The Lion and The Journalist is a new title from Lyons Press. It first appeared in the fall of 2009 on Authonomy.com. It was there that I spotted it and championed to other readers. What impressed me, in particular, was the way Mr. Bishop introduced the reader to Roosevelt upon his death, through the eyes of his trusted house servants and those humbler friends who had known him best. It seemed a fitting tribute to one who had been a champion of the common people. Much of the book was still unwritten, but it seemed like one of the most worthwhile projects on the Authonomy site, which is largely dedicated to fiction. I struck up an cyber-acquaintance with Mr Bishop, and we have kept in touch, sporadically since then. Thus, I write this as a lay reader, not as an expert on Theodore Roosevelt.
Now having read the "second pages" in preparation for this interview, I realize how much more I regret the distance we have strayed from Roosevelt's path and how much such a leader is needed, when we see both parties being run by the intellectual heirs of William Howard Taft.
Question - For those who are experts on Theodore Roosevelt, I presume this family owned trove of letters constitutes a previously unexamined source. From your own reading of the TR material, what are some of the new insights it offers to scholars of Roosevelt's life and career?
Bishop – The letters actually have been available for years at the Library of Congress and in the Theodore Roosevelt Collection at Harvard. But they have largely been overlooked by researchers and scholars who failed to understand the importance of the TR-Bishop relationship. In the reading of the 600 letters the two exchanged over 25 years, we come to better understand Theodore Roosevelt’s strategic use of the news media and public relations to further his policy and political goals. He was the first president to act on the view that journalists are important partners in the governing process – that they are conduits to the opinion leaders and shapers of their thinking. TR also felt that the everyday man and woman deserved to know and understand his intentions and actions as their leader. In Bishop’s case, it certainly helped that he was Roosevelt’s trusted, loyal friend as well.
Question - One of the aspects of the book that I like is that you keep your focus, discussing the times in which they lived only in terms of the influence these two men, working together as agents of change, had on particular issues. The most important of these was the building of the Panama Canal, in which Bishop played a vital role. Can you elaborate on that a little, and some of the other issues your readers might be interested in?
Bishop – When Bishop became a political liability in Washington in 1905, Roosevelt refused to abandon him. He instead realized that Bishop’s communications skills and credibility with other members of the press could be a tremendous asset in Panama as he sought to keep Congress and the public in support of his mission. He needed a highly-skilled public relations professional, a press agent, to ensure that the success story of the canal was understood and that appropriated funds continued to flow to the project. Bishop not only fulfilled that assignment with skill, he quietly kept the President informed through a direct back channel on how the Isthmian Canal Commissioners and their chief engineers were performing. If Roosevelt learned from Bishop that things were going badly, he made a change.
Question - Among other themes, it seems to me, the book is a meditation on friendship, of which there are many kinds. There's a certain ambiguity, though, about to quality of his particular friendship: was it personal in nature, in your view, or more primarily political, as alluded to in my first question? The reason I ask is that intimates tend to share grief with one another and these men pointedly do not. In what way is that telling, or was it just a sign of the times?
Bishop – I was struck by the dependence Theodore Roosevelt developed on Bishop over the years. In his letters, Roosevelt often reached out to Bishop in New York to come to the White House to talk. At times, he even would dictate the particular train he wanted him to take. Bishop was a keen political analyst and a highly-principled loyalist whose allegiance was never in doubt. Every President needs those qualities in those around him, and Bishop consistently supplied them. As time went on, they became social friends, frequently dining with their wives at the White House and at Sagamore Hill. Bishop, however, knew when to back away, to feel instinctively when he was not needed. This happened most pointedly at the time of the tragic wartime death of TR’s son, Quentin. Even through Roosevelt and Bishop were in constant touch then about the TR biography Bishop was preparing, there’s no record of the two communicating at all about the incident. In Edwardian days, it was not fashionable for men to share their emotions.
Question - As one who has been at the seat of power, I would imagine you reflected a lot on relationships with those in power, how to thrive and how to survive. Are there particular passages in the book that you might comment on and point your readers to for guidance?
Bishop – I think history teaches us that those in power who surround themselves with “yes” people do so at grave peril to their success. It is true that Bishop often agreed with Roosevelt’s actions and ideas but he did not hesitate to disagree and challenge Theodore Roosevelt’s thinking when he thought it was necessary. During the long-forgotten coal strike of 1902, Bishop vehemently disagreed with Roosevelt’s inclination to support the miners, thinking that he was soft on their sometimes violent tactics. In this crisis, Bishop was in league with the operators and wrote to Theodore Roosevelt, sometimes brusquely, that he was being closed-minded. When he was accused of being a sycophant, Bishop would point to TR’s oft-said contention that Bishop always told him what he needed to hear, not what he wanted to hear.
Question - If you don't mind questions of a writerly nature, I found the book read very smoothly. For non-fiction, it had a good pace. It's something many non-fiction writers have a hard time doing. How did you strike such a pleasing balance between scholarship and storytelling?
Bishop – Thank you. I think it’s probably the broadcast journalist in me that was schooled early on to tell a story succinctly, to write for the ear, not the eye. I try not to belabor a scene, to avoid getting mired in unnecessary detail or stray too far from the story line. I strive to bring a musical quality to my story-telling, to catch the rhythm of events and especially, dialogue. When my manuscript at first underwent professional editing at the publishing house, I became concerned that some of that cadence was being excised in favor of “just the facts.” But we worked it out, and I think most of the end product stands well on its own.</p>
Question - By way of process, how much rewriting do you do and what do you look for in the rewrites?
Bishop – Most of my manuscript has been edited four or five times—by me. By editing in this case, I mean choice of words and modifiers, sentence structure, voice and the like. My first drafts, usually written early in the morning, often are rough, but they get better overnight after I have allowed it to cook and they play around with it. Writing is like preparing a fine soup. It’s got to cure and obtain a better sense of itself.
Question - This was your first time publishing such a personal project. For other aspiring non-fiction writers, can you offer some insight into what is was like for you?
Bishop – I was driven by a need to tell this story. It was highly personal because Bishop was an ancestor, and the story of his friendship with TR had been told around my extended family dining tables for decades. If you don’t have a deep passion for your subject, I doubt that you will be able to easily engage the reader in it. Maybe this is why I would not make a good novelist. My topics and characters have to be real and deeply felt by me.
Question - How do you balance the writing with everyday business?
Bishop – It took almost three years to research and write this book. It really began to coalesce when I decided to get up at 4:30 every weekday morning to write before the workday began. After about two hours at the keyboard, I got sleepy and knew I had to get a cup of coffee, start interacting with my family and preparing for my day job as a consultant. You have to be good at keeping several balls in the air at the same time. It can be wearying though.
Thank Mr. Bishop, for taking the time to answer my questions.
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