CONCORD, Mass. — History for Doris Kearns Goodwin begins at home, in this timeless New England town where Emerson and Thoreau once lived and wrote and in the century-old house that she shares with her husband, former presidential speech writer Richard Goodwin.
The Goodwin house is a virtual museum of the personal and scholarly past, from the photographs of various Kennedys and of a grinning Barack Obama to the many rooms named for the books they contain. A large space in the back is dedicated to fiction, while a smaller area by the kitchen belongs to sports. Alphabetical shelvings of presidential works lead to an especially well-stocked library, its dark, paneled walls and leather chairs giving it the look of a private club in which men would smoke cigars and debate the issues of the day.
Goodwin, 70, ranks with David McCullough and Robert Caro as among the most famous living historians. She is a million-selling author, popular speaker and familiar television commentator, known to millions for her reddish hair and wide smile. A former aide to Lyndon Johnson and an acknowledged influence on the staffing of the Obama administration, she has witnessed, written about and helped make presidential history.
Her “Team of Rivals,” published eight years ago, was such an ongoing phenomenon that a countdown clock on Goodwin’s Web site has ticked off the seconds until her new book’s publication. “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” is more than 900 pages and fulfills her longtime dream of writing about the Progressive era, the years in the early 20th century when “muckraking” journalists routinely exposed injustice and landmark legislation was signed on everything from food safety to tariffs to railroad regulation.
“It’s always been my favorite era,” says Goodwin, interviewed in her library on a warm fall afternoon. “There was something about reform being in the air, the excitement of it.”
Goodwin began with the idea of writing about Roosevelt — “someone I want to live with” — a challenge when the president was so well captured in Edmund Morris’ prize-winning trilogy. Roosevelt’s close relationship to Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and other investigative reporters convinced her to add their stories. Taft, Roosevelt’s designated and unfortunate choice to follow him in the White House, was the final piece.
“All I know is he chooses Taft as his successor and it ruptures in 1912. Why did he choose Taft?” she says. “I always think when you do comparative biographies, they shed light on each other.”
Roosevelt and Taft are pictured on the book’s cover. But writing about the past for Goodwin also means exploring the lives of women, like Tarbell or Taft’s wife, Nellie, who liked to smoke and play cards and host literary salons. “I do identify more with Ida and Nellie, both women ahead of their times in yearning to exercise their talents in a world of men,” says Goodwin, adding that she feels lucky to live in a time when she could have both a family and career.
History, especially presidential history, has long been a male profession. “When the press is looking for someone to turn to about politics, they might turn to Doris, but otherwise they usually turn to the boys,” says Sean Wilentz, whose books include “The Rise of American Democracy” and who serves as general editor for Times Books’ series of short biographies of American presidents, almost all written by men despite what Wilentz says has been a conscious effort by himself and predecessor Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to bring in women (Gail Collins, Joyce Appleby and Annette Gordon-Wood are among the handful of women who have worked on Times biographies).
Goodwin notes that when she was studying for a Ph.D. in government at Harvard, a professor there told her that women were more likely to drop out before they completed their work and should “realize that we were taking the place of a man who would go on in the profession.” But she was encouraged by other academics and by the example of “Guns of August” author Barbara Tuchman, who wrote political and military history. Goodwin also was influenced by Tuchman’s belief that “you have to tell a story from beginning to middle to end and pretend you don’t know how it turns out, because you can only know what people at the time know.”
Stacy Schiff, whose books include a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, Vera, and a biography of Benjamin Franklin during his years in Paris, says Goodwin continues a tradition that begins with Catherine Drinker Bowen and Tuchman.
“Both in her existence and her example, she partly paved the way, at least for me,” Schiff wrote in a recent email. She said Goodwin’s book “No Ordinary Time,” an expansive narrative about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II, “was on my shelf — talisman and high bar more than guide — when I wrote âVera.’ I’m not sure I was thinking of DKG when I went to France with Ben Franklin, but I don’t know that I ever would have got to that point without her.”
Born Doris Kearns in Brooklyn in 1943, she first practiced her narrative skills through another traditionally male subject, baseball. As she wrote in her memoir “Wait Till Next Year,” she relayed the results of Brooklyn Dodgers games to her father, learning the valuable lesson not to give away the result until the end. Goodwin would later become the first female reporter allowed in the Boston Red Sox’ locker room.
She had considered being a journalist, or a political activist, but through a fellowship ended up in the White House during the administration of Lyndon Johnson, whose removal from office she had advocated because of the Vietnam War.
His displeasure with the young Ivy Leaguer was only temporary. Goodwin became a presidential aide, helped with his memoirs and wrote a book about him, “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream,” published in 1977.
“No Ordinary Time,” a critical breakthrough, won the Pulitzer in 1995.
