With the possible exception of Robert Caro, who has spent the bulk of his long career documenting the career of a single president (Lyndon Johnson), the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is perhaps America's best-known chronicler of our most interesting and consequential chief executives' careers. Goodwin has taken on Johnson (in 1976's “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream”), John F. Kennedy (in 1987's “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga”), Franklin D. Roosevelt (in 1995's Pulitzer Prize-winning “No Ordinary Time”) and Abraham Lincoln (in her 2005 best-seller “Team of Rivals,” which became the basis of Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln”).
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Now Goodwin has turned to the other Roosevelt — whom she often calls by just his first name, “Teddy” — and Taft, his successor in the Oval Office and, later, his bitterest political enemy. In “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism,” Goodwin examines their successive terms in the White House, and concludes that it was their respective relationships with the press — Roosevelt's free, easy and mutually beneficial; Taft's ineffectual and strained — that defined their presidencies and presidential legacies. DreamWorks, Spielberg's studio, has already bought the film rights.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Goodwin, 70, for a telephone interview from her home in Concord, Mass. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: You've made a career of writing about presidents of the United States. How did you land upon Roosevelt and Taft this time around?
A: Well, it was Roosevelt first. I taught a seminar long ago on the Progressives, and he's obviously one of the most interesting, colorful, fascinating figures among our presidents. And I guess you get spoiled when you write about FDR or Lincoln or LBJ. It would be hard to go back, after them, to write about, you know, Millard Fillmore or Franklin Pierce. (Laughs.)
The problem with writing about Teddy Roosevelt, of course, is that there have been so many wonderful books about him. I had to figure out how to come at him from a different angle and, hopefully, tell a fresher story to people who already know about him. And these books take such a long time; this one took seven years, so it had to be somebody I wanted to spend a long time with. In the process, I was reading about the presidential campaign of 1908, when Taft was running as Roosevelt's chosen successor, and in 1912, when they ran against each other. They started out as such good friends and ended up as bitter rivals, and I realized I wanted to know more about Taft. So that's how it became a double biography.
Q: Then the third part of the book is their rather different relationships with the press?
A: Right. I realized that the difference between them, rather than what we think — which is that Taft was just much more conservative and betrayed Teddy, which I don't think is really true — but, rather, (the difference was) that Taft didn't know how to deal with the press, whereas that was Teddy's genius. And that brought me to McClure's Magazine and its incredible writers, each one of whom was such a wonderful character, so much so that I wanted to bring them all to life as well.
Q: Would it be correct to think of Roosevelt as the first "media president"?
A: Absolutely. He understood that you had to have a relationship with these people in order to mobilize sentiment to get the Congress to do what it didn't want to do, which was to begin the regulatory process, reining in the big corporations that had become so powerful during the Industrial Revolution. I'm not even sure that any president since has had as good a relationship with the press.
FDR had a good relationship with ordinary reporters as well, but what Teddy was able to do — setting aside a special room for them in the White House, meeting with them several times a day, having them to lunch — that was extraordinary. He was a writer himself, and I think that made a difference. He valued good writing, and he could argue with them when they wrote something he didn't agree with, just as he accepted their criticism when they didn't agree with him. That's the only way it could work — a reciprocal arrangement, really.
Q: Why is it, do you think, that that closeness between the president and the press has never really been replicated?
A: I suppose it's harder today, because things you say automatically become public. It's harder to have those private relationships, where the president and the press can trust each other, and where the press can learn more about what's going on behind the decisions being made.
Q: You could also say, maybe, that Roosevelt had less to hide from the press than most of his successors.
A: That's a good point. He was always so open; it was part of his temperament and his demeanor. He loved being president and was confident in what he was doing. There were times when he made mistakes and could get blustery, and there were times when he said all sorts of things about the people on the other side, but generally he did it with such elan that people didn't take it very personally.
The exception was the 1912 campaign, where it got pretty bitter, in part because he and Taft had been such good friends, and the only way he could deal with having turned so against Taft was to make him out to be a dangerous character who had betrayed Progressive ideals. And Taft, on the other hand, had to make Teddy out to be someone who might become a dictator. I'm not sure either one of them truly believed those things, except in the heat of combat. The fact that they were eventually able to reconcile suggests that it was political rhetoric rather than deeply held beliefs.
Q: To what extent were Roosevelt and his policy decisions influenced by the investigative reporting of Ida Tarbell and her fellow "muckraking" journalists?
A: Oh, I think their influence on him was huge. You can really draw direct lines between what they wrote and what he did in many cases. When you think about Ida Tarbell's Standard Oil series, for example. John D. Rockefeller had been a hero to many people, but she was able to show that Rockefeller's monopoly had been formed in part by bribery, fraud and other illegal actions. So when Roosevelt was getting the Bureau of Corporations passed — the first government agency that could look into what corporations were actually doing, to determine if there were unfair practices — somebody from Standard Oil sent a telegram to Republicans in Congress saying, "You better not let this legislation pass." The telegram was made public in the press, and there was such an uproar that the bill passed.
Later, when the antitrust suit against Standard Oil went out, the Justice Department brief was based in large part on the reporting of Ida Tarbell. Similarly, when McClure's had Ray Baker do a series on the railroads, Roosevelt reads advance proofs of Baker's work, and in turn gives Baker an advance proof of his message on the railroads, and some of Baker's criticism of it ends up in the final message.