The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

This book accomplishes several things at once. It gives us superbly researched accounts of three intriguing stories that peaked in the first decade of the 1900s – the familiar career of Theodore Roosevelt, the less known path of William Howard Taft, and the misunderstood investigative journalism of that period.  It shows how these three stories entwined with each other and fed each other.  It gives us a comprehensive feel for a period that echoes our own in many ways.  It is a long but wonderfully readable work of history.  

Teddy Roosevelt was a huge and energetic personality, a scholar, a prodigious reader and writer, and a man dedicated to progressive domestic policies but flawed by an impetuous temperament and muscularly nationalistic foreign policies.  After some initial political success, personal tragedy triggered a depression that he conquered by physical activity during an extended ranching sabbatical.  He returned to the meteoric political career we are familiar with.  In just over a decade he served as a reforming U.S. Civil Service Commissioner, New York City Police Commissioner, Governor of New York, Vice-President and President of the United States.  Goodwin gives us well-documented explanations of why and how he achieved a number of progressive social policies in each position.  

Goodwin gives us a welcome picture of Big Bill Taft.  We typically know him as an oversized president who was the regular Republican Party nominee in 1912, opposing Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” campaign that allowed Woodrow Wilson’s campaign as the Democratic nominee to win.  But the full story is far more vibrant and impressive.  He was a popular and productive public servant in Ohio, especially in judicial service, which was his own preferred path.  He developed a close personal friendship with Roosevelt while working at the Justice Department; Roosevelt and Taft’s wife kept pushing him in political directions.  He served admirably as the first Governor General of the Philippines and the leader of Roosevelt’s cabinet.  He was a natural choice, and Roosevelt’s choice, to succeed TR in 1908.  Somewhat trivial bureaucratic squabbles during Taft’s presidency produced a serious division between them that led to Roosevelt’s third-party run in 1912.  Touchingly that rift was healed in 1918, shortly before Roosevelt’s death and Taft’s eventual appointment as Chief Justice of the United States.  

The rise of investigative journalism in the 1890s and 1900s is the third story Goodwin tells.  An increasingly educated and urban America provided a market for more thoughtful and probing journalism than daily newspapers could provide.  Goodwin introduces us to McClure’s, a monthly led by S.S. McClure and featuring well-researched articles by writers such as Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, and William Allen White.  Despite their documentation of social issues with high standards of scholarly journalism, these writers were often included in the maligned category of muckrakers and yellow-press.  

Roosevelt was the perfect foil for these writers.  He invited them into his thinking, and in return used the relationship to project his policies, and not incidentally his personality, to the general public.  This relationship of press and politics gave Roosevelt the Bully Pulpit of the title.  It was unprecedented in American government but has become a necessity for successful governance ever since, and continues so with the evolution of the press to broadcast and electronic media.  Taft’s inability to understand and use this resource – due to his personal temperament and his judicial approach to public leadership – was a major barrier to his presidency and to his 1912 campaign.  

The period echoes themes of our own times.  Economic growth since the Civil Wat resulted in extremes of wealth and poverty, and the political divisions were equally extreme.  Industrial powerhouses of that day – railroads, oil companies, and meat packers – were eventually tamed, income taxation was introduced, popular election of senators was adopted, and labor and housing conditions were addressed. Goodwin shows how these accomplishments were the result of Roosevelt’s political skill, breaking legislative deadlocks by using the press to apply public pressure . 

It is an extensively documented period of history.  People still wrote meaningful letters and left thoughtful diaries.  Public documents are generally preserved.  Goodwin has distilled these resources to tell powerful stories, full of credible and nuanced characters, motivated by strong beliefs and purposes.  One member of our group stated that the book should be read by any current Republican as a reminder of what the party once stood for.  

— William H. Smith Jr.

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