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The Bully Pulpit

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for The Bully Pulpit includes an introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


    In this critically acclaimed work, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin turns her attention to the first decade of the Progressive era, the tumultuous time when the nation was coming apart at its seams—the gap between the rich and the poor had never been wider, corporations resisted federal regulation, and political parties could be bought— and reform was in the air.

    Goodwin frames her narrative around the intense friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, which strengthens each man before it completely ruptures in 1912, when they engage in a brutal fight against each other for the presidential nomination, crippling the Progressive wing of the Republican Party in the process. It’s also the story of the muckraking press, which Roosevelt credited with changing the nation’s politics.

    Founded upon a wealth of primary materials, The Bully Pulpit demonstrates Goodwin’s trademark ability to combine scholarly rigor with accessibility. It is a major work of history—an examination of leadership in a rare moment of activism and reform that brought the country closer to its founding ideals.  

    Topics & Questions for Discussion 

    1. In describing Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Goodwin writes, “the lively natures displayed by young Taft and Roosevelt remained with them throughout their lives. The aftermath of their anger, however, was handled very differently.” (p. 69) How does each man handle his anger? In what ways does this manifest in their respective political careers? Did you learn anything about the upbringing of either Roosevelt or Taft that surprised you? If so, what?
    2. Why do you think Goodwin choose to title her book The Bully Pulpit? What role does the press play in the Roosevelt and Taft presidential administrations? Does the press play a similar role in politics today? Explain your answer.
    3. Ida Tarbell “was certain that having a husband and children would thwart her freedom and curtail her nascent ambition” (p. 172) and decides that she will never marry. Nellie Taft, too, is initially opposed to marriage. Why do both women feel that marriage is a hindrance? What opportunities are available to women at the time? Why does Nellie finally agree to marry Taft?
    4. Of Nellie Taft and Edith Roosevelt, Goodwin writes “In many ways, the two women complemented and balanced their respective partners.” (p. 132). Describe Roosevelt’s relationship with Edith and Taft’s with Nellie in light of Goodwin’s assertion. Was there anything about the relationships that surprised you? If so, what?
    5. Douglas Brinkley said “If Roosevelt had done nothing else as president, his advocacy on behalf of preserving the [Grand] canyon might well have put him in the top ranks of American presidents.” (p. 351) Do you agree? What do you think Roosevelt’s crowning achievement was during his presidency? What was Taft’s and why?
    6. Ray Stannard Baker had a close relationship with Roosevelt. How were the two men able to help each other? Baker considered Roosevelt’s ability to “endure criticism ‘one of his finest characteristics.’” (p. 650) Do you agree with Baker’s assessment of Roosevelt? Why or why not? What characteristics do you think are necessary in a president?
    7. Roosevelt famously quoted the West African proverb “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” (p. 256) Give examples of how he enacts this philosophy in his presidency. How does Taft’s approach compare to Roosevelt’s? Do you think one approach is more effective? If so, why?
    8. The New Yorker praised The Bully Pulpit saying “[Goodwin] is too disciplined to make explicit comparisons to the present in the book, but it’s infused with a sense that the story she tells may hold lessons for us.” Did you see any parallels between the political climate during the Progressive era that Kearns details and today? What are they? Discuss them with your book club.
    9. Baker’s articles in McClure’s magazine about Coxey’s Army brought hundreds of additional recruits and revealed to him “the incredible ‘power of the press.’” (p. 185) How do the staff members of McClure’s use their positions to affect political and social change? Describe the ways that the press is able to influence both the Roosevelt and Taft administrations. What role does the press play in today’s political landscape?
    10. During Roosevelt’s and Taft’s time in office a sitting president couldn’t “go on the stump and can’t indulge in personalities.” (p. 410). How else have presidential campaigns changed?
    11. Do you consider The Bully Pulpit to be entertaining as well as educational? Would you recommend it to a friend?

    If you liked The Bully Pulpit, you might also like:

         • Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era by Nell Irvin Painter
         • Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller by Steve Weinberg

More Books From This Author

Doris Kearns Goodwin: The Presidential Biographies
Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream
No Ordinary Time

About the Author

Doris Kearns Goodwin
© Annie Leibovitz 2018

Doris Kearns Goodwin

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN’s interest in leadership began more than half a century ago as a professor at Harvard. Her experiences working for LBJ in the White House and later assisting him on his memoirs led to her bestselling Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. She followed up with the Pulitzer Prize–winning No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. She earned the Lincoln Prize for the runaway bestseller Team of Rivals, the basis for Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning film Lincoln, and the Carnegie Medal for The Bully Pulpit, the New York Times bestselling chronicle of the friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. She lives in Concord, Massachusetts. Visit her at or @DorisKGoodwin.