Did working on the film “Lincoln” conflict with your standards as a historian?
It didn’t. The thing that mattered most to me was whether the film captured the Lincoln I thought I knew: his strengths, his humor, his political genius and his warmth. When I watched Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, I felt I was seeing the man walking and talking that I had imagined for so long. They were absolutely true to history.
You’re working on a book about Theodore Roosevelt. What interests you about him?
One thing that interests me is the broken friendship with William Howard Taft, who succeeded Roosevelt as president. They had been good friends, but Roosevelt ran against him in 1912, not only breaking the friendship but also destroying the chances for the Republicans to win. A second thing is Roosevelt had an extraordinary relationship with the press, which was dominated by the muckrakers. Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, William Allen White — all of them are at the center of my book, which will be called “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism.”
Being re-elected usually gives a president a boost, but President Obama doesn’t seem to have experienced that. Is it because he’s ineffective or are conditions limiting him?
I think in large part it is because of the times and the political system. Take the president’s gun control measure, for example. When you think of the number of vigils he attended, the mobilization of the families connected to the Newtown shootings and the inclusion of the issue in his inaugural address, Obama did as much as he could using the bully pulpit. The question is whether the bully pulpit is as powerful as it once was. You also could say he won the public battle but that fundraising needs and the reliance on special interests made the Senate, where the bill died, impervious to public sentiment.
As a historian, what is your assessment of the presidency of George W. Bush?
Historians would argue it takes 20 or 30 years to get perspective. My guess is that some of his accomplishments will be to his benefit, but historians will have to answer the questions: Was the war in Iraq an answer to 9/11? Were all the lives, treasure and energy that went into that the best response we could’ve had?
What does it take to be president?
I have enormous respect for what it takes to succeed in our political system: to suffer adversity and loss early on, the need to ask people for things, whether votes or favors, for example. You have to have some strength or some need for approval or power. The question now is whether there is a sense of purpose that is commensurate with what you have to go through to win.