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January 21, 2018

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Historian: Modern presidents losing bully pulpit

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and presidential author, wonders whether modern presidents have lost their bully pulpit to the noise of the fractious media and Internet bloggers.

It has become increasingly difficult, she suggests, for the voice from the White House to gain resonance because commentators big-foot the message with their own analyses and spins. Presidential remarks can become blurred, even marginalized, by whoever is in the anchor seat that hour.

Goodwin has made an illustrious career of studying the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and assessing their success in holding the nation’s attention. Her most recent book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” is being developed by Steven Spielberg as a feature film.

Goodwin will speak Friday at the UNLV Foundation’s annual donor-recognition dinner. She says she’ll reflect on, among other things, how the presidents she studied were able to hold the nation’s attention.

“Teddy Roosevelt could speak to the entire nation through the print media and Franklin Roosevelt spoke to the nation on radio, but it seems that in today’s media world, it’s harder for a president to capture that bully pulpit,” she said.


It’s harder to have a voice that everyone listens to, given the nature of the media today. When President Obama gave his health care speech last summer and Congressman Joe Wilson yelled “You lie!” it was that outburst that everyone talked about, rather than the speech itself.

In contrast, when John Kennedy finished giving his Cuban Missile Crisis speech, the networks went back to normal programming. There weren’t pundits dissecting what he said.

When a president speaks to the nation now, everyone has to give his take on it, and the president’s message is filtered. We’re hearing the pundits, not the president. That’s a problem.

Has President Obama lost his voice?

He hasn’t yet found the right means of communication. He was so good in his campaign because he was speaking to crowds, and they were responding spontaneously, and he fed off that energy. But now he gives televised speeches using a teleprompter. They’re wonderful when you read them, but the delivery is not as effective. There’s not the energy of speaking to a live audience.

How have times changed in the way voters are informed of the issues?

In the 19th century, the political parties educated voters. The parties vetted and selected the candidates, and you, the voter, would learn about the candidates in the partisan press. That’s how we got Lincoln.

In the 20th century, the political parties lost some of their power to newspapers, which did a pretty good job of informing voters. And the muckraker journalists created a climate for reform through their investigative pieces.

Today, print has been replaced by TV and Internet bloggers, and people have diminished attention spans. There’s such a scattering of blogs and cable outlets, and there are fewer newspapers with the resources to look in-depth at important issues and produce pieces that will mobilize public opinion.

How unusual is the strident divisiveness we’re seeing in today’s politics?

It’s true that it certainly seems more extreme than anything we’ve seen in our recent lifetime. But it’s not unique. The country fell apart in the 1850s and we had a civil war. Even during the New Deal, when Roosevelt had the majority of people on his side, the Republican minority would hate him, and during his fireside chats people would throw their radios out the window.

The country simmered down during and after World War II. But then came the Vietnam War and all of the divisiveness that came with it.

How can we elevate the quality of debate and return to civility?

I don’t see it happening until after the midterm elections, when Congress has to settle down and figure out what to do with all the problems. Because, if they don’t get along, there will be a disaster.

In the old days, before the time when members of Congress rushed home on weekends to raise funds to win elections, they would stay in Washington. They’d play poker together, drink together and friendships were formed despite party lines.

I’ve spoken at Republican leadership dinners and at Democrat leadership dinners and I wish there was a dinner with leadership from both sides. I wish they’d mix it up.

And exacerbating the problem is that the media reward the politicians who are the more extreme on each side by putting them on TV. And once they’ve become spokesmen for those points of view, it’s harder for them to bend and compromise.

Are you cynical or optimistic about the future?

I worry about the hurdles we put people through to do public service, including the need to raise money. I worry we’re not getting the quality of people we need in public life that we would have in older days. Good people are saying it’s not worth it to them and their families to serve.

But I have reason, too, to be positive. We have a son who graduated from Harvard in 2001. After 9/11, he volunteered for the Army, did two tours in Iraq, earned the Bronze Star, returned home and went back to Afghanistan. It consumed most of his 20s. But he said nothing could equal the experience he gained by doing public service.

There are many young people doing that — young people with idealism and hope.

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