Doris Kearns Goodwin talks History Channel’s two-night documentary ‘Theodore Roosevelt’

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Theodore Roosevelt' on History Channel (Part 1)

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt remains one of the most fascinating presidents in American history.

On Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m., the History Channel premieres the two-night documentary “Theodore Roosevelt,” executive produced by Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio and Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

“He’s probably the most interesting,” Goodwin told WTOP. “He just had so many different lives. That’s what makes him not a traditional politician that worked his way up the ladder. … Keeping himself at the center of attention in order to get things done. … He wanted to be the baby at the baptism, the bride at the wedding and the corpse at the funeral.”

Based on Goodwin’s bestselling biography “Leadership: In Turbulent Times,” the five-hour documentary opens with Roosevelt’s wealthy upbringing in New York City.

“He starts out with a very privileged background, his grandfather one of the five richest in New York City,” Goodwin said. “He learns by being in the New York legislature that there’s other parts of life in New York City and he sees [lower-class] tenements for the first time.”

After a double family tragedy, he moves west to buy a cattle ranch in the Dakotas.

“He goes to the Badlands to the west after his wife and his mother die on the same day in the same house, his wife in childbirth and his mother having come to take care of her,” Goodwin said. “Then he becomes a cowboy and a rancher and understands the west.”

His next macho chapter includes law enforcement and the military.

“He comes back east again and becomes a civil service commissioner, then a police commissioner, then he’s in New York in midnight rambles with the police department. Then he becomes a Rough Rider in the [Spanish-American War] with a soldier’s point of view.”

After all of these experiences, he becomes governor of New York from 1899 to 1900, which leads to him running as William McKinley’s vice president in the election of 1900.

“He was so bored [as vice president] that he was going to go back to law school, he had never finished, but then McKinley was assassinated,” Goodwin said. “Teddy had three and a half years of McKinley’s term before running for his own term … so he really had almost a full two terms of the presidency and, boy, did he use that time to do a lot of things.”

What were the biggest accomplishments of his first term as president?

“In the first term, he had to move somewhat cautiously,” Goodwin said. “He focused his efforts in the first term on anti-trust [policies]. … He went after Standard Oil, he went after Northern Securities, this big railroad merger, and the meatpacking plants. … Here’s a guy protecting us against these big companies that are swallowing up small business.”

After being re-elected in 1904, he felt much more freedom in his second term.

“When he wins the presidency in his own right, then he can go forward to much more important, lasting legislation,” Goodwin said. “He goes for legislating the railroad companies, food and drug legislation, meatpacking legislation, child labor and minimum wage — things that will make life better for ordinary workers and for ordinary people.”

Beyond the economy, his greatest legacy might just be the country’s national parks.

“He always loved being outside, going into the woods and eventually made that love of nature .. what he wanted to preserve,” Goodwin said. “Should the Grand Canyon be opened for mining? Should you cut down sequoia trees? … He was willing to battle with business and argue that it was his generation’s responsibility to preserve nature wonders.”

Where does he rank among history’s greatest presidents?

“At the time, he was the most popular president the country had ever known and he had such a large influence on the people, then what happened is he got eclipsed by Franklin Roosevelt following up on things that Teddy cared about and making them law,” Goodwin said. “There was not a war. Do you have a real place in history if there’s not a war?”

The answer is a resounding “yes,” considering his other accomplishments.

“He saw the hidden dangers in the economy and worked preventively … to deal with labor and management,” Goodwin said. “As conservation has become more important … he’s now regarded well in history. He’s always been one of the great presidents when you rank them … just underneath Lincoln among those characters on Mount Rushmore.”

How would he fit into the world of politics today?

“The way he’d fit in most definitely is that he understood the press, how to become a figure,” Goodwin said. “He would be entertaining, he could tweet, he was the master of small, funny statements: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick,’ ‘Don’t hit until you have to and then hit hard,’ he even gave Maxwell House the slogan: ‘Good until the very last drop.'”

Perhaps his most impressive feat? After his presidency in 1912, he delivered an 84-minute speech while bleeding from the chest after being shot in a failed assassination attempt.

“Crazy, right?” Goodwin said.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Theodore Roosevelt' on History Channel (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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