“What Doris does is to take figures who readers thought they knew and find an interesting new angle,” Wilentz says, citing “No Ordinary Time” as the first major joint biography of the Roosevelts.
“Team of Rivals, one of the most talked about books of the past decade, raised and rescued her stature. The book was her first since she acknowledged lifting extensive material from other sources for “The Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds,” a 1987 best seller that ended up being withdrawn (Goodwin said in 2002 that she would write a new edition, but still has no plans to do so. Her web site, www.doriskearnsgoodwin.com, provides links to used copies).
But “Team of Rivals” was untouched by scandal, praised by a Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian, James McPherson, and awarded the Lincoln Prize.
“She really is superb at getting inside the minds and moods of the principal individuals she’s writing about,” McPherson told the AP.
“Doris set a new bar on history writing with âTeam of Rivals,”‘ says Lincoln historian Harold Holzer. “It’s not only original, brilliantly researched and distilled, but so elegantly written, a genuine page-turner, which is important when you write as many pages as Doris does. She’s given new life — a second wind, really — to Lincoln studies.”
Goodwin’s fans range from everyday history lovers — “the kind who watch public television,” she jokes — to some of the top names in publishing, filmmaking and politics. Stephen King consulted with her for his novel about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, “11/22/63.” J.K. Rowling raved about “Team of Rivals” and said she was in awe when she met Goodwin. Steven Spielberg acquired film rights before Goodwin had even completed the book and used “Team of Rivals” as a source — among other sources — for his acclaimed DreamWorks movie about the president. DreamWorks also acquired rights to “The Bully Pulpit.”
Another “Team of Rivals” fan was a first-term senator from Illinois given to comparing himself to Lincoln.
“When I was writing the book, Obama was not somebody I even thought about,” she says. “In â07, I got a call from him one day on my cell phone, and he’s running against Hillary, of course, and she’s way ahead. And he just said, âHello, this is Barack Obama. I just read “Team of Rivals,” and we have to talk.’ So he invited me to the Senate (office) building a couple of weeks later and we were talking about âTeam of Rivals.’ He was asking about emotional intelligence and how could leaders put past hurts behind them.”
By the spring of 2008, Obama was openly referring to Goodwin’s “wonderful book” and endorsing the idea of recruiting former Democratic primary opponents for his cabinet. Hillary Clinton became his secretary of state, Joe Biden his vice president. And “the next thing you knew,” Goodwin says, “âTeam of Rivals’ became a catchphrase.”
Goodwin began her current book in 2006, and by completion found she was again pointing to the present.
The “Occupy Wall Street” protests in 2011 were reminders of the debates in the early 20th century over the gaps between rich and poor. The divisions between Tea Party and less conservative Republicans recalled a more drastic split in 1912: Roosevelt, moving sharply to the left, formed a third party, dividing GOP votes between himself and the more moderate Taft and enabling Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the election.
“The other thing I thought was so interesting in comparison to today was the technological revolution — new forms of transportation. Somebody wrote about the nervous disease people were getting at the turn of the century because the pace of life had accelerated so much,” she says.
If “Team of Rivals” became a guidebook on how to assemble a presidential cabinet, “The Bully Pulpit” can be read, in part, as a guidebook on the uses of presidential power.
Goodwin is sympathetic to Taft, a one-term president given little attention from scholars and remembered by the general public, if at all, for the apocryphal story that he was so fat he got stuck in a bathtub. She portrays the native Ohioan as a loving husband and a respected administrator and advisor whom Roosevelt trusted entirely and understandably promoted as his successor in 1908.
But among Taft’s weakness as president was an aversion to politics, to self-promotion and salesmanship. Unlike Roosevelt, he didn’t use memorable expressions, such as “Speak softly, and carry a big stick,” or energetically promote his ideas. Taft had a legal background and believed simply presenting his argument was enough.
“When the judgment of the court was announced, it was supposed that all parties of interest would inform themselves as to the reasons for the action taken,” Taft once explained.
The same criticism has been made about Obama, who acknowledged in Ron Suskind’s 2011 best seller “Confidence Men” that he had been too “comfortable with a technocratic approach to government.”
“If you look at the number of people who didn’t understand what was in the healthcare bill, something happened. That’s a fact you have to figure out. Why did that happen? Was it that he didn’t explain it enough, in shorthand language?” Goodwin says.
“Was it also, however, that the bully pulpit isn’t as powerful as it once was?
“When he gave — finally — his healthcare speech, it was a good speech. But that’s when (Republican Congressman) Joe Wilson called out in the middle, âYou lie,’ and that became a story. He gives a good speech on gun control, which was very emotional. And he followed it up. And then something else came in. The attention span — of the media and of the people, they can’t sustain it.”