The “Team of Rivals” author’s new book chronicles Roosevelt, Taft and the rise of progressivism.
The tumultuous relationship between two presidents, one beloved in American history and the other often deemed a failure, is at the heart of “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism,” a sweeping chronicle by presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Dr. Goodwin sat down with NPR’s “Morning Edition” host Steve Inskeep at the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium on Tuesday to discuss the historical account for the Newsmaker Series, co-presented by Lisner Auditorium and Politics & Prose.
Co-owner of Politics & Prose Lissa Muscatine opened the program, welcoming the crowd and noting that the book, Dr. Goodwin's sixth, “invokes comparisons of the past to the politics of today.”
Set against the backdrop of the rising Progressive Era and the end of the Gilded Age, the “Bully Pulpit," published this month by Simon & Schuster, paints a picture of the U.S. with a thriving economy marked by social turmoil. As monopolies rose, destroying small business, the gap between the rich and poor widened.
“There is something in recent years that brings back the Gilded Age,” Dr. Goodwin said, noting the similarities to present-day America, including the widening wealth gap, rise of billionaires and public inquiry into the role of government. “The book is more relevant now than when I started,” she said.
The “Bully Pulpit” delves into the life of President Theodore Roosevelt who was at the helm of American politics. He was a gifted speaker known for quotes such as “speak softly and carry a big stick” and remembered for introducing the “Square Deal,” a progressive domestic services program.
According to Dr. Goodwin, President Roosevelt was not a visionary, but in tune with the direction of public opinion.
"Rather than leading the country, he had a sensitive barometer to where the country was headed," she said.
President Roosevelt was also in touch with the rising progressive press, epitomized in the work of Samuel McClure, the founder of McClure's Magazine, the first magazine to have staff reporters.
President Roosevelt worked closely with Mr. McClure, who eventually went bankrupt supporting journalists, including Ida Tarbell, so they could pursue the social, economic and political issues of America and write exposes that would "mobilize the people for social action," Dr. Goodwin said.
"The most important thing about Roosevelt is that he was a writer himself, so he respected the press," she said.
President Roosevelt stepped down from office in 1908, citing a respect for the "two-term tradition." However, by then he had handpicked his successor, William Howard Taft, a rotund judge and good friend.
The “Bully Pulpit” details how the friendship between Presidents Taft and Roosevelt came under strain when President Taft attempted to pass tariff reform legislation using an "inside game" and rallying the support of congressmen that opposed President Roosevelt, Dr. Goodwin said.
Though the legislation did pass, this marked a turning point in President Taft's administration and legacy. As the press, the people and President Roosevelt turned against him, President Taft took increasingly conservative political stances.
The tension between the two former friends came to a head when they squared off for the Republican Party presidential nomination in 1912. Though President Taft won the nomination, President Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate in the election, splitting the Republican vote and solidifying President Taft's legacy as a one-term president, Dr. Goodwin said.
Mr. Inskeep asked Dr. Goodwin how historians judge whether a president is successful. Is it their ability to work with the press? To be loved by the public? To pass difficult legislation?
“Yes, but it is also when they accomplish something in their time that moves us closer to the ideals of this country,” she said.
Dr. Goodwin has written historical narratives for more than 20 years, and the “Bully Pulpit” took her seven years to complete. Her first book, “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream,” was developed through her relationship as a personal confidante to the president, who died in 1972.
Most recently, she gained acclaim for the best-selling book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” which was developed into the Academy Award-winning film “Lincoln” in 2012.
“I felt enlarged in his presence,” she said of studying the “Great Emancipator.”
Dr. Goodwin found it hard to name a favorite character from her books, although she has developed one ironclad rule for picking a subject.
“It has to be someone I can live with for a very long time,” she said.
When asked by an audience member who would win in a fight to the death, Dr. Goodwin ranked her subjects with ease.
“Teddy Roosevelt, definitely, and Andrew Jackson, because he has experience with duels,” she said. “But I would hope that Lincoln would tower above them all and persuade them to put down their weapons.”