35° Good Evening
35° Good Evening

Doris Kearns Goodwin takes on Taft and Roosevelt

Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of

Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of ""The Bully Pulpit" (S&S, November 2013). Credit: Eric Levin

As she puts it, Doris Kearns Goodwin has "lived with" Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson -- and, more recently, Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft.

Her books about the first three -- "Team of Rivals," "No Ordinary Time" and "Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream" -- all drew acclaim.

Her latest effort, "The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism" (Simon & Schuster, $40), addresses the friendship and schism between Roosevelt and Taft, the only man to serve the United States as both president and chief justice.

Goodwin talked recently about the new book.


What prompted you to research and write a book about these men?

What always happens for me is, knowing how much time -- even years -- will be invested in writing these books, if I choose wrongly and decide I don't want to wake up with these guys in the morning, then that would be a mistake.

I was always interested in the Gilded Age, a generation where they felt they had a real rendezvous with destiny. That meant Teddy and that era, but I didn't want to write just about him, because so much had been written. I became much more interested in William Howard Taft. There obviously had been less written about him. It was a great adventure to discover a man whom historians know a lot about but many people don't.


You paint a picture of very different men from similar backgrounds. In modern terms, their friendship almost resembles a bromance -- one that Taft described as "sweet intimacy." Right?

A lot can be learned from the period when they were both young men, working in Washington and walking to work together every day. They were a complementary set of opposites: Roosevelt enjoyed a variety of physical activities, and Taft didn't. Taft loved new automobiles, and Teddy loved horseback riding. Teddy found golf boring, and Taft loved it.

They shared a sense of commitment of helping America deal with its problems . . . They were new young reformers -- at a time when they were surrounded by people who thought government had little role in handling problems. They really shared a sense for progressive ideas.

This wasn't just a political friendship. This was a deep friendship.


How dissimilar were Roosevelt and Taft?

Roosevelt had this intense need to be in the spotlight. . . . Taft was different. When he had someone above him, he was perfect. [Roosevelt was president from 1901 to 1909, and Taft, 1909 to 1913.] Taft worked very hard, was intelligent, loyal, and everyone liked him. He could give speeches for Teddy, but, when he had to do it for himself, he was uncomfortable. He tried to carry out Roosevelt's principles but didn't know how to deal with the public and didn't have a very good relationship with the press. He also had a deep rupture in the Republican Party.


So what feeling did you develop about Taft?

He deserves far better from history. The rupture in their friendship [primarily over issues of progressivism, including Taft's lowering of tariffs on U.S. imports] was really heartbreaking to Taft. I don't think for one moment he thought he was betraying Roosevelt. You also wonder what effect Nellie's stroke had. [Helen Herron Taft suffered a serious stroke two months after her husband took office.] She was politically astute, helped plan dinners and social occasions. Losing her voice and that partnership must have been devastating to him.


The journalists of the era, compared with the press of today, had a much different relationship with the president. They would often submit their stories in advance and consult Roosevelt about strategies. What do you make of that?

The muckrakers had a sense of camaraderie. They felt like democracy required vital information. In the 19th century, most of the newspapers were partisan. They were presenting their point of view and were part of a political party. But by the time of the turn of the 20th century, newspapers were getting into more objective kinds of coverage. The tension between reporters and the presidency became more critical. . . . Overall, it was a very productive relationship.

More Entertainment