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Doris Kearns Goodwin, Clarence Page Talk Leadership Skip to content

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Doris Kearns Goodwin and Clarence Page Talk Leadership and Service

Bob Edwards chats with the Pulitzer Prize winners at the 2018 AARP Purpose Prize Awards

Take on Today Podcast

AARP

Bob Edwards: Hello, I'm Bob Edwards with an AARP Take on Today.

AARP founder, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, was a strong believer in helping others and dedicated her life to encouraging people to find a way to serve. Last week, the organization she founded 60 years ago, honored five extraordinary women with the 2018 Purpose Prize at the annual gala in Washington, D.C. A recognition those who lived life with a purpose to make the world a better place.

The winners included Karen Cassidy of Louisville, Kentucky. Cassidy started Hildegard House, which provides a home and caregivers for terminally ill people who are homeless or without family. And Monica Kamal Spaeni, from McFarland, Wisconsin. Spaeni, paralyzed after a skiing accident, leads Access Ability Wisconsin, which works to make outdoor wheelchairs and sporting equipment available, free of charge, to people with disabilities.

The event also featured a conversation with two Pulitzer Prize winners, historian and author, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and columnist Clarence Page, of the Chicago Tribune. I caught up with Kearns Goodwin and Page before the event to discuss the Purpose Prize Awards, the legacy of President George H. W. Bush, and how presidents find their purpose after leaving office.

Bob Edwards: We have been devoted this week here in Washington to saying goodbye to a leader, George H. W. Bush, who served in leadership in so many capacities. If you could address that for us?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think for young people today, to watch the long varied career that president Bush had, it's so rewarding to imagine somebody as a congressman, he's ambassador to the UN, he's an [inaudible] to China, he's vice president, he's president, and head of the RNC. It's just a wonderful thing to realize that public service can be so honorable. At a time like this now when you worry about how people thought about public service and politics in the 2016 election, it was as if anybody who had that as a strength, it became a liability, so I think it was just wonderful, the tributes to him. Such a decent man, civil, what character he had.

Bob Edwards: Your new book is titled, Leadership in Turbulent Times. What inspired you to write that? Every president you've written about has had turbulent times.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well that's why the title was originally chosen because of course Abraham Lincoln had the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt had all the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution, FDR had the Depression, and LBJ had the Civil Rights Revolution and yet the title became more relevant today than it was when I first chose it.

But what I wanted to show and I think matters even more now is that we have been through these turbulent times before and if we have the right leader in place, with the right temperament for the challenge they face, and if the citizens are active, we've had worse times before. I mean as Lincoln said, they called him a liberator, he said, "Don't call me a liberator, it was the anti-slavery people who did it all."

It was no question that the progressive movement in the cities and states in the settlement house movements and the social gospel at the turn of the 20th century made it possible for Teddy Roosevelt and the Civil Rights Movement obviously made it possible for LBJ to get the Civil Rights bills through. So, I think just for people today who feel like this is a really difficult time that it's both not just a question of looking for the leader, but in the citizens themselves finding the energy.

And I think in the midterms they showed by long lines waiting to vote, lots of women coming in for the first time, people who hadn't been in public life before trying it, lots more veterans coming in. So, I think it was all a positive sign that the citizens are acting and if they act as FDR said, if the citizens act and the leader can listen to the citizens, America's always been okay.

Bob Edwards: Do you have a fifth president that interests you?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Well I'm going to be working on a documentary on George Washington for the History Channel, but it's not to spend ten years writing about him, he's been written about so well, so I think I'm going to ... first thing I have to do is finish a book that my husband was writing before he died. It's about the ideals of America, his career and public life. And then I'm gonna work on some movies. And then maybe I'll find another guy or girl.

Bob Edwards: Are leaders born or made?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: It's the great question. I remember debating when I was in graduate school. I think there are people who are born with certain gifts, like Lincoln's gift for language, obviously made a difference. Teddy Roosevelt had a photographic memory, FDR had this optimistic temperament, and LBJ had unbounded energy, but mostly it's through hard sustained work. You make yourself a leader by growing in office.

Bob Edwards: I was looking at the ex-presidents lined up at Mr. Bush's funeral, what do you think of post-presidential service and who has done well there?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: Yeah it's interesting, I think when we normally rank the presidents as historians, you look at their presidency but I think now they're living so much longer that it's looking at their whole life as a biographer and obviously president Carter's been so active and done so well, but I think they get to choose what they want to do with their afterlife and that should be their freedom to not feel they have to keep going just to make the presidential biographers happy. I think we look at the life as whole as a biographer and if they do keep doing good things and if they keep becoming exemplars as the way they handle things, then it's going to help biographers to feel good about the whole life.

Bob Edwards: Doris, thank you.

Doris Kearns Goodwin: You're welcome! I'm glad to see you.

Bob Edwards: Leadership in Turbulent Times, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, is now available in stores and online.

Now, Clarence Page.

Clarence Page: I've been a judge for last few years, in fact, so I was very surprised when they called me up and asked me if I'd be emcee tonight. I'm moving up in the world!

Bob Edwards: Well do share with us what this is about.

Clarence Page: Well the Purpose Prize is only for us folks over 50 who have done some public service of some sort. That's probably the easiest way to explain it and when I say us folks, these winners of ours, humble me every year cause we're talking about a people who have in with some innovative ideas for dealing with the problems associated with poverty and health conditions and education, etc.

Something that ... for a humble scrivener like me. A journalist who goes out covering what other people do all the time, this really encourages me and gives me a tremendous boost when I see what folks, just on their own, without thought about either acquiring money or power or anything like that but just sets some satisfaction in feeling like I've done something positive in the world. It really leaves me feeling inspired every year.

Bob Edwards: It's a good week to be concerned with service.

