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Historian recalls personal encounters with Bush, his quiet humility

Presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin recalls a humorous incident during a visit years ago to the home of former President George H.W. Bush, an ordeal that ended with him telling her, “at least you write well,” she says. Goodwin joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington, D.C., to talk more about what she described as his quiet humility.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Joining me now from Washington, D.C. is Pulitzer Prize winning author and presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Doris thanks for being with us. First, you know in the last 24 hours what we've heard so consistently in talking about the president, the late president, is about his public service and it seems that we're in an era now where public service is more of a liability than a strength that there is .. if you have more on the public record it will be used against you in the court of public opinion and how you run campaigns and when you try to become president. That wasn't the case for George H.W. Bush

  • DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

    Absolutely not and my biggest hope for young people watching this coverage in these last couple of days will be that they can see what an honorable profession it is to be a public servant. Think of the adventure that George Bush was able to go through you know between being a congressman being a war hero you know being in the CIA and envoy to China ambassador to theU.N. and then of course vice president and president. There's no question but that that winding path of all those different experiences made him a better leader but more importantly what an honorable life to have done that for public service. There was a time in the 60s when that was the way people went. I want young people to know that again today and that's the best that can come out of this wonderful tribute to George Bush.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The theme of humility comes over and over again all throughout his life I mean this is the person who got a Flying Cross. This is not a medal that they just hand out. And yet he rarely spoke about his military service and what happened in World War II.

  • DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

    Yeah and how different that is from today when you think almost that the media demands today that the people talk about themselves and they put themselves forward and say I did this and I did that. But I think that was true of that generation people who saw war knew what war meant and they talked about it maybe between themselves but didn't boast about it when they came home. And again that's a quality that would be so nice to replicate in our young people today too. There's a lot of examples. I think we can draw from the character of this man.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Interestingly it's that kind of reluctance to communicate some of that personal narrative that ended up working somewhat against him and that he wasn't able to communicate the best kind of the plight of the country and what he was trying to do.

  • DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

    It's interesting because people say that the reason he couldn't do that was that he lacked empathy. I'm not sure that's true because all the people who know him well talk about the empathy that he showed toward them. And I remember hearing an incident where he had had it first and set up a teleprompter to him and it didn't work well and so he made a mistake as a result and he yelled at the person and then right afterward went into him and said that's not the dignity of the presidency. I shouldn't have done that. But what he was was detached from the daily lives of ordinary people. And that's the problem in a presidency. Lincoln tried to handle that by having morning meetings where he'd meet with ordinary people. Two hours every day to hear their stories. Teddy Roosevelt used to take a train around the country six weeks every spring and every fall just so he could talk to people in their own homes. And that detachment hurt him very much when that recession happened and Clinton bowled right in and understood their pain and their feelings.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You mentioned empathy. You also have a personal story. You went to Kennebunkport Maine with your family.

  • DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

    And my son Joey who had joined the Army after 9/11 had served in Iraq. So President Bush and Barbara Bush invited us up for the day in Kennebunk. So first we went on that cigarette boat which is terrifyingly scary 86, 68 miles an hour. I was just holding on in the back then we had lunch with the family and such a simple lunch. We talked about the Clintons actually because he had just seen Bill Clinton that friendship was already beginning to come. And we had Klondyke Krispies I remember for dessert and he had these crazy socks on and my husband also wore crazy socks and we just had a terrific time. But then as we were leaving I went into the bathroom which was right in front of the round driveway. And I went in I somehow locked the door and I could not get out. I was trying and trying. So finally President Bush sent my son around through the window to see if he could get in and help me but he couldn't get in the window. He had to take a hammer to get the lock out. So I finally come out. I was so embarrassed and he says with this huge smile on his face. Well at least you right. Well so every time I go in a bathroom now and I lock the door I keep thinking of President Bush and the hammer and breaking his lock.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All Right. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin joining us from Washington D.C. tonight thanks so much.

  • DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

    You're so welcome.

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