'Team of Rivals' Author Doris Kearns Goodwin Talks New Book, 'Bully Pulpit', Possible Movie (Q&A)

The Bully Pulpit Book Cover - P 2013

The Bully Pulpit Book Cover - P 2013

The popular historian's story of the friendship between two presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, has already been acquired by Dreamworks. "They did such a fantastic job on 'Lincoln,'" she says.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, the popular historian whose book Team of Rivals became the basis for the Oscar-nominated film Lincoln, is back, reintroducing another favorite president to the American public. 

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In Bully Pulpit she turns her attention to the bromance between Teddy Roosevelt and his successor and later rival William Howard Taft. Roosevelt was president from 1901-1908, taking office after William McKinley's assassination. 

Taft was his Secretary of War and protege, succeeding him in 1908, when Roosevelt chose not to run for a third term.   

In 1912, though, Roosevelt changed his mind and sought the presidency, running on the third party Bull Moose ticket against his friend. Their fight opened the door to Woodrow Wilson's election as president. 

She adds to this the story of the muckrakers, the crusading journalists who exposed the problems of industrialization, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, unsafe working conditions, lack of food safety, for example‚ that went along with its benefits‚ cars, canned food, electricity, among other things. 

As Goodwin shows, Teddy Roosevelt had one of the most remarkable relationships with the press of any president in American history. 

The book is a lively tale of a remarkable friendship, a look at a nation grappling with profound change and an inspiring account of the power of independent public service-oriented journalism. 

While a well known Sunday morning talking head, the success of Lincoln has raised Goodwin's Hollywood profile. The film rights to the book have already been acquired by Dreamworks for Steven Spielberg to potentially direct.

While it's too early to say exactly what a final movie will look like (remember that Lincoln was based on one section of Team of Rivals), the nature of the book suggests it might best lend itself to something along the lines of a presidential buddy flick.   

Indeed, Goodwin was a guest of honor at a lunch Spielberg and Stacey Snider hosted to celebrated the publication of The Bully Pulpit
Bully Pulpit – like Team of Rivals – showcases Goodwin's ability to look at a story we think we know from a fresh angle that makes the story seem new. 

Added to the familiar Teddy Roosevelt of Rough Rider and "speak softly but carry a big stick" fame is a new personal dimension told through his close personal relationship with Taft. 

The Roosevelt-Taft friendship is fascinating. No two presidents (excepting possibly the father/son combos) were closer friends and their split in 1912 was painful to both men (TR reneged on a promise to retire from electoral politics).

The bestselling author, one-time Presidential aide (to Lyndon Baines Johnson) and former Harvard professor talked with The Hollywood Reporter while in Los Angeles. 

In conversation, Goodwin expanded on the relationship between the two men, what she admired about Teddy Roosevelt, how he'd fit into the modern age and the idea of a movie version of Bully Pulpit
On why she chose to write a book about Teddy Roosevelt:
I always choose somebody that I want to spend a lot of time with because it takes me so long to write these books. As I got into it, I found out more about Taft, his successor, and I really hadn’t known about how deep their friendship was and how heartbreaking their rupture was. And then I also realized that part of the distinction between the two was one was good with the public and getting along with the press, the other wasn’t. So, that’s when all my other guys came in – the Muckrakers. 
On what she admired about him:
I think probably what I admired most was his ability to connect with his countrymen, with ordinary people who really felt that he was their champion. He did that in part by taking endless train trips around the country. He would go from one village station to the other, and stop, and everybody would give him these crazy gifts – lizards and snakes, etc. He would just look so delighted, when somebody criticized him, he could laugh at himself and that’s important.
On how the story turned out to be relevant to today:
It turned out to be a more relevant story to today than it was when I started. I mean, the gap between the rich and the poor, the sense of people not being able to deal with problems and finally Teddy is able to make them do that, the sense of the industrial era having created a whole series of new businesses that had created millionaires from the railroads and the oil – just as the internet age has done for us – but I wasn’t thinking in those terms seven years ago. It shows that sometimes history cycles back and there’s something very resonant about that era right now.

On the touching reconciliation between Taft and Roosevelt just before his death:
Seven months before Teddy dies, Taft goes to Chicago for a meeting at the Blackstone Hotel, and he’s going up in the elevator to his room and the elevator operator says, “Oh, Mr. Roosevelt is sitting in the dining room by himself.” So Taft says, “Well then, bring me downstairs.” He goes into the dining room – it’s full of people – the wait staff is all in there. He goes over to Roosevelt and they embrace each other. The entire room claps. There was a reporter there who recorded it, and then the reporter talked to both of them afterwards and Teddy said, “I’m so delighted Taft did this.” And Taft said, “I’m so happy this happened.” Then, seven months later, when Teddy dies, he’s an honored guest at the funeral. He then writes to Teddy’s sister saying, “It would’ve made me so sad if we hadn’t gotten together before he died.” I didn’t know that that was going to happen until I followed along, but was so glad to do it. I didn’t know it at all until I did the research!

The funny ways Teddy would fit into our time:
Oh, he’d be great in the modern age. He would never have a hundred emails in his inbox! He would have them right away. They say he could multi-task. At the end of the day when he was signing mail, he brought the journalists in – that was another hour they could have with him. He was impulsive at times, so he might say some things – like for example, when he won the election in 1904, he had a big, big popular vote. He had already been President for three years because President McKinley had been killed, of course. That would mean seven years after he was finished. So, he impulsively said that he wasn’t going to run again in 1908, that he was observing the two-term tradition. He put out a statement and later said he would have cut off his wrist to have not said that because of course he wanted to run again. Twitter – he might say a few things that are a little crazy, but he’d be fit for the modern day. 

On the possibility of a movie:
There's something about friendships. How do you capture that this friendship meant so much to the two men? And then came this huge rupture that changed the course of the country when these two men ran against each other. The battle in 1912--especially with what's going on in the Republican Party now, a civil war -- it was a civil war in the Republican Party then. This is the beginning of primaries. At the convention Taft has power as the party leader, even though Roosevelt wins most of the primaries. They sent rival delegations to convent. They would have fights on floor, real fistfights. There would be police. If they saw someone with a rival's badge, the would knock them over. It was an extraordinary drama. The key would be how to build in  knowing about their friendship. Archie Butts [an aide to both presidents who died on the Titanic] would be a character who could bridge it. But it's at an early stage. These people know how to do it. They did such a fantastic job on Lincoln