The title of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book emerges from a characteristically memorable scene in which Theodore Roosevelt, newly elected President, confers with friends on a draft of an upcoming speech. As one journalist who was with Roosevelt described it, “he suddenly stopped, swung round in his swivel chair, and said ‘I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit.’”
How Theodore Roosevelt used that pulpit to change both the nature of the Presidency and the social fabric of America is at the heart of the new book from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. But with The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, Goodwin takes in far more than even TR’s legendary career. She finds its true impact as part of the great wave of reform that moved through American political life at the turn of the 20th century, urged on by muckraking journalists who exposed the excesses and abuses of monopolistic businesses and corrupt government. In the end, two extraordinarily driven men — Roosevelt and William H. Taft — used their successive presidential administrations to embody the crest of that wave, though their deep friendship was torn asunder, almost permanently, along the way.
The considerable achievement of The Bully Pulpit is to transform this complex era’s many conflicts and personalities into an immersive, colorful and enlightening drama. Goodwin remarks that “stories are nearly everything to me” and as in Team of Rivals, her book on Lincoln’s cabinet, Goodwin doesn’t render static portraits — rather, she ushers her many actors onto a well-lighted stage. It’s a big cast: the leading performers include not only the combative, quotable Roosevelt and his counterpart in Taft, a genial man more given to mend fences than score political points; but also brilliant Edith Carow Roosevelt, who became her husband’s intellectual partner and emotional refuge; Nellie Herron Taft, whose ambition helped goad Taft to seek office beyond a judge’s chambers in his native Ohio; Ida Tarbell, “The Most Famous Woman in America” and the writer whose work chronicling the predatory rise of Standard Oil would make her the leading light of American journalism; and the manic-depressive genius S.S. McClure, whose founding of McClure’s magazine would give Tarbell and her colleagues a platform for their trailblazing work. Their voices, along with those of many more characters famous and obscure, ring out in a narrative infused with the restless energy of Roosevelt himself.
When I spoke to Doris Kearns Goodwin on October 31st, the author was still reveling in her previous night’s attendance at Game Six of the World Series — in which her beloved Red Sox defeat the St. Louis Cardinals to take the 2013 title. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. — Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: I saw from your Twitter feed this morning that you were on hand for some 21st century history last night.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: It was great, it really was. Obviously, never to have seen it at home — I was neither in St. Louis nor in Colorado. To know that the town itself was celebrating by being there together, and… Even when I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, I hadn’t seen the ‘55 World Series. We’d gone into Brooklyn right after it. So it really felt great. It was my perfect kind of game. It wasn’t 2-to-1. So you could relax most of the game.
BNR: So it had the appropriate celebratory feeling.
BNR: I hope we can come back to that before we’re finished. But I want to get right into asking you some questions about The Bully Pulpit. This book brings so many strands together, and at the same time, it’s wonderfully readable. The layers of the onion are peeled back by the shifting focus between the McClure’s journalists and their aims, Roosevelt’s and Taft’s personal lives, the way the party structures worked, to follow each of their careers, so we get a truly layered portrait of this time.
DKG: I am so glad to hear you say that, because that’s really what I’m hoping, that an accumulation of stories creates the texture of the time. It’s always people’s stories, and they are all part of this period of time, coming at it from different angles, whether it’s Teddy or Taft, or Nellie or Edith, or McClure or Ida Tarbell…. Just the idea that one woman, Edith, is more of a traditional wife and mother, and then Nellie trying to get some sort of broader expanse through a husband, and then Ida Tarbell saying, “I’m not going to marry; I’m praying that I’m not going to marry because I want this career.” So I love this story of the people, and the hardest part was trying to figure out how to weave them together. So I’m so grateful for your comment.
BNR: Since you bring it up, maybe we should talk a little bit about Nellie and Edith at the beginning. I am struck especially by Theodore Roosevelt’s marriages, in the way that he has so many of the attitudes of the Victorian Man of the late 19th century—the late 19th century aristocracy’s views of marriage, of honor, and of the way that tradition informs domesticity and the household. But like Taft, he has a marriage, especially his second marriage, really with an intellectual partner.
DKG: Absolutely. When I think about it, obviously, this was his great friend from the time they were young, Edith was, and probably suited for him all along. I mean, they shared a love of books. They shared a certain kind of curiosity about things from the time they were young. Then he falls in that love with Alice. It’s hard to imagine that she would have been the same wife for him. You never know, because he loved her and she was beautiful. But then, when he does have that traditional sense after she dies that he shouldn’t marry again, because it’s betraying the first wife, and thereby tried to keep away from Edith, knowing that old feelings remain, but then, as soon as they see each other, those long-hidden feelings surfaced, and, like, three weeks later they’re engaged. It’s amazing. She loved him all her life, and he very much loved her. She provided a sanctuary for him. Given his ever-present manic energy, he hadn’t that kind of stable force, and she needed the stable force, given her disordered childhood, so she needed to create a home wherever she went, and that’s what she did for him.
BNR: Their complementary natures are really interestingly echoed in William and Nellie Taft’s relationship, which equally has a partnership of not entirely similar sensibilities.
DKG: Yes. I think just as Edith gave the most indispensable support to Roosevelt by providing a sanctuary and a real home for him as an anchor for all of his incredible energy and almost manic activity, so Nellie Taft acted as a spur to her husband to move him toward a broader life than he might have chosen for himself, as he might have remained a judge in Cincinnati, as he himself said, had it not been for Nellie’s willingness to go to the Philippines, her embracing his coming back to the Cabinet, and really wanting a broader world for herself, and for her husband and her family.
BNR: That leads me to ask a little more about Taft, who is an equal partner, in many ways, in the events in the national journey that this book charts. Were you aware when you first conceived of this what a role he and his presidency would be playing in what you would write about?
DKG: No. I think what happened is this: I knew I wanted to write about Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Era — I taught a seminar on the Progressives a long time ago, when I was first teaching, and it’s always been my favorite period in history — but I knew that so many good books had been written about Theodore Roosevelt, that I couldn’t just write a biography of him. I never feel comfortable, as I didn’t with Lincoln and FDR, unless I can find my own angle into it. So when I started following him up to 1908, when he leaves the Presidency and actually chooses Taft as his successor, and then, obviously, the rupture in 1912, I just decided I’d better find out more about Taft. And then to discover how close their friendship had been, and 400 letters exchanged between them, and reading Taft’s letters to Nellie, and Roosevelt’s letters to thousands of people, I could replay, in a certain sense, how important that friendship had been in the early days, how heartbreaking it was when it eventually ruptured. So it became much more important than I thought.
And if you’re going to take the Progressive wing of the Republican Party up to 1912, then following what happened during Taft’s Presidency is critical to understand that division in the party and really the diminishment thereafter for a while of that Progressive wing.
BNR: Yes, it becomes clear, the relationships that held that Progressive wing together are tested both politically and personally, as that presidency went along.
DKG: That’s correct. I came away believing that it wasn’t so much that Taft had betrayed Teddy’s legacy. Taft may have had some more conservative tendencies. But basically, when he is in the Cabinet, he believes in the need for conservation, for regulation of the corporations, for antitrust. But then the country moved further even more in the Progressive movement, and Teddy moved with the country, and Taft doesn’t know how to really mobilize the public leader part of the Presidency, and so even the compromises he makes at a time when the Party is becoming more ruptured look like betrayals. Trying to deal with [House Speaker Joseph] Cannon and [conservative Republican Senator Nelson] Aldrich. By then, people say, “You deal with them, and that means you’re on the bad side.” So it was more complicated. But then, Teddy, of course, when he runs against them, needs to dramatize it for himself, like, “I’m running against him because he’s betrayed me,” and then Taft eventually will say, “Well, if he’s going to be dangerous to the Republic because of his judicial propositions, then…” It made me really sad, and I was so glad that they finally did reconcile. You get to care so much about these people. Thank God, there was a reporter in the Blackstone hotel, who reported the extraordinary meeting when they finally come together at last.
BNR: It’s a really powerful moment. They come together, and it’s a moment in which they’re also on stage, in a sense. Everyone knows, not just who they are… everyone in that place is aware of the great rupture that had come between them.
DKG: You’re absolutely right. Even the wait-staff are clapping, and the other diners. So you’re right. They’ve followed this human drama, and they’re happy not just politically, it seems like they’re happy in the human terms, these two people. Because a lot of articles were written, more than I would have realized at the time, talking about this intense friendship, so that it was more public than I knew before it ruptured. So people would have been aware, and they would have been aware at those awkward attempts to get them together, and obviously were aware of the terrible things they said about each other in 1912.
BNR: You reproduce a famous political cartoon in which Roosevelt, in that election, is swinging as a boxer, training at a punching bag in the form of Taft, kind of really knocking the stuff out of it. It really takes on a really poignant aura in this retelling, because you realize how much the idea of Roosevelt punching Taft as he dangles there means in terms of how close they had been.
DKG: For me, too. I think many people know about the rupture, but not the emotional impact that it would have on both men. That’s why, thank God, [White House military aide] Archie Butt was there. Again, that was a window into it. Because he was loyal to both men, having been the military aide to Teddy, and then staying on with Taft, feeling that sense, and writing so well. One of the great joys of the book was, by dealing with the journalists and with Teddy and with Archie Butt, you’re dealing with really good writers. If you’re telling a story, you want their voices in as much as possible, so that you really can create the way they speak and their cadence of living, so they can become true human beings. Just having Archie Butt there to talk about how sad Taft was, and how sad he was, because he couldn’t go for either one of them… Then, of course, he goes on this vacation and comes back on the Titanic. I can imagine what Taft felt. He said he couldn’t walk into a room without thinking of Archie. I myself couldn’t bear the idea when I knew the Titanic thing was coming, and kept saying, “Why don’t you just cancel; you did cancel your reservation—don’t go, don’t go.”
BNR: I would like to turn, since we’re talking about those voices, then… As you point out, there are so many wonderful writers who, once you begin to look back into this period, you get this absolutely riveting sense of the dramas that were really transfixing the nation. I wanted to talk about McClure’s and Ida Tarbell, and your choice to find that complementary narrative to the more familiar story of Presidents and Presidential administrations, and political battles within the political parties. You focus not only on the great issues and scandals that the McClure’s team reported on, but their own stories, as fascinating…a completely different point of view for the reader into how these issues were central to everything that America was becoming.
DKG: I think what happened is, early on Roosevelt began to realize that in order to be the public leader he needed to be, he had to have a remarkable set of relationships with the press. So I started just more generally with the access he gave the press. They come in on the barber’s hour. He has lunches and dinners with them. A reciprocal relationship where they can criticize him and he can criticize them.
BNR: He started early with that.
DKG: Very early. From the time he was in Albany and he’s going against that corrupt judge, he knows he can’t do it on his own. He needs the press to mobilize sentiment if he’s going to get anything done inside. Because there’s always that inner ring that was resisting reform everywhere he went, whether it’s state legislature or the governor or, finally, the Congress.
I’m trying to remember how it all happened, but I started reading about the press, and I came to focus on how important McClure’s was during this period of time as the most important progressive magazine. I’d heard of Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, but I didn’t know much about Sam McClure, who is just an extraordinary figure, and again, a genius, a manic depressive perhaps, but the person who tells each of them, “The way to deal with these policy issues is to tell a story.” So Ida tells the story of the Trusts through J.D. Rockefeller and how he unfairly managed to get his monopoly. Ray Baker tells the story of why these people decided not to strike, the 10,000 of them in the coal strike, by telling the stories of why these union workers did finally go against the strike. Lincoln Steffens tells these stories of corruption in the cities that eventually topples some of these old bosses.
I guess stories are nearly everything to me. That was their strength, that they were able to not just talk abstractly about the problem of the trusts or the railroads, but to tell stories that then made people willing to read 20,000- or 30,000-word pieces that they had researched for two years, in long series, and then start talking to their neighbors about it and demanding action, which gave Roosevelt this enormous tool that helped push the Congress forward.
BNR: You suggest Ida Tarbell worked with the abilities of a novelist.
DKG: Oh, without a question. I knew her also from when she wrote about Lincoln, because when I was writing the Lincoln book….She had this great comment. Somebody asked her, even then, “Why do so many people write about Lincoln?” and she said, “Because he is so companionable.” I often thought about that, when people would say, “Why are you writing another book about Lincoln?” and I said, “Ida Tarbell said, ‘he’s so companionable.’”
She understood how to make the people that she was writing about come to life, and time and again… To me, she’s the most famous woman, almost, of her era, as an historian, almost as a novelist.
BNR: You really bring that companionability about the entire McClure’s group into focus. There’s a term in business that is used in this period, and it comes up often in The Bully Pulpit, which is “combination.” –a synonym for a trust or a mega-corporation, the amalgamation of smaller companies into monopolistic entities. So much of the story here is about these combinations of people who were working with friendship as a vital part of how they did this historic work. The friendship between Taft and Roosevelt allowed both men, in a sense, to carry on work that otherwise might have been too difficult to handle. The same is true for the McClure’s group.
DKG: I think that’s exactly right. McClure understood from the beginning that he wanted the magazine to be something different. He wanted it to be a unity where their projects would inform one another, and they would send each other’s works to each other, and what somebody learned about the railroads could be used in the city corruption or vice-versa. What an irony it is that we worry about the big combinations. Now, these were obviously voluntary associations between people, but it shows that sometimes, when people come together, they are all the stronger because of their combination. That’s what even the trust people might have argued, that we can do better by swarming these associations together. Roosevelt would probably say, as he did, it’s not the size of it that got to him as much as they used unfair methods to make those combinations happen, which prevented other people from a fair business, or raised prices, rather than aiming for the benefit of combination. I hadn’t even thought about that until you said it.
BNR: I want to talk just a little bit about Taft again. One of the other things that comes up really as a throughline in his career is his affinity for the bench…
BNR: …and for his desire to be a judge, and his satisfaction in that work. Not that he didn’t take satisfaction in his other roles. He took great satisfaction as Governor in the Philippines and he took great satisfaction clearly in even some of the aspects of the Presidency, which was a role that he was not nearly as naturally fit for as some have been. But it was really as a judge that his ambition all sort of came together. And in fact, Roosevelt in 1906 wanted to put Taft on the Supreme Court. There was an opening for an Associate Justice. Taft was in Roosevelt’s Cabinet at that point. Correct?
DKG: Correct. He had already asked him while he was in the Philippines those couple of times, but then he turned down the Court Justiceship because he felt it was his duty to stay there, and also the people in the Philippines didn’t want him to leave. But you’re right. The third time he asks him is when he’s back in the Cabinet, and it is 1906—absolutely right.
BNR: You make the case that Roosevelt understood that for the Progressive cause and the things that he had worked to fight for to flourish, the Supreme Court would need to be a place where those ideals were defended and enshrined into a final level of law and effectiveness. The fallout of the Industrial Age was eventually going to arrive in various cases in front of the Court, and he wanted someone like Taft there to lead the Court in its next phase.
DKG: Absolutely. I think from the time that some of that state legislation that he had sponsored was viewed unconstitutionally in the states for violating the due process or a whole set of property rights — so that you couldn’t force property owners to change certain things about working hours or women’s working. He had always recognized that the court had that power to undo the progressive legislation that was being passed at the state and national level, and especially by the time of 1906. The Standard Oil Antitrust suit has not yet come down—and that’s key to him still, to establish the power of the government as equal or more as the guys who are the captains of industry. So there’s that choice.
It’s one of the most remarkable letters, I think, that Roosevelt writes to Taft, when Taft is not certain what to do, laying out to him: “These are your choices. This is the most important time perhaps for the Court, and I know this is something you’ve wanted. On the other hand, they’re talking about you for possible higher office, and that doesn’t come around more than once. Only you…” That was the thing. He already by then had been established as the acting President when Teddy’s away, and he had done such a good job in the Philippines, and here he was, and his wife and his brothers are saying, “Oh my God, you have this chance to bat…” You have the feeling that if he had chosen just by himself, if he were in the cabin and nobody else were around, you’d think he probably would have gone to the Court, and then might have, in fact, been happier if he had been there that entire time, because he was so happy the last decade of his life.
