunch of times where Lincoln tells stories that are irritating to everybody else around because important business is going on and he'll tell a funny story. But when he tells a story, his face comes alive, his sadness goes away. He said stories were his way of whistling off sadness, because he had a melancholy temperament. And I think that'll be -- the fact that Lincoln was a great politician and that he was humorous will be a nice surprise for a lot of people.
GREGORY: It seems like it's so hard to put Lincoln into modern political context. I can just imagine, you know, the twitter treatment of Lincoln trying to abolish slavery. You know, 'hash-tag how's he going to get this done.' But there is a leadership lesson that you think is important now and is important for President Obama embarking on a second term, as he seeks to be what he's always wanted to be, which is not just a president but a great president.
KEARNS GOODWIN: Absolutely. I mean I think the timing of it couldn't be better and it's just coincidence that it really happened to be. So what the whole film is about is after the election, before the new Congress comes in, having to get something done with people who are leaving the office and coming in. And, it's compromise. I mean he's able to bring the radical faction, who wants to have something much more than the 13th Amendment -- they want to have equality -- and that's Thaddeus Stevens, and the conservative faction who's not sure about this, even in the Republican Party. And the Democrats, who are absolutely against it. And somehow his leadership ability -- There's this great scene, it's not just a scene, its Lincoln's actual words: 'I am clothed with immense power, you will get this vote.' So, a president is clothed with immense power, if they use the leadership skills to make it happen.
GREGORY: And one of the things that you've talked about, and other historians have as well, that if the president is not quite yet a transformational president -- he's certainly an historic figure, the first African-American president. But not a transformational figure because he has not yet really been able to turn public opinion and craft it in such a way, in the way that Lincoln did, and recognized the importance of.
KEARNS GOODWIN: Yeah, I think the one thing that President Obama said he's learned from his first term, is that his communication skills were not as he wished them to be. And that's critical in a democracy. I mean, I think the Affordable Healthcare Act is a transformational act, but he wasn't able to persuade the country, even still, how extraordinarily important it is. And I think that you watch him on victory night, he was able to speak to that crowd with such energy and such conviction and moral strength, because he needs the energy of the crowd. It's not a question of his not having the words; I think he needs to connect himself more with the people in this second term. Lincoln had these public opinion baths where they could just come in and talk to him in the morning. Not sure that's gonna happen, but I think if he takes -- I think if I were him, this summer I would take a train, the way Theodore Roosevelt did, around the country, with his family, stop at village stations. He needs that, it's almost like when he's with the crowds, as he is in the campaign, something happens to him. And the White House becomes a bubble, and then your communication skills go down because you're not feeling the people. The reason FDR was such a great speaker was that he had two press conferences a week. Maybe that's what he could do. Because he got the feeling of the people through those people in the press. Somehow he's gotta keep that connection with the people going in order to communicate better what's happening.
GREGORY: Is it harder in this media environment, in this special interest environment, in this broader political environment, to be a conviction politician?
KEARNS GOODWIN: I think it's harder to use the bully pulpit to express your convictions now. The bully pulpit is not what it was in the old days. When Lincoln gave a speech, it would be printed in full in the newspapers. Everybody would read the whole speech. When FDR gave his radio chats, 80 percent of the audience is listening to him whole. Now somebody gives a talk, and immediately the pundits, sometimes including myself, are talking about it before it's even been absorbed by the country. Somebody yells, like Joe Wilson did, 'You lie' -- that becomes the story. And, even when JFK gave his speech to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the network cut right back to ordinary programming. We need to allow the president's communications to be absorbed more by the country before the cable 27 hour, not 27 -- 24 hour/7 takes in.
GREGORY: Yeah, the power of your words and your works, like 'Team of Rivals,' is well-established. For you to be involved with this project, with this film, what is the power of that medium, of a film like this to bring history alive, which I know you care so much about.
KEARNS GOODWIN: It's been so exciting. I think the main reason is that all I could ever see of Lincoln were these pictures taken at the time which are very stiff. I never saw him walk, I never saw him talk. But I thought about him for ten years. And now suddenly, through Daniel Day's performance, he's alive. And for millions of Americans, they're going to see -- that's the most amazing thing that he does, is you feel you're just watching Lincoln, you don't feel you're in a movie. It's a very curious experience, this movie. And to bring this iconic figure to life, as a human being with humor, with conviction, with compromise, with political skills, it's a great lesson for all of us. And, when I'm used to dead presidents, I've now got a live one. The funniest thing is I always used to say that Lincoln was sexy. I said it once on television, and Jon Stewart never let me get away with it. But now I can point to Daniel Day and say, you know, he really is sexy.
GREGORY: He really is -- your best friend forever, Daniel Day-Lewis. Doris Kearns Goodwin, thank you so much.
KEARNS GOODWIN: You're so welcome.