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Doris Kearns Goodwin: Presidents and the Progressive Era

Kat Smith

Dorris Kearns Goodwin - Bully Pulpit - Pulitzer Prize winning historian and authorSeven years in the making, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (Simon & Schuster, 2013) provides a riveting account of the nation’s 26th and 27th presidents and the remarkable times during which they served. Not surprisingly, a preemptive deal for movie rights was promptly inked by DreamWorks, the studio behind the Steven Spielberg-directed Academy Award-winning film Lincoln, which was inspired by Kearns Goodwin’s tome Team of Rivals.

   The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and presidential historian will captivate attendees when she joins the Festival of the Arts Boca on March 13 for the Authors & Ideas series, discussing her latest book. Now in its eighth year, the festival, which runs March 6-15 and is held at the Mizner Park Amphitheater and the Cultural Arts Center, will include a veritable who’s who of authors, thinkers and performers, from Itzhak Perlman and Arturo Sandoval to actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith and cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin, to name just a few.

   In this interview, Kearns Goodwin shares insights on Progressive Era journalism and today’s media, moviemaking with Steven Spielberg, and writing about great U.S. presidents. Edited excerpts follow.

 

PBI: Did you think, as you worked on The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, it would make for a riveting film?

During the time I was with Steven Spielberg during the Lincoln movie we talked about what I was doing on Teddy and Taft. He had seen manuscript pages and then page proofs, and then finally the entire book. It’s great to think of working with that team of people again. When you’re writing you’re much more solitary. So it’s just such an extraordinary experience to be part of a group so intensely involved on the same project.

 

During the writing of the book, did thoughts of how it could be a blockbuster movie have an effect?

I think once Lincoln was made, having read screenwriter Tony Kushner’s draft, I began to think a little bit visually about what makes a scene as opposed to just the written word. I’m not sure it changed anything I was writing, except that when I was working on the 1912 Republican Convention, and it’s so dramatic—policemen at the door, people are fighting each other, they’re knocking each other down, they’re yelling and booing and hissing—then I knew, oooh, this would make a good scene and have a dramatic impact. When things happen to your characters, even if it’s sad thing—somebody dies, or somebody gets a stroke as Nellie Taft does—it would be dramatized well. It does become a little part of your writing. I’m mostly using private journals and diaries and written sources, but I do think about describing the scene a little bit more, or putting in the physical details of something. I’ve gotten more used to that from watching the screen-writing process.

 

Do you think that makes for a better read?

I’d like to think so. I think to the extent that you can get the reader imagining the way a person looks, not only by seeing the pictures, which is a big part of giving them the sense of what these people look like. But even in your descriptions of them, or the venue where they’re talking, a movie can do in much more dimensional detail than you can through the written word.

 

You have commented on today’s 24-hour news cycle, and how the media pander to the opinions of a specific audience. How can the media offer an objective, well-informed perspective?

I think the thing that’s so contrasting, what these journalists were rewarded with at the time I am writing about [the turn of the twentieth century], is that working at the most important magazine at the time, McClure’s magazine in the Progressive Era, they were allowed several years of research on staff, paid, with extraordinary expense accounts to do the research necessary. It was almost like mini books they were putting out—50,000 words, 80,000 words stretched over 12 issues. As a result, what they produced is pretty impregnable. It still stands up today—Ida Tarbell’s exposé of Standard Oil, or Ray Baker’s of the railroads, or Lincoln Steffens’ of corruption in the cities. You read them today and they are not sensationalized. They were hard-hitting and they had a point of view, but they were fact-based. Now it’s impossible to imagine a place that would underwrite a reporter for that period of time, give the generous expense accounts to write these huge pieces that would appear—where? That’s the problem. Attention spans are so diminished and the outlets for this kind of writing have been diminished. That’s scary, because those writers really changed public opinion. They told stories that people could then talk about as a common conversation, and then pressure the Congress to do what Teddy Roosevelt wanted them to do. He needed these stories out in the field to pressure Congress from the outside in.

 

How can journalists today get the public engaged in a meaningful way?

The key always is—one of the things S.S. McClure said that I believe so strongly—is the story is the thing. That’s what moves people. It’s not just abstract facts about something, or constant yelling back and forth. If you could tell the story, as these people did, [for example,] then people begin to understand and decide to do something about it. McClure said, “There’s no one left but all of us,” meaning the public has to be involved in what’s happening in Washington, or nothing will get done. We’re very much at that stage now.

   What you need is sustained interest in something to really produce that kind of public sentiment that’s going to finally make Congress do something.

 

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism:  - Dorris Kearns Goodwin - interview with the Pultitzer prize-winning authorDo you think there is a possibility of reducing the crippling partisanship in the country, and how?

So many people in the public are frustrated with this that there may have to be structural changes. They may have to figure out how to redistrict the districts—because as long as we have districts that are just catering to a certain point of view, people in those districts don’t have to care about what the public as a whole thinks.

   Something also has to be done about campaign financing. It’s still the poison of the system that our representatives spend so much time raising funds that inevitably they’re raising funds from special interest groups who want them to do something for them. It may be that it’s reached a point of such irritation to the public that something is going break.

 

What would Teddy Roosevelt think about the divide in the Republican Party attributed to the Tea Party, a split that resembles the party during his time?

His success while he was president was that he was able to keep the two wings of the party together—the conservative regular wing and this emerging progressive wing. For a period of time he was able to argue that unless the Republican Party moved in a more progressive direction to soften the problems of industrialization, it would no longer be the majority party. So he had a warning for his own party. He said, at the time, if our party gets known as the party of the rich and the property owners, then it will not have power again. And he warned the country that if the parties got divided between the property owners and the rich on the one hand and the wage workers and the poor on the other, it would be bad for the republic.

   Roosevelt constantly talked about how class hatred would be the rock on which the republic would founder. He never wanted to be against the rich just because they were rich; only if they used unfair means to accumulate their wealth. He’d be for labor unions as long as they didn’t use unfair means to do what they wanted to do. His Square Deal still remains to me in some ways, where a leader needs to go: “I’m for the poor and the rich, the wage worker and the capitalist, as long as they have a square deal from the government.” The difference between him and the Tea Party now is he believed the government had a large responsibility in the social and economic life of the country.

 

Is the United States behind the curve compared to many nations in electing women to the top offices in government?

Without question. I think the answer to getting more women at the top levels will be getting more women going through the system from the beginning, which means the state legislatures, the state senates, city councils… At all those levels, we still don’t have enough women, but it’s inevitable. When you look at more college graduates who are women, more medical doctors in school now who are women, more in law school. It’s going to happen.

 

Do you think Hillary Clinton is going to be our first woman president, or another woman on the rise who’s not on the average citizen’s radar yet?

Certainly if Hillary Clinton decides to run, it would seem she is able to get the Democratic nomination. And then, it depends on where we’re at in 2016, who her opponent is, and what people are feeling. But I think we’re ready for the first woman president. She could have won the last time had it not been for the fact that she was up against the first African American president, and that he ran a campaign that understood the caucus system, and all sorts of things made it not happen for her. But it wasn’t because she was a woman that she didn’t win. I think we’re definitely ready, and I think it will be a big deal when it happens.

 

If you were interviewing yourself, what would you ask that has not been asked yet? And how would you answer?

[Laughs] I guess, really, if I were interviewing myself … Oh my gosh, this is a really hard question! Maybe what I would ask is, if I could be in a room with all my presidents, what would I want to ask them? The answer would be, I would ask each of them to tell me their favorite stories, because stories are what bring them alive.

 

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