Doris Kearns Goodwin worked in the White House for LBJ and has written extensively about US Presidents: Team of Rivals (Lincoln), The Bully Pulpit (Teddy Roosevent & Taft), and No Ordinary Time (FDR & Eleanor Roosevelt). For the November issue of Vanity Fair, she visited with Barack Obama in the White House to reflect on his progress and legacy as he approaches the end of his two terms in office. The resulting conversation is excellent.
Early in my presidency, I went to Cairo to make a speech to the Muslim world. And in the afternoon, after the speech, we took helicopters out to the pyramids. And they had emptied the pyramids for us, and we could just wander around for a couple hours [at] the pyramids and the Sphinx. And the pyramids are one of those things that live up to the hype. They’re elemental in ways that are hard to describe. And you’re going to these tombs and looking at the hieroglyphics and imagining the civilization that built these iconic images.
And I still remember it — because I hadn’t been president that long at that point — thinking to myself, There were a lot of people during the period when these pyramids were built who thought they were really important. And there was the equivalent of cable news and television and newspapers and Twitter and people anguishing over their relative popularity or position at any given time. And now it’s all just covered in dust and sand. And all that people know [today] are the pyramids.
Sometimes I carry with me that perspective, which tells me that my particular worries on any given day — how I’m doing in the polls or what somebody is saying about me … for good or for ill — isn’t particularly relevant. What is relevant is: What am I building that lasts?
I particularly enjoyed the part early on about ambition, adversity, and empathy. Oh, this short anecdote from Goodwin about LBJ is great:
L.B.J. had his amphibious car when he was president. He tricked me and took me in his car one day, and the Secret Service collaborated with him. L.B.J., behind the wheel, warned me, “Be careful, we’re going toward a lake. The brakes aren’t working.” Well, we go into the lake: the car became a boat. Then he got so mad at me because I didn’t get scared. I’d figured, He’s not going to die. And he said, “Don’t you Harvard people have enough sense to be scared?”
Has anyone in one of these interviews really pressed Obama on his drone policy? I think it’s the one big stain on his record and would love to hear his personal defense of it in length.