CONCORD, Mass. – History for Doris Kearns Goodwin begins at home, in this timeless New England town where Emerson and Thoreau once lived and wrote and in the century-old house that she shares with her husband, former presidential speech writer Richard Goodwin.
The Goodwin house is a virtual museum of the personal and scholarly past, from the photographs of various Kennedys and of a grinning Barack Obama to the many rooms named for the books they contain. A large space in the back is dedicated to fiction, while a smaller area by the kitchen belongs to sports. Alphabetical shelvings of presidential works lead to an especially well stocked library, its dark, paneled walls and leather chairs giving it the look of a private club.
Goodwin, 70, ranks with David McCullough and Robert Caro as among the most famous living historians. She is a million-selling author, popular speaker and familiar television commentator, known to millions for her reddish hair and wide smile. A former aide to Lyndon Johnson and an acknowledged influence on the staffing of the Obama administration, she has witnessed, written about and helped make presidential history.
Her “Team of Rivals,” published eight years ago, was such an ongoing phenomenon that a countdown clock on Goodwin's Web site has ticked off the seconds until her new book's publication. “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” is more than 900 pages and fulfills her longtime dream of writing about the Progressive era, the years in the early 20th century when “muckraking” journalists exposed injustice and landmark legislation was signed on everything from food safety to tariffs to railroad regulation.
“It's always been my favorite era,” says Goodwin. “There was something about reform being in the air, the excitement of it.”
Goodwin began with the idea of writing about Roosevelt — “someone I want to live with” — a challenge when the president was so well captured in Edmund Morris' prize-winning trilogy. Roosevelt's close relationship to Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and other investigative reporters convinced her to add their stories. Taft, Roosevelt's designated and unfortunate choice to follow him in the White House, was the final piece.
Roosevelt and Taft are pictured on the book's cover. But writing about the past for Goodwin also means exploring the lives of women, like Tarbell or Taft's wife, Nellie, who liked to smoke and play cards and host literary salons. “I do identify more with Ida and Nellie, both women ahead of their times in yearning to exercise their talents in a world of men,” says Goodwin, adding that she feels lucky to live in a time when she could have both a family and career.
Goodwin notes that when she was studying for a Ph.D. in government at Harvard, a professor there told her that women were more likely to drop out before they completed their work and should “realize that we were taking the place of a man who would go on in the profession.” But she was encouraged by other academics and by the example of “Guns of August” author Barbara Tuchman, who wrote political and military history. Goodwin also was influenced by Tuchman's belief that “you have to tell a story from beginning to middle to end and pretend you don't know how it turns out, because you can only know what people at the time know.”
Goodwin's “No Ordinary Time,” an expansive narrative about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II, won the Pulitzer in 1995.
“Team of Rivals,” one of the most talked-about books of the past decade, raised and rescued her stature. The book was her first since she acknowledged lifting extensive material from other sources for “The Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds,” a 1987 best seller that ended up being withdrawn.
But “Team of Rivals” was untouched by scandal, praised by a Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian, James McPherson, and awarded the Lincoln Prize.
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.” 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.”