Doris Kearns Goodwin on what history may tell Joe Biden

Doris Kearns Goodwin on what history may tell Joe Biden

By now, you know where things stand: President Biden says he’s all-in. And no one – well, almost no one – can convince him otherwise. Asked by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News last Friday whether, if he were convinced he could not defeat Donald Trump, he would stand down, Mr. Biden replied, “Well, it depends – if the Lord Almighty comes out and tells me that, I might do that!”

On Friday he told a cheering crowd in Madison, Wisconsin, “Let me say this as clearly as I can: I’m staying in the race.”

President Biden’s decision comes as some Democrats are urging the 81-year-old to get out following last month’s debate.

But beyond the headlines of hand-wringing in Washington, this moment also has the whiff of history. Two past presidents offer Mr. Biden a playbook of sorts of how to handle tough questions about age, stamina, and politics in a reelection campaign. “I think history gives us two ways of thinking about this extraordinary moment,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin.

In 1944, she notes, Franklin D. Roosevelt, facing concerns about his health, was determined to stay in the race for a fourth term as World War II raged. “He decided that he had to stay in the race for the good of the country, because he felt that in a certain sense that he was like a soldier who could not give up his post if the country decided they wanted him to run,” Goodwin said.

FDR made an effort to show the country he had energy, though it wasn’t always easy. “He looked much older than he actually was,” Goodwin said. “He was only 62 years old. The presidency ages everybody. But he knew what he was facing, and he made the decision that somehow, even with that ill health, that he was the one who was best-equipped, and he barrelled through.  So, he made a decision that he was going to go out among the people.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt w
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt wave to the crowd as they wind up their Presidential campaign tour in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., November 6, 1944. FDR was elected to a fourth term as president. 

Charles Hoff/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Then in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson made the decision to withdraw as pressure mounted, announcing on March 31, after the New Hampshire primary, that he would not seek nor accept his party’s nomination for president. “He decided, for the good of the country, that he was in such difficulty, that he wanted to bring peace in Vietnam. Thunderstruck was the country by that decision,” Goodwin said. “But it was for the good of the country, he believed, and there was an extraordinary reaction to it. He said he was happier than he’d been in his entire presidency.”

As with FDR and LBJ, Biden’s challenge, she said, is showing the American people he’s up to it, not just with a single interview, but by showing command of what is, perhaps, the hardest job in the world.

“President Biden has a right to be proud of, is that he has a character that has humility,” Goodwin said. “He’s had resilience. He has empathy toward other people, toward parts of the country, toward people in trouble, and he’s had accountability and responsibility. So, I think, keeping that idea that what he wants most of all is for that character to be remaining and be part of his legacy will factor into how he decides this thing. Only he can really decide that. It’s a really hard decision he’s going to have to make in these days and weeks ahead.”

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Story produced by Jon Carras. Editor: Karen Brenner. 

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