Doris Kearns Goodwin: President and Press 'Need Each Other'

Friday, 22 Nov 2013 03:12 PM

By Marti Lotman

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The president of the United States must have — at a very minimum — a decent relationship with the press. This symbiotic relationship, best understood by Theodore Roosevelt, is a hallmark of democracy that the commander in chief must embrace, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says.

"The tensions between the president and the press have grown so much that it's much harder for the president to learn from the press," the Pulitzer Prize-winning author tells Newsmax in an exclusive interview about her most recent book, "The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism."

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"But they still need each other," she said Friday.

The strength of Roosevelt's leadership, Goodwin says, was his ability to take press criticism in stride. His presidency was marked by his innovative use of a term he coined, "the bully pulpit," or the national platform afforded to the presidency to shape public opinion.

Roosevelt harnessed the power of the bully pulpit by calling reporters by their first names, inviting them to eat, and even bringing them on board his private railroad car during his regular trips across the country.

Roosevelt, for the first time, designated a private press room for journalists in the White House. In short, Roosevelt managed the press and its coverage.

This type of leadership, Goodwin says, allowed Roosevelt to prod a conservative Congress to pass groundbreaking reform measures.

Goodwin says this spirit of compromise is currently absent from Washington. (Thursday was marked by Senate Democrats' invoking a "nuclear option" to eliminate filibusters for most presidential cabinet nominations.)

"At the time of Roosevelt, there was somewhat of a similar inability for some of the legislation Roosevelt wanted to have passed. People who had control of the Congress had no desire to get it through the committees, and they could just smother it in those committees until Roosevelt and the journalists created enough public pressure that they finally agreed we better get it to the floor and then we can compromise on it, but at least we'll get something done."

The country, Goodwin says, seems to want some sort of centrist action to take place and for the extremes on both sides of the aisle to come together. But if that's the case, we have to become more active in getting the message felt, she says.

"They’ll say in public opinion polls that 80 percent of people don't want any of these people in Congress to come back again, but then they don't do anything about it . . . we may need some sort of redistricting so the extremes aren't being listened to only in those small districts . . . we need probably to figure out the primary system.

"There are changes. But all these changes were made by people. They can be changed by people . . . Sometimes you fear that the country itself is so passive that it's just criticizing from the outside in. Teddy Roosevelt's greatest phrase was, 'It's not the critic who counts, but the man in the arena.'"

With the 24/7 new-media landscape, problems are often being discussed before leaders are able to figure out a solution to them, Goodwin says. With this new landscape, it's imperative that leaders figure out how to still have a credible voice that is understood and listened to.

"In a democracy, this is one of the most important things for any kind of leader — whether it's at the presidential level or any other level . . .

"It's almost like pundits are there to undo what they're saying, and our attention span is limited now. Breaking news comes in. Before you know it, whatever it is you were focusing on, something else comes in the way. I think it is harder now: everyone else has their own bully pulpit, the bloggers, people on Facebook can start talking with a megaphone which can be as loud sometimes as the president."

But a greater number of megaphones isn't an excuse for the power of the president to be deafened, Goodwin says.

"Leaders have to adapt," she says.

"It’s my greatest hope, Goodwin writes, "that 'The Bully Pulpit' will guide readers through their own process of discovery toward a better understanding of what it takes to summon the public to take the actions necessary to bring our country closer to our ancient ideals."

"The Bully Pulpit" has been acquired by Dreamworks, the same studio responsible for "Lincoln," based in part on Goodwin's critically acclaimed novel "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln."

Goodwin says she teases Daniel Day-Lewis — who played the title role in "Lincoln" — that he "just needs to gain a couple hundred pounds" to play William Howard Taft in the new film.

"When you're writing, it's such a solitary occupation, but movie-making is such a team experience that I really loved being part of it. The idea of starting on another journey right now is fabulous."

Doris Kearns Goodwin will be speaking at the 30th Miami Book Fair International. To get tickets to the event click here now.

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