But nonetheless, one can see how he’d already tasted some of the pleasures. You’re right. It wasn’t all un-pleasure as Secretary of War, and certainly the Philippines thing, even though it was more laying down laws, so it’s more attuned to the judicial temperament. He always needed, it seemed, that settled authority on top of him. Here is this perfect number-two man. As long as he had somebody that he was working for… He was loyal, he didn’t hog credit, he worked hard, there was camaraderie. But then, once he was on his own, it was hard. That may have been true all his life. Also, he was just a mediator as a child in that family. He was fair. He was meant to be a judge. So that it’s one of those huge turning points in life—which is exactly what Roosevelt said to him.
BNR: He got, in a sense, the best of both worlds, at least personally, in that he later was appointed by President Harding to be Chief Justice.
BNR: Did you wonder how history would have been different had Taft accepted that appointment in 1906?
DKG: Oh, it’s huge. I think if Taft had accepted that, then it’s interesting to wonder what would have happened in 1908. I mean, Roosevelt really wanted to be President again, and he loved being President, he was so popular… Given that Taft won in 1908, I think there’s no question that Roosevelt would have won in 1908.
BNR: So you think he would have won without Taft as a successor.
DKG: I think so. There are two questions about what difference it would have made. Whether he would have won in 1908. Because he still had that problem of the second term—his pledge not to have a third term—to deal with. But you could tell that, even after he had hand-picked Taft, in a way, when Taft’s campaign wasn’t going well for a little while, and people are coming to him, saying, “You really should do that,” he took a long time before he finally reiterated that pledge, “No, I’m not going to do it again.” So I think if he hadn’t already chosen this friend of his and made it clear that that was his choice, he might have been more tempted to do it in 1908. But certainly, I think, whoever would have won in ‘08 — I don’t know. Suppose it was Charles Evans Hughes. Whoever would have won in ‘08, he still would have faced the need, if he wanted to come back in ‘12, of running against a Republican.
It really could have changed history, because if 1912 hadn’t happened, or if Roosevelt didn’t have a President to run against who had been his friend, then I think he clearly would have possibly got the Republican Party nomination, and then the party wouldn’t have split, and maybe Woodrow Wilson wouldn’t have won, then he’s there for World War One… But clearly, if Roosevelt hadn’t chosen to run in 1912, I think he would have won the Presidency in 1916. I mean, Charles Evans Hughes almost did, and he would have been so much more popular than Hughes, I think. So if he had just waited, things would have been different on his side, too, just as if Taft had decided to take the Supreme Court earlier.
BNR: One thing that kept striking me over and over again as I read this book was the uncanny timeliness of so many of the issues. There are echoes of what these people are grappling with that seem to emerge in the headlines over the last couple of administrations. We have income disparities at record levels; an extraordinary partisanship that’s bitterly dividing political life; a wave of foreign conflicts, like what Taft kind of had to come in and handle in the Philippines, the aftermath of a conflict taking place that leaves us with power in a very distant place with a population that’s not itself completely on the same page about where it’s going next. Did you see correspondences, or is that sort of comparison just an inevitable bias of the reader, seeing the present in the past?
DKG: I’m not sure that I did when I started. But there’s no question that the more I got into it, and the more our recent history took its own course, the more it did seem like these echoes from the past. I suppose the parallel in some ways is the industrial revolution is what sparked these gigantic trusts swallowing up their competitors, and the gulf between the rich and the poor, and even that idea of what was the role of government supposed to be during this changed period. Then you think about the technological revolution today, having spurred these gigantic multinational corporations, and people feeling that gap between the rich and the poor more than they have in previous decades, and the middle class being squeezed out, and ordinary life becoming harder for people… All of those things they were dealing with then. And still today, the major question, what should the role of government be in all of this.
Roosevelt’s answer at the time was that the President was the steward of the people, and that government had a responsibility in the economic and social worlds, which most of the Presidents from the Civil War to him had not really agreed with. That was the whole laissez-faire philosophy…
BNR: It’s a revolutionary change in perspective.
DKG: It was a revolutionary change, that’s right. And he still had to deal with that old-guard… He starts out a conservative, and argues, I think rightly, that the best way to maintain conservatism is to move preventively to deal with these conditions, or else you’re going to get socialism. So he’s a progressive conservative or a conservative progressive, whatever you want to call him. But that old guard that’s in charge is really almost reactionary at the time he’s there, and he has to move them, and the only way he can do that is through the press and these people who mobilize the country from the outside-in, and then you get eventually this civil war in the Republican Party which we’re seeing again now. It’s from the different perspective, obviously; the Tea Party is very different from the Progressive. But a party that cannot seemingly sustain the big divisions that have now formed within it, and a party in control that is not willing to move forward, in some ways, on what needs to be done, unless the public pushes it to do so.
