Wednesday Jan. 4, 2017

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The Woodcutter Changes His Mind

When I was young, I cut the bigger, older trees for firewood, the ones
with heart rot, dead and broken branches, the crippled and deformed

ones, because, I reasoned, they were going to fall soon anyway, and
therefore, I should give the younger trees more light and room to grow.

Now I’m older and I cut the younger, strong and sturdy, solid
and beautiful trees, and I let the older ones have a few more years

of light and water and leaf in the forest they have known so long.
Soon enough they will be prostrate on the ground.

“The Woodcutter Changes His Mind” by David Budbill from While We’ve Still Got Feet. © Copper Canyon Press, 2005. Reprinted by permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the writer New York Magazine calls “America’s Historian-in-Chief,” Doris Kearns Goodwin (1943) (books by this author). Goodwin is considered the preeminent presidential historian, having written best-selling books on Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 2007, a senator from Illinois was so impressed with her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005) that he called her up on the phone and met her to chat about Lincoln. That senator became President Barack Obama.

Goodwin was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Rockville Centre, Long Island. Her father called her “Bubbles” and inspired her lifelong love for baseball, taking her to Brooklyn Dodgers games and teaching her how to keep score. She was such a devoted baseball fan that during the 1951 season, she gave Gil Hodges, who was in a batting slump, the St. Christopher medal that she’d won in Confirmation class, for luck. His luck improved that very day. Goodwin wrote a memoir about her childhood, Wait Till Next Year: Summer Afternoons with My Father and Baseball (1998), that’s considered a classic of post-war American life. Later, Goodwin worked as a sports journalist and was the first female journalist to enter the Boston Red Sox locker room.

Goodwin met Lyndon B. Johnson when she was 24 years old and working as a White House Fellow. It was 1967 and Johnson took a liking to her, inviting her to his ranch in Texas and confiding in her. He showed her his papers and once gave her a huge electric toothbrush with his picture on one side and his formal presidential seal on the other. Her book about Johnson, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976), is now considered a landmark of presidential biography.

She quit her job as a professor at Harvard and started writing full time while she raised three children. She said: “Writing you can do right in your house. You don’t have to go anywhere.” She is meticulous about her research, relying on diaries, letters, newspapers, and firsthand accounts, but circumspect about results. She says: “If you interview five people about the same incident, and you see five different points of view, it makes you know what makes history so complicated. Something doesn’t just occur. It’s not like a scientific event. It’s a human event.”

Her book No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (1995) is her favorite out of all her books. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history. It took Goodwin longer to write the book than it took for World War II to be fought. Her book The Fitzgeralds and The Kennedys: An American Saga (1987) took 10 years to write — 900 pages, including 3,500 footnotes.

Goodwin’s knowledge of presidential history and political life is considered so vast that novelist Stephen King consulted with Goodwin while he was writing his novel 11/22/63, about a time traveler who attempts to thwart the assassination of President John. F. Kennedy. She’s also a frequent guest on political news shows. About the current political climate, she says only: “The Internet has allowed people with megaphones as large sometimes as the big public figures. You’re competing against a lot of other people with a lot of other little or big platforms, so it’s much harder, I think, to exercise public leadership in this media world than it was back in [Teddy] Roosevelt’s time.”

About writing historical biography and the public’s fascination with the lives of political leaders, Doris Kearns Goodwin says: “Even when you’ve lived through an era, you’re only seeing a part of it, understandably. It’s been a wonderful feeling to hear from them that I’ve given them an understanding of what was happening in the home front as a whole, so that they feel their sense of their own life has been enriched. That means even more than the next generations who never experienced it, because that I’ve been used to. That’s what you do when you write history. Mostly it is for people who didn’t live through it.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s other books include The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (2013).

It’s the birthday of the man who said: “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.” That’s Sir Isaac Newton (1643), born in Woolsthorpe, England.

In 1686, Newton published his Principia, which overturned nearly everything humankind had believed about the universe up to that point. In the book, Newton proved that the celestial bodies were governed by the same laws of physics as objects on Earth. He incorporated Kepler’s laws of planetary motion into his own theories about gravity, and established the three laws of motion. The First Law states that objects at rest tend to remain at rest, and objects in motion tend to remain in motion, unless they are acted upon by an external force; the Second Law states that an applied force on an object equals the rate of change of its momentum with time; and the Third Law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Sir Isaac Newton said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Bob Hope made the move to radio on this date in 1935. He had appeared on a few shows already: he provided comic relief during a serious music program called The Capitol Family Hour. His first big radio break came on this date, though, when he took over as host of a show called The Intimate Revue. The program was sponsored by Bromo Seltzer and aired on the NBC network. It was the start of a 60-year broadcasting career for Hope, who had been performing since he was 12 years old — first as a street performer, and then in vaudeville. He sang, he danced, he told rapid-fire jokes, and he always made the crowd feel as though he was letting them in on a little secret.

But Hope was used to having an audience to give him immediate feedback for his jokes, and he struggled a bit in the studio. One thing that The Intimate Revue job did was establish Hope’s successful formula of always having a foil who was wackier than he was. On this program, his sidekick was Patricia Wilder, who played the character “Honey Chile.” Hope had met her in an agent’s office, and was captivated by her thick Southern accent.

But ratings weren’t great, and the gig lasted only 13 weeks. Hope later wrote in his autobiography: “Our sponsors took so much of their own product [Bromo Seltzer] they finally shucked the whole deal.” He went back to the stage, joining the cast of Broadway’s Ziegfeld Follies along with Fanny Brice and Eve Arden. He also filmed a few short films for Warner Brothers and took some short-term radio hosting gigs. In 1938, his radio career really took off, this time as host of The Pepsodent Show. Hope opened every show with a monologue, and then served up an assortment of skits with his fellow performers — most notably his wacky sidekick, Jerry Colonna. He had a hit on his hands: The Pepsodent Show was a top-rated program for over a decade.

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