Navigating the Bully Pulpit

Reading Between the Lines
473px-T_Roosevelt
// WEEKEND

Few authors are as iconic, as respected, and as universally lauded as Doris Kearns Goodwin. As a young White House intern in the Johnson administration, she nearly lost her job for publishing an article mapping out a strategy to impeach Johnson. Nonetheless, Goodwin eventually became close with Johnson, conducting dozens of conversations that laid the basis for her first book, “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream,” a bestseller. Almost twenty years later, she penned a book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt that won the Pulitzer Prize. Ten years after that, she wrote the tome for which she is best known, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” — a mammoth, masterfully written account of Abraham Lincoln and the men who composed his cabinet. Now, nearly ten years later, she has published another gargantuan study of presidential rivalry and leadership: “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.”

Goodwin originally sought to write a story of Roosevelt and the Progressive Era, but claims to have found the stories of Taft and of muckraking journalists from the era too crucial to ignore. Her book thus braids three distinct strands: Roosevelt, the bold, pioneering progressive; Taft, the thoughtful, careful moderate; and the fiery journalists who changed the way the public viewed government, big business and the role of America itself.

“The Bully Pulpit” begins with Roosevelt’s and Taft’s childhoods. Though they were born into families of similar means just a year apart, Roosevelt and Taft developed into strikingly different individuals. Roosevelt was pushed to shine; Taft was pushed to fit in line. Roosevelt’s father wanted him to become a leader, an athlete, and an adventurer; Taft’s father told him to work hard and try to attain a respected position — a judgeship, perhaps. Roosevelt went off to Harvard, Taft to Yale. Upon graduation, Roosevelt immediately launched himself into a run for state government, and would eventually become the youngest president in American history. Taft attained a judgeship at a relatively young age and would have been content to stay there had it not been for his vivacious and ambitious wife, Nellie. With her urging and his Ohio connections, he became the nation’s youngest ever solicitor general, and then a circuit court judge. Nonetheless, he remained plagued with self-doubt and far less power-hungry than the ambitious Roosevelt.

Taft and Roosevelt inevitably crossed paths: Both served in the McKinley administration, and President Roosevelt would appoint Taft as his Secretary of War. Goodwin recounts, in great detail, Taft’s and Roosevelt’s correspondence throughout this period, and how that correspondence shaped each of their careers. Ultimately, Roosevelt pressured his trusted lieutenant to succeed him as president. And Taft did, albeit resignedly.

As president, Taft displayed a markedly different temperament from the prickly, energetic Roosevelt. Especially after the light of his life, Nellie, suffered a tragic stroke, the fire went out of Taft’s life. Goodwin carefully navigates his public speeches and private writings to demonstrate that, though he was less gregarious, he still got things done — he busted trusts, funneled through two important constitutional amendments and, to a very limited though still important extent, eliminated racist statutes. Nevertheless, Roosevelt was disappointed in his successor and decided to challenge him as a third-party candidate in the 1912 presidential election. The two essentially divided the same voters, allowing Woodrow Wilson to sail to victory. The book ends with Taft’s and Roosevelt’s eventual reconciliation — poignant and very nearly too late.

Interwoven into the story are some of the most remarkable journalists in American history, such as Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, William Allen White and, most notably, Samuel S. McClure. For Goodwin, each merits his or her own lengthy chapter and remains in conversation throughout the course of the book. Together, these journalists exposed corruption in business, government and organized labor, and they came up with and then lobbied for most of the Progressive reforms that would become law during the Roosevelt and Taft administrations.
The press loved the unreserved Roosevelt; they disliked the distant Taft. These relationships shaped the way the public saw these men at the time, and how historians see them now. Goodwin’s narrative brilliantly weaves together Roosevelt’s ascendancy with that of the coterie of bright, young journalists and traces Taft’s decline into obese obsolescence alongside his chillier journalistic reception. In that respect, Goodwin’s book is a major intervention. She wants her readers to link a successful leader to his successful relationships with the press. “It is my greatest hope,” she wrote in the introduction, “that the story that follows will guide readers through their own process of discovery toward a better understanding of what it takes to summon the public to demand the actions necessary to bring our country closer to its ancient ideals.”

Yet, it might be hard for this intervention to penetrate the public consciousness for one simple reason: “The Bully Pulpit” is really, really long. Nine-hundred and ten pages, relatively small print. It’s bigger than Roosevelt’s ego or Taft’s waist. It’s too long. Goodwin charts her narrative with such detail that one wonders whether she just needs a better editor. The Roosevelt and Taft childhood biographies, while engaging, present nothing new; should they really consume more than a hundred pages? Does every major muckraking journalist really deserve their own biographical chapter?

Despite its length and redundancies, however, Goodwin’s work is well worth the read. Ultimately, if you can work your way through “The Bully Pulpit,” you will finish a more informed reader of American history.

Comments