Teddy Roosevelt died in 1919. Doris Kearns Goodwin was not born until 1943, but to hear her tell it, she spent the better part of seven years living with the legendary U.S. president.
That's how visceral the experience was for Goodwin as she wrote her most recent book, the 929-page "The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism." She will discuss that book and other topics on Thursday night at the Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News.
"I know how long it takes to write these books," she said in a phone interview last week, "and what I'm looking for is someone I want to spend that much time with. When I'm writing about someone, I'm basically living with them for a long time."
Goodwin's 2005 book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" was the basis for Stephen Spielberg's recent film biography of Lincoln, and she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for "No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II." She has also written books on Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedy family.
"The Bully Pulpit" draws parallels between the turn of the 20th Century and contemporary America – a connection that Goodwin said she did not recognize until she was well into her research. In particular, she focuses in on the growing disparity between the rich and poor Americans, sparked by the Industrial Revolution in Roosevelt's time and by technology and high finance today.
"I hope in general that the book offers a look back at what people did in times of struggle and triumph, and that maybe there's something to be learned from it," Goodwin said. "It really turned out to be a fascinating subject. I knew so little about Taft. Teddy was such a giant character, and there have been so many books written about him, It was his relationship with Taft that brought the story to life."
She was especially fascinated to read through hundreds of letters the two men exchanged after Taft succeeded Roosevelt in the White House. The research and writing of the book took seven long years.
"But the Lincoln book took 10 years," she said with a laugh. "So I am getting better at this."
Goodwin has not begun her next book yet, but she is considering a topic that would revisit her previous subjects.
"I've spent most of my career with presidents, and I've been thinking that my next book should be about the leadership traits they share," she said. "They all bring something different in terms of leadership style, and it would be interesting to me to see how they are similar and different in that regard."
When Goodwin was pursuing her Ph.D. at Harvard, her focus was not on U.S. presidents but on the Supreme Court. In retrospect, she said, it was her working relationship with Lyndon Johnson that changed her course.
In 1967, she earned a prestigious White House Fellowship. At the dinner introducing that year's class of fellows, Johnson told her that he would ask for her to be assigned to work specifically with him. Two days later, the New Republic published an article that Goodwin and a classmate had written and submitted about the Vietnam War. The headline read: How to Remove LBJ From Power.
"I thought he would kick me out of the fellowship program, but he didn't," she said. "Instead, he let me stay on and he assigned me to a different department. I continued to work with him for years, and eventually I helped him with his memoirs.
"How he handled that situation taught me a lot about empathy and about not judging people. Really, that's something I keep in mind every time I begin to research a president for a new book. In that way, it's like LBJ gave me my career."
Holtzclaw can be reached by phone at 757-928-6479.
WANT TO GO?
Author Doris Kearns Goodwin will speak at the Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Tickets are $47-$57 and can be purchased online at fergusoncenter.ticketoffice.com. Information: 757-594-8752.Copyright © 2015, CT Now