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

(Continued from page 2)

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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

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 ‘07, 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, ‘Hello, 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 ‘Team 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, “‘Team 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, ‘You 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.”

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