The Bully Pulpit:
Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft,
and the Golden Age of Journalism
by Doris Kearns Goodwin
“Why bother with fictional characters and plots when the world was full of more marvelous stories that were true, with characters so fresh, so powerful, so new, that they stepped from into the narratives under their own power?” ― Doris Kearns Goodwin
For any historian, bringing the past to life is a most difficult task, and it is to the credit of Doris Kearns Goodwin that she has succeeded to such a marked degree with her successive assessments of powerful leaders. I first encountered her work when I read No Ordinary Time, a history of the relationship of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. Subsequently I enjoyed her book, Team of Rivals, about Lincoln and his cabinet.
This work explores the lives and times of former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, creating an image of the past that captures emotions as well as events, with an entertaining account of that bitter 1912 political convention that marked the crumbling of a great friendship as well as of a political party. In this work she draws a comparison between the currently widening gap between the rich and poor and the chasm that was one aspect of the path to reform in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, in spite of her immensely readable prose, she provides a slanted view of history that treats the progressivism of Roosevelt and the muckraking journalists of the era in an all too hagiographic fashion.
She makes a comparison with the challenges faced by today’s leaders when she discusses the use of the “bully pulpit,” that famous phrase coined by Theodore Roosevelt to summarize the power that a president can wield to mobilize and galvanize the public mind. The times were such that “muckraking” was applied to the more extreme journalists; noting the influence of the press on the presidency and its connections to Roosevelt. These connections included an alliance with Sam McClure, editor of McClure’s Magazine, where there were gathered what became a legendary group of journalists: William Allen White, crime reporter Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker and a woman, Ida Tarbell.
Goodwin's research is demonstrated by her use of such vital material as more than 400 letters written between Roosevelt and Taft in their 30s, which made it all the more poignant that their friendship was destroyed by the political rivalry launched by Roosevelt in 1912. Taft is seen as a failure as a public leader, seeing his political success impeded by the genuine skills of his judicial career, which left him too convinced of his own rectitude. His lack of passion for politics ultimately left him unable to emulate Roosevelt in using the press to carry the legislative message of the president. Taft even conceded after leaving office that he had failed to use the “bully pulpit” to achieve his goals. According to Ms. Kearns Goodwin, Taft was “temperamentally unsuited” to make use of that bully pulpit that contributed so substantially to Roosevelt’s success.
The author underlines her insight into the characters of the two men by framing their family background and their emotional attachments. She writes sensitively of Roosevelt’s devastation at the death of his first wife, Alice, to the point that he could not bring himself to address their daughter by the given name of Alice, calling her instead “Baby Lee.” When he does remarry, his second wife, Edith, who was his true first love, was devoted to her husband despite being more restrained in her links to the world beyond her home. Roosevelt’s character could be summed up by a visiting British viscount who commented that he encountered “two tremendous works of nature in America — Mr. Roosevelt and Niagara Falls.”
Ironically, the differences between Roosevelt and his friend Taft were pointed up by their similarities. Taft was an amiable, kindly man who excelled in all high office except one. He was, the author observes, “an excellent number two man,” yet he lacked the necessary political acumen required in a president. He was not a true progressive in the way that Roosevelt was. His wife, Nellie, gave essential encouragement to her husband as a judge and as president, relishing the role of first lady. It was she who brought cherry trees to the capital, created parks and lobbied for higher wages for workers.
Goodwin concludes the history of the Roosevelt-Taft era with her account of the 1912 election when Roosevelt broke his promise not to seek a third term and embarked on a brutal campaign against the man who was once his closest friend and who also lacked the ferocity for a bloody election battle. It was ironic that even in the White House, Taft apparently realized that he was best suited for the bench — and indeed he became chief justice of the Supreme Court after leaving the presidency.
An eloquent epilogue describes the brief reconciliation of Roosevelt and Taft. As a result of this when Taft attended Roosevelt’s funeral, he commented, “Had he died in a hostile state of mind toward me, I would have mourned the fact all my life. I loved him always and cherish his memory.” The statement said a great deal about both men.
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