“I love the Progressive Era: it’s one of the most dramatic and exciting eras in American history,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin declares of the early 20th century. Spurred on by exposés in the popular media of the day, which she describes as “the first draft of history,” the U.S. government “for the first time shed its laissez-faire attitude” toward corrupt politicians, robber barons, and corporations exploiting the country’s natural resources.
“The awareness of the lack of economic fairness foreshadowed a lot of the New Deal legislation of the ’30s,” adds Goodwin, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for her biography of the architect of the New Deal, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.
Goodwin, renowned for delving into momentous periods in American history through the lives of the great men (and women) who shaped events, is back at BEA, ready to give a talk at today’s Book and Author Breakfast that’s not going to be your father’s history lesson. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (S&S, Oct.) examines the first decade of the Progressive Era through the lives of “Rough and Ready Teddy” Roosevelt, the nation’s 26th president, and his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft—against whom, four years later, Roosevelt ended up running for another term. Not only did the 1912 campaign destroy a longstanding personal friendship between the two men, but Woodrow Wilson cruised to victory, becoming the 28th president.
The Progressive Era research project all started with Roosevelt, Goodwin says, confiding that she’s very careful about whom she writes because she has to “live with this person for a long time.” It took her six years to research and write No Ordinary Time and 10 years to complete Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. “I knew with Teddy Roosevelt, I could,” she says. “He is that large of a figure.” But she wanted to give a fresh spin on Roosevelt’s life and times, so she homed in on his “intense” relationship with the “muckraking press,” as well as the fraught relationship with his successor in office.
As for Taft, about whom Americans know little besides the story of how he was so fat that he once got stuck in a White House bathtub, Goodwin emphasizes that he was “empathetic” and much “more interesting” than she thought he would be when she began her research. She’s convinced that Taft is on the verge of being rescued from obscurity, noting that the Washington Nationals baseball team added a fifth mascot this past January to its “racing presidents” promotional events featuring likenesses of former chief executives: William Howard Taft has joined George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. “I can hardly wait to get my picture taken with them,” says Goodwin.