Doris Kearns Goodwin: Roosevelt is the first person that defined the term bully pulpit and what he meant by it was that the President has an unparalleled platform to educate the country and to have moral fervor delivered to the country so that the people themselves will become extraordinarily interested in certain programs and push the congress which in his time was reluctant to act on the problems of the industrialites and push them to take action. So he really thought of it as a pulpit in the sense that it was a moral platform but bully in his time didn’t mean what we think of as bully now. It meant awesome or splendid or great.
Roosevelt was the first person to produce a room inside the Whitehouse for the press. He coincides with the age of the reporter. In the nineteenth century the most important journalists were editors and they’d often be editors of the partisan magazines or partisan newspapers. If you were a republican you’d only read The Republican Journal. If you were a democrat only the democratic newspaper. If you were a Whig the Whig newspaper. And the accounts would be wholly different. Like Lincoln could go and give a great speech and the Republican Journal he’s actually held up, they’d say, by the shoulders of the people as he left. In the democratic account of that same speech they’d say he fell on the floor. He was not able to get up. He was hooted and just sort of undone on his way out.
But by the turn of the century you had national newspapers coming into being. More objective, you had national magazines and reporters replaced editors as the most important people of the time. So Roosevelt is coming into his own at the time that’s called the age of the reporter. And he recognizes that they are the ones that are gonna be reaching a broader group of people. Not necessarily his partisans but the country as a whole and he needs them and they need him.
You’ve got to hope somehow that presidents understand that the bully pulpit is still a tool that they possess. Even though I think it’s been diminished over time as an instrument because when Roosevelt gave a speech, the entire speech might be in the newspaper. Headlines would tell about it. The whole country would be reading it even up to the time of Franklin Roosevelt when he gave his fireside chats on the radio, 80 percent of the audience would be listening to his fireside chats. Saul Bellows said you could walk down the street on a hot Chicago night and listen and keep hearing his voice because you could look inside, everybody was listening.
Up till the time of the three television networks in the sixties and the seventies and the eighties up to Reagan, you could give a speech as a president and it would be on the air, everybody’s watching and then they’d turn to regular programming. Now you could watch your own cable network if you want to. You might hear only an excerpt of the president’s speech. You might hear the pundits tearing it down before they even finish the speech and our attention span is so diminished that I don’t know if we can have a sustained conversation about an issue the way they could about monopolies or corruption at the turn of the twentieth century. But it’s still a tool that a president has to use, especially when things are so paralyzed in Washington. The only way you’re gonna get those characters to move is public pressure to say we’ve had enough, we have to move forward on some of these issues.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton