Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s last book, the wildly successful Team of Rivals (2005), offered an account of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency that took over contemporary pop culture. It was praised by President Obama, made into a movie by Steven Spielberg, and continues to come up in political discussions. Her new book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (Simon & Schuster, Nov.) centers around two very different presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, but seems destine for the same success.
Was it inevitable that a President would come along and use the press in the way that Roosevelt did or was it something particular to him?
Roosevelt lived in were a period of shifting media. In the 19th century partisan papers and editors were very important. Then with publications like McClure’s a new generation of college educated journalists began to rise. These publications were cheap. The average person could buy them. The information was reaching more people than ever before. There was a mutual respect between Roosevelt and the press. He was a writer. He could take the criticism without being sensitive to it. For example, when he published his account of his time in Cuba, Peter Finley Dunne said he should have called it ‘Alone in Cuba’ since it focused so much on himself. In response, Roosevelt invited him to a meeting to discuss the Spanish-American War.
Why aren’t there more books about Taft? Is his story too married to Roosevelt?
Roosevelt dominated the early decades of the 20th century. There is very little about Taft out there. He was in Roosevelt’s cabinet, he was a Supreme Court Justice, and he was fat. But that’s about it. The relationship between Taft and Roosevelt was so much deeper than has been discussed. There was deep heartbreak when they parted politically. Their friendship was very important to both of them. It’s a lot of fun to deal with someone less known. The problem with Lincoln is that there are hundreds of books on him. Roosevelt too. It is good to focus on someone relatively unknown.
Nellie Taft and Edith Roosevelt are fascinating counterparts to their husbands. Do you think it’s time that we re-examine our history for women’s stories we haven’t heard?
The three central women in the book represent the different choices women in the 19th century had. Edith was a housewife. She sought a traditional life. Nellie was unconventional. She smoked, she was ambitious. In Taft, she found a partner who valued those things. At a young age Ida Tarbell vowed to never be married. She chose her own ambition and work. Today there are paths that allow these choices to be blended together. Past biographers would rarely mention the wives of subjects, even though they have huge impacts. Today we care about those behind the scenes stories. These new ways to look at history; poor history, women’s history, minority history. These views strengthen the discipline. It’s a fuller story.
You parallel the rise of McClure’s and ‘muckraking’ with Roosevelt’s career. This mutually beneficial relationship has become very important to today’s politics. What are the downsides to that legacy and relationship?
What was special about that time was that journalists had freedom and time to investigate stories. They were allowed to take months, years, to research. There are fewer outlets with the resources to devote to this today. And do we have the attention span for it? There is too much fragmentation in media. Topics turn over quickly. Ida Tarbell’s work was viewed all over the country; it became the focus of discussion. Would everyone discuss it now? It is very important that the press remains. That reporting and investigating continue. But it is harder to do it.
As a historian I would guess you were unprepared for the level of attention Team of Rivals received. Has it changed your process? Has it made you too aware of the present?
Team of Rivals is an example of timing and fate. It came out and was a bestseller, but there were waves of attention. Initial publication, the movie, and President Obama’s interest. The film process makes one aware of the visual. It’s another layer of writing. It has made it easier to understand how to write scenes. The Republican Convention in 1912 is an example; making sure the gunfights were in there. Many felt there were too many people to keep track of in Team of Rivals. Learning to let the story unfold between Roosevelt and Taft first before adding others was very important this time around. Writing is a learning process.