November 1, 2013

Doris Kearns Goodwin tackles era of reforms in ‘Bully Pulpit’

The popular historian began with the idea of writing about Theodore Roosevelt.

By Hillel Italie
The Associated Press

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.

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Author Doris Kearns Goodwin poses for a portrait outside at her home in Concord, Mass. Goodwin’s latest book,”The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism,” will be released on Nov. 5.

The Associated Press

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).

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