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Inaugural historic site in Buffalo brings Roosevelt back to life

Doris Kearns Goodwin remembers the way history came alive for her, as a young girl visiting the Hyde Park estate of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Decades later, she still can see the pair of FDR’s pince-nez eyeglasses sitting on the desk of his study.

“He can’t be dead," she told her parents. “He left his glasses here.”

That’s why Goodwin couldn’t wait to get to Buffalo on Saturday, to visit the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site on Delaware Avenue, to see life breathed into the 1901 inauguration of the nation’s 26th president.

Goodwin – the pre-eminent presidential historian whose book “Team of Rivals” inspired the movie “Lincoln” – delivered the keynote address at Saturday night’s gala dinner of the Theodore Roosevelt Association.

During an interview before her speech, Goodwin marveled at the way that Hyde Park and the Roosevelt Inaugural Site can spark an interest in history, especially for young people.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Goodwin is a storyteller, who has said that if she could interview Abraham Lincoln, instead of asking him about Reconstruction, she’d prefer having him spin some of his homespun yarns. That love of storytelling is what makes her historical accounts come alive, in the personalities of these larger-than-life characters.

“As a historian, the challenge is, ‘Can you write in such a way that the reader feels the person is really still alive?’ ” she said. In that way, she added, readers feel they can watch the way such an important figure thinks and feels and acts.

Goodwin, whose familiarity with Western New York comes from a childhood visit to Niagara Falls and a close friendship with the late Tim Russert, was asked whether Buffalonians should be proud of the historical accident that led to Theodore Roosevelt’s being sworn in here, following the assassination of President William McKinley.

“There should definitely be pride in the fact that one of our most colorful characters became president there,” she said.

Then Goodwin paid tribute to those who have restored the inauguration site.

“For someone like me who has loved history my whole life, when you know people have put resources and energy and time into preserving this important moment in American history, you’re really grateful,” she said.

You’re thankful, she added, that it was restored to its original look and feel, rather than our losing that sliver of history forever.

Goodwin marveled at the events that led to the swearing in of Theodore Roosevelt – who, as vice president, had been so bored that he had considered going to law school – one historical moment frozen in time, transforming a man and the nation’s political landscape.

“Just to see the texture of the room and to imagine seeing him standing there, as the youngest president ever at that point,” she gushed. “I can’t wait to see it.”

Her wish came true at midday Saturday, when Goodwin took an approximately 35-minute tour of the mansion’s first floor, led by the site’s education director, Mark Lozo.

She “watched” McKinley being shot and later “heard” the oath of office taken by the new president. Goodwin, who repeatedly said “wow” and “this is amazing,” seemed most struck by the larger historical context of the new Progressive Era that included Roosevelt’s administration.

That included the era’s dueling themes, the prosperity of the captains of industry juxtaposed against the concerns for those caught on the underside of society.

Like the little girl at Hyde Park, Goodwin was taken back in time to the events of September 1901.

“I had no idea it was going to be this full and rich,” she told Lozo. “There’s something magical about what you’ve done downstairs. ... You really are transformed. You really feel you’re in that time span.”

Earlier, Goodwin talked briefly about her new book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism,” due out in November.

That story, according to the book jacket, is told through Roosevelt’s and Taft’s long, complex friendship that ended when they ran against each other in the 1912 presidential election.

“I think, in a way, it’s a human story about a long friendship,” Goodwin said. “That friendship was very productive for both men, so the breakup was not just a political breakup. It was heartbreaking for both men.”

Hesitant to reveal too much about the book, Goodwin did note that Theodore Roosevelt has become one of the few presidents considered in that “near-great” category by historians, without guiding the nation through a huge war or depression.

And as the book title suggests, Goodwin also wrote about the way Theodore Roosevelt interacted with journalists. The president had to deal with a Republican Congress controlled by the more conservative wing of his party.

“No other president dealt so naturally and easily with the press,” she said, noting that they could criticize him and he could criticize their writing. “He knew it was through them that he could reach the public.”

Through her historical research, she also found Taft to be “a very sympathetic figure, a very decent guy,” especially compared with the more conventional, almost cartoonish view of him as a man so large he couldn’t fit into a bathtub.

The conversation then turned to Buffalo and its presidential history, as the onetime home of Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland and the spot where McKinley was killed and Theodore Roosevelt inaugurated.

Goodwin called Cleveland “a good mayor, a good governor and a decent president,” but she remembered him most for the way he handled the scandal of his having apparently fathered a child out of wedlock. “The great thing about him was that he was able to be straightforward and honest,” she said. And his election as president showed that voters applauded that honesty and cared more about the public, rather than the private, acts of our president.

Goodwin then brought up her good friend, Russert. As a diehard Boston Red Sox fan, she knows how much the Buffalo Bills meant to Russert, “what it means when a team gets into your heart,” she said.

“I know that Tim Russert loved the place,” she said of Buffalo, “and he really was one of my close friends.”