Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, used history to try to explain to an audience at Fresno State on Monday night the “wildest, most crazy election we’ve had in our lifetime.”
About 1,000 people turned out at the Save Mart Center to hear Goodwin’s talk, which was co-sponsored by The Fresno Bee and KSEE 24.
Goodwin said the 2016 election could alter the role of political parties in the future – or even break them.
“The (Oct. 9) debate obviously served as a final breaking point for the Republicans who have long been thinking about what to do about (Donald) Trump,” said Goodwin, who has studied and written about American presidents for more than 40 years.
The most pertinent election to look at would be the 1912 presidential race, said Goodwin, whose book “The Bully Pulpit” examined that election. “And that in the end is what’s caused this whole thing.”
In 1912, the Republican Party was at war with itself. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, unhappy with the job that his successor William Howard Taft was doing, challenged him for the party’s nomination. When Roosevelt failed, he created the Progressive Party and called his own convention. Both men lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Before 1912, party leaders controlled who was nominated for president, Goodwin said.
The debate obviously served as a final breaking point for the Republicans who have long been thinking about what to do about Mr. Trump.
Doris Kearns Goodwin
If party leaders were still in control, “they would never have chosen a Mr. Trump,” she said. Leaving it up to the people to vote created modern campaigning that led to candidates publicly attacking one another.
“The New York Times wrote an editorial in 1912, saying, ‘If this is the first example of this new system under primaries choosing the nominees instead of the old conventions, we sincerely hope it’s our last. This is not a real election; this is a mob. Foreigners must be looking at us and wondering what’s happening.’ ” Goodwin said. “It could be said today – the same thing.”
She said the 2016 election likely will have an impact on future elections.
If parties mean anything at all, then I think they have to have some sense that they have an influence on who their nominee is. It’s the most important thing they do.
Doris Kearns Goodwin
“If parties mean anything at all, then I think they have to have some sense that they have an influence on who their nominee is. It’s the most important thing they do,” she said.
Regaining control will be difficult for party leaders, she said. Once the parties gave up control on who their nominee would be, it made it hard to take that power back from the people, she added.
“It’s the wildest, most crazy election we’ve had in our lifetime, and a really disheartening election,” she said. “When you think about the level of discourse, and what went on in the debates with them talking about body parts to one another and yelling at one another – saying ‘You’re a liar. You’re a thief’ – that kind of language was certainly around in the 19th century.” But the scale was so much smaller without TV or social media, she added, that things didn’t get this out of hand.
Goodwin said it’s sad that the United States may be looking at its first female president in Hillary Clinton, but the significance of that has been overshadowed by Trump.
Trump, she said, has been an enigma in the election and debates.
“The incredible thing was that during the primary campaign, he said things that any one of which would sink a candidate in a previous election,” she said. “Starting out with the ban on Muslims, and the wall (along the Mexico border) and the rapists coming over from Mexico – and then his controversy with Megyn Kelly. I thought – mistakenly – that after he went after the Khan family during the Democratic convention … that that was the end. And it never was the end.”
She said Trump has capitalized on the feelings of Americans who feel left behind by globalization. Whether they actually have been left behind or not, those feelings are very real, and the election is emotionally charged, she said.
The major parties can see how much disapproval the public has for both sides, she said, and both know they have to do something about it.
“They know the people are saying ‘a plague on both your houses’ right now,” she said.
Goodwin was a White House Fellow during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and helped him draft his memoirs. She has written books on presidents Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. Her book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” was the basis for the Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln” starring Daniel Day-Lewis – a role that won him the Academy Award as best actor.
In politics, she often uses Lincoln as her example. People who have lost faith in the presidential race should still vote, she said, and even Lincoln would still have voted. If people don’t vote for president, there are still a lot of important issues and lower-level offices to vote for.
“When Lincoln was running for election, he was embarrassed to vote for himself,” Goodwin said. “At first, he wasn’t going to vote, and they went, ‘You have to vote.’ So he went and he just didn’t check the one on top. It’s good he didn’t lose by one vote.”