Bookseller conventions have their perks. Near the end of my career as a bookseller, I had the grand opportunity to sit next to historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, most famous for her biographies of Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedys and the Roosevelts, at the convention dinner where she was a keynote speaker. This is especially significant—at least to me, because Doris Kearns Goodwin was once the object of the closest thing I ever had as an adult to a celebrity crush.
The crush was a secret that I appropriately kept from her for the couple of hours we shared in the dinner hall. I forewent much of the school boy gush: Traded such statements about loving her work and asking her about the challenges of working with her subjects—being polite (or timid) around the issue of Lyndon Johnson and his reputation for hands that roamed as much as most men’s fantasies. Better that banter than exposing my fantasy that ignores the reality of Mr. Goodwin.
Doris Kearns Goodwin is smart. She is cute. She knows how to turn our allure to history's charismatic characters and to salt their personae so that we don’t recognize them as history, but, rather a compelling and even slightly sexy story. She also loves baseball and knows the importance of the institution to American culture and the importance of baseball’s stories (history) to the American story.
I saw her as the lone woman commentator for Ken Burns’ baseball documentary aired on PBS back in the mid 1990s. Except for the fact that I was currently in love at the time, I would have fallen head over heals right then.
When she got up to give her talk, her small frame struck an imposing figure, in spite of her slight and petite size. Her words were large as she read off her page, like the smart kid in class, grown-up school girl who was making good, once again, on her promise to go far. She stood at the podium with her smart suit, smart ideas and a smart gaze at her notes, the ones that held her assignment for the night.
But before her talk, we had the chance to share a mediocre meal, great conversation and, one or two great ideas.
This was big. I had the best seat in the house, which is saying a lot given that the other keynote speaker was Suds Trukel. I don’t remember much of the conversation. I am sure any facility in conversing was compromised by my not wanting to appear too fawning or by the fear that I could not possibly hold my end of a conversation with her about any Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Lyndon Johnson.
But, of course, the conversation turned to politics. And even my reticent self knew that this was one subject on which I knew a little more than my opinions.
The next year would be a Presidential election year and somehow the conversation turned to who we wanted to see as the next President of the United States. She said something that shocked me. She said, You know who I think should be the next President of the United States? Paul Wellstone.
I smiled to myself. Two thoughts crossed my mind. The first was that she was just saying this because she was in Minnesota amongst a crowd that almost certainly loved Paul—unconditionally. This may have been true, but I did not quiz her on this.
‑The second thought was, Oh, here we go again. A well-off, out-of-touch elite who is going to go on about how wonderful and liberal Paul is and “don’t you just love him?” But what she said surprised me. It was smarter than a knee jerk and was what I now see as a distinction that, today, is fading: that distinction between liberal and progressive.
She said something like this: You know, Paul and Sheila (Wellstone) are just about the only people on Capitol Hill and maybe the only ones in the Senate, who, when they go out, have to pay attention to how much they spend. She reminded/pointed out that the Senate was a club of the very wealthy. As such, most of them had little perspective on what it meant for most Americans to live day to day, make their way through the mine field of common economic and social realities.
It was an important articulation of the difference between liberal and progressive. Today, the two seem to be used interchangeably, since so many people have become shy to use the world liberal and find “progressive” more trendy. It seems the term liberal has gone out of favor, for some good reasons and some not so good ones, but seems to have as much to do with the waning of liberal glory that reached its apex with the charisma of Camelot and found its nadir in the series of political defeats, culminating in the disaster of Michael Dukakis’ campaign that will ever be marked by the press opportunity image of his egg-head bobbing out of the hatch of that blasted tank. (I think it is more than an urban legend that said that the guy who had the idea for this photo-op was looking for work before the next news cycle.)
Paul was a progressive. A profound and fundamental antidote to the criticism that says all non-right wing politics is about the elites. He was also the response to a subculture that looks to segments of society with mock pity and finds itself sufficiently superior to the masses upon whom their empire was built. The class that hands out bread crumbs of mock generosity left from their lavish feast. And Paul still stood in profound opposition to the supremacist cultures that chose to pick on an underclass that includes more of us than we care to admit. We would still rather do for ourselves than have the crumbs handed to us.
And at the same time, looking closely to the public that surrounded Paul made us look at the liberal, conservative, progressive, tentative moderate, and supremacist in ourselves. It is a place where we met the enemy if we looked in the mirror—if we looked.
But I didn't need to think about any such complex social diagrams. I didn't need to remember Stud's stories. I didn't need to think much about the dinner which was most likely chicken and something. I didn't need to sound smarter than the school boy I never was in front of the smartest girl in the class. No matter, because I got to sit with her, talk with her and at least seem smart in front of her. (Or she made me feel smart.)
Could Dr. Doris Kearns Goodwin forgive the fact that I did not totally fall in love with her at the sight of her on the Burns baseball special (cute, smart and loves baseball for what it is: who could possibly resist?) given that, at the time the show aired, I was in love with a woman who was dearly loved by Paul and Sheila? She would have at least been impressed. I was and continue to be impressed—by all those people.
So, I am humble enough to admit that I am not above succumbing to a celebrity crush. It is a lesson that helps me (us) be humble enough to accept the reality when real-life crushes are not returned. Maybe it is a lesson that prepares me (us) for the true humility that comes when a crush IS actually returned.
To end the drama, as you might have guessed, I did not succeed in wooing her away from her husband. (Gosh, one would think, after sharing the “rubber chicken,” we would have been ready to elope.) I did get to sit next to Doris Kearns Goodwin, hear a story about one of my heroes, and learn that some days, I am just smart enough to appreciate and participate in those glories.
And if you run into her, please don't tell her my secret. I'll be like SO embarrassed.