Clarence Page: Yes it is, especially with the funeral of George Herbert Walker Bush upon us. I'm really reminded of how Bob Dole was helped over to the casket under the Capitol Dome and was helped to his feet to give one final salute. I served in the military during the Vietnam Era, I was a draftee, didn't do any big heroism, but I know what it means to be part of that fraternity and sorority. I'm really inspired to see that because here Bob Dole was almost blown apart in World War Two and he was put back together by military people, doctors, nurses, medical performants, etc.

George Herbert Walker Bush spent his whole life doing public service. Didn't have to, he was a wealthy kid, a wealthy family and yet he sacrificed as well, and almost died during World War Two. And with all that I turn around and we're doing the Purpose Prize tonight, I said, "Boy, this could hardly be more appropriate." It's just an amazing message that the whole world is getting now I hope, as to what service really means.

Bob Edwards: Has there been a more diverse or robust resume ever?

Clarence Page: That's a good question, huh? I mean my goodness, it just humbles everybody, or should. As far as what it really means to achieve something in life and to be able to do something positive, make a positive difference before you leave, and that's what I'm really delighted about the Purpose Prize. As I get into my advancing years, or as Benjamin Disraeli called it, my anecdotage, it's nice to have some new stories to tell and see what stories other people are telling because their finding a whole new direction.

People ask me, "Are you ever going to retire?" And I feel like retiring just means being able to do what you want to do rather than what you have to do in order to make a living.

And what we have here with the Purpose Prize is a lot of people who are doing what they want to do, and that's helped other folks and be able to make a positive difference with some innovative programs and that's a great way to spend those last years of your life. It's really inspiring to the rest of us.

Bob Edwards: To do it with dignity and class! I've thought a lot about class this week.

Clarence Page: Yeah I can imagine, that's what really makes class, what really makes a hero, what really makes service. All of these questions tend to be cliches in our mind, but then we run across real life people who really show us what it's all about.

That's the thing about George Bush. What strikes me is he never did an autobiography. I'm surrounded by self-promoters and you are too Bob, you know how it is, people who just can't wait to get their name in some kind of headlines, and here Bush has something to write about and never did. And his son says it's just because his mom just taught him to be humble, be self-effacing. Don't go out tooting your own horn all over the place, even if you deserve that right to do it, and that's why I'm just really delighted to see so many people who I don't need to have somebody toot their horns. So here, tonight, we're doing it for them. We're trying to draw attention to people who are the unsung heroes out there doing work every day to help the world.

The world changes, but there are people out there who are doing their best to help the world change for the better rather than for the worst. I think that's what the Purpose Prize is tonight.

Bob Edwards: Thank you for being a part of the Purpose Prize.

Clarence Page: Well, I really have to thank AARP for inviting me, for giving me the opportunity to do this.

Bob Edwards: Thank you Clarence.

Clarence Page: No thank you Bob, it was great to see you tonight! This is a wonderful surprise! I get to meet Doris Kearns Goodwin and see Bob Edwards again.

Bob Edwards: Oh yeah, that's right up there.

And here is the story behind two 2018 AARP Purpose Prize winners.

Karen Cassidy: When I go to visit someone in their home, when they're dying alone, when they don't have someone to care for them, that's a sad place to be. Hildegard House isn't a sad place to be.

As a nurse practitioner working in a local hospital, I saw that there is a real gap in end-of-life care for people that don't have a home or a family to care for them. Hildegard House fills that need. Hospice comes and visits each of our residents just like they would as if the resident were in their own home.

Since Hildegard House has opened, there's been about 62 people that have lived here and died here. The heart of Hildegard House is our volunteers and their called Compassionate Companions because they companion people along their journey and without them Hildegard House couldn't exist.

More than thinking about death, you think about life. We serve our residents and our residents serve us back. They teach us how to die, they teach us how to live and we serve each other.

Monica Kamal Spaeni: My favorite sounds are just listening to the different birds chirp with their many songs. Everyone thinks, "Oh, it's so quiet in nature." If you listen, it's an orchestra, all in of itself.

People think that having a spinal cord injury is all about the wheelchair and not walking, but there are so many other difficulties that one has to deal with and overcome.

11 years after my injury, I had an experience that I was never expecting.

Chad Hermanson: I actually met Monica at a disabled pheasant hunt and I wanted to find somebody to use the chairs. I saw Monica.

Monica Kamal Spaeni: And he goes, "Hey! Would you like to try this outdoor wheelchair?" It was like I was able to walk again. Just that relief of finally being able to be outdoors and go where I wanna go, it was just this big black cloud floating away and I could see sunshine. So, it was amazing.

I just felt it's too valuable a resource to have it just for me. We should try to get one that we could share as a community resource. So, I started Access Ability Wisconsin. Access Ability Wisconsin has outdoor wheelchairs for people to use for free.

Monica Kamal Spaeni: Everyone should have the right to public lands and access to the outdoors. These outdoor wheelchairs increase social interaction and decrease depression. We've had both veterans and veteran organizations checking out the chairs and using the chairs.

Dustin Palenshus: She's inspiring in a way that really makes you want to get out there and be a better person. I think I do more now than I ever did before I was in a chair.

Monica Kamal Spaeni: The purpose of my life is to help people. A lot of people have helped me. I feel that I should give back and then they'll help others. It's the ripple effect.

Bob Edwards: Learn more about the event and the inspiring work of other winners at AARP.org/purposeprize.

For more, visit AARP.org/podcast. Become a subscriber. Be sure to rate our podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and other podcast apps. Thanks for listening, I'm Bob Edwards.

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Bob Edwards chats with Pulitzer Prize winners, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Clarence Page about leadership and service at the 2018 AARP Purpose Prize Awards and recognizes individuals who are finding unique ways to address social challenges and help others in their communities.

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