BNR: In the current context, do we have an S.S. McClure? Do we have an Ida Tarbell? Or do we have enough of their spirit?
DKG: That’s my hope, that in reading this book, journalists will feel a sense of what enormous fulfillment there must have been to have that kind of mission and call. The difficult, I suppose, is just the pace of life today. When you think about the fact that the McClure’s journalists had, as I say, those two years to work on their projects, and that they had each other as comrades, and that people are willing to read these long pieces. In our fragmented world today, journalists are responsible for not only the print, but what goes on in the Internet. Lots of them are on television. Are people reading long pieces in the same way any more as they used to? Or are they reading on the internet, where things are boiled down into a few paragraphs? I’m sure that there are journalists for whom this would still be their dream. That’s why they go into journalism in the first place, not just to entertain but rather to inform and educate people (that’s what journalism’s role is about) with the hope that you’re making things better by doing so. But I suspect that in this frenetic world, it’s harder to do that than it was back then.
BNR: It doesn’t seem like it makes it easier. I notice that you’re on Twitter now.
DKG: I know! What happened is, I was on Meet the Press once, maybe a year ago, and Mark Halperin was on from Time magazine, and he made a bet with somebody that he could get me on Twitter. So I actually went on it that day. I mean, he put me on it there. I haven’t done it very often. I couldn’t do it while I was finishing the book, because I couldn’t even think about anything else, because I was behind deadline on finishing the book. But now that…especially yesterday, with the combination of the Red Sox and the movie coming out… I’m generally not going to be Tweeting about what I’m doing during the day.
BNR: We didn’t talk about that. That was another piece of news that you did highlight on Twitter yesterday. The option for movie rights has been picked up on The Bully Pulpit from DreamWorks.
DKG: It is DreamWorks again. The experience of working with them, and with Spielberg, and the people making the Lincoln movie was such a rich experience, much more than I would have known it would have been. Sometimes you can just have your book taken, and then they go away. But I thought… I know them all well, and went down to the filming. I took Daniel Day Lewis to Springfield for a couple of days when he was researching the role, and spent time going around to various forums with Daniel and Steven and Tony. It was really fun.
And Spielberg had heard about what I was doing with this book. We became friends, so he’s known that I’ve been working on Teddy and Taft for a while, so we’ve talked about it. So I’m really glad it all came together. I have no idea what will happen with it yet. It’s in such an infant stage. The other one took a long time, so I suspect this could, too. But it’s exciting to know it’s in such great hands.
BNR: You’ve said this book was seven years in the making.
BNR: But at a certain point, Spielberg’s Lincoln project was being filmed. So I am presuming that some of the writing of this took place after you had had involvement on that. Is that true?
DKG: Oh, without question. I literally finished this book in early September. They were great. The Lincoln movie probably took me away from some of that focus for a period of time, as pleasant as it was. So I promised them that I’d have it out for Christmas this year. It meant these last six months I just could do nothing else. After the movie was done and I was back home, I stopped doing television, stopped giving lectures essentially. There was something weirdly special about that kind of focus, where my husband went to Cape Cod and I didn’t even go there on vacation. Working 20 hours a day. I had to finish the last couple of chapters, and the epilogue, and the preface. I was so nervous, just to be honest– I didn’t want to screw that up after seven years. But I have a feeling that if I had said to them, “No, I won’t publish it now; I’ll wait until the spring,” it wouldn’t have been as fulfilling as it was to just have to think about it all so intensely for that time. I couldn’t do it for much longer than those months, but it was an exciting period.
BNR: Shades of William Howard Taft putting his head down to get some of his work completed.
DKG: That’s right, whereas Teddy did it all way ahead of time. If it had been Teddy, I would have been done with the book a year ago!
BNR: He would have been Tweeting the whole time as well, I would think.
DKG: [Laughs] You are so right.
–October 31, 2013