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.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard

The book group took on this 2011 book with the reluctance of several members.  It deals, after all, with that somewhat distant period of American history between the civil War and World War I and focuses on the assassination of President James Garfield, one of the string of presidents thought of today as non-entities.  As we got into the book, however, all were taken by the immediacy of the political situation and assassination and by Candice Millard’s skillful weaving together of the political intrigues before and after Garfield’s election, the insanity of the assassin Charles Guiteau, the medical treatment of the President, and Alexander Graham Bell’s frantic efforts to perfect a device to locate the bullet.
The years following the Civil War were marked by deep political divisions and rapid technological change.  On the political side, reconstruction was ended in 1877 leaving civil rights issues unresolved, as they would remain for decades longer.  It was a time of enormous industrial expansion, with railroads, electricity, telephones, elevators, photography, and many other life-altering technologies becoming commercialized.  Millard brings some of this to life in a way that made us feel at home in the 1880s.
Garfield himself comes as a surprise.  From a log cabin background in frontier Ohio, he proved an able scholar and was president of a small liberal arts college in Ohio while still in his 20s.  He served with distinction in the Civil War, securing Kentucky as a part of the Union, and becoming a Brigadier General. Meanwhile, he had been elected to the Ohio legislature and the US Congress where he served until his compromise nomination by a stalemated Republican convention in 1880.  Millard presents him as a centrist politician, committed among other things to merit-based civil service appointments that would have ended the spoils system where a newly elected administration could replace the entire federal work force from top to bottom.  Garfield’s personal integrity and respect may have offered a bridge across political divides, and might have reconciled the post-reconstruction south, African-Americans, the conservative branch of the Republican Party (the “Stalwarts”), and Garfield’s own progressive branch of the Republican Party (the “Half-Breeds,” later exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt).  We can only speculate how the destiny of the Republic was altered by his assassination and whether later controversies might have been lessened or avoided had Garfield been able to complete his presidency.
Millard also portrays very real personalities, including Garfield’s likeable family, the venal Senator Roscoe Conkling, the arrogant Doctor Bliss, the utterly crazy Charles Guiteau, and the hyperactive Alexander Bell.  There are other characters we would have liked to know better, such as Doctor Susan Edson, a woman physician who was allowed only a subordinate role in treating the wounded Garfield, and Julia Sand, whose letters gave remarkably salient political advice to Vice-President Chester Arthur as he assumed the presidency.
Millard’s excellent telling of these interrelated stories won over all the members of the book group. A remote period became very immediate. Millard gives lucid clinical descriptions of the medical treatment of the wounded president by American practitioners who still resisted antiseptic practices that had gained acceptance in Europe, and that would probably have avoided the sepsis that ultimately killed Garfield after ten agonizing weeks of highly questionable treatment.  Though we know the outcome, Millard lets us feel the suspense as flawed characters pile tragedy upon tragedy to undo an admirable hero and change American destiny.  — Bill Smith

Educated, by Tara Westover

Educated is a multi-dimensional memoir in which Tara Westover traces her voyage from an isolated and troubling childhood to the highest levels of academia.  She grew up in a religiously conservative Mormon family in remote surroundings in the Idaho mountains.  The family outlook is more than conservative – as Westover describes it, the ethic is survivalist, isolationist, and distrustful of outside influences, even those from mainstream Mormon sources.  Telling are her father’s extensive preparations for Y2K and his ultimate disappointment when those preparations were proved unnecessary. The isolation grew, such that the older children attended community schools for a few years, but Tara never attended school, and her home schooling included little beyond the Bible and the Book of Mormon.    

The dominant themes of her youth are dangerous work in the family junkyard and controlling and abusive behavior by an older brother.  The picture is more nuanced, however, as she was exposed to outside forces in several ways. One set of grandparents lived in town and provided some contact with the larger world.  She developed a singing talent and participated in church music and community theater.  She occasionally held jobs in town and developed some trusting friendships with other young people.  An older brother went to Brigham Young University and ultimately opened an awareness of that avenue to Tara.    

These conflicting forces built Westover’s growing awareness of her talents and opportunities.  This section of the memoir left some of our group unsatisfied; some readers would have liked more description, for instance, of how she prepared herself for college admission without the benefit (or burden?) of any formal scholastic training.  Other themes were just as important as academic preparation, however. Westover covers how leaving for college allowed her to deal with mental instability and abusive relationships, her own sense of integrity, and the values of family relationships compared to academic work.  Ultimately that is unfinished work and she is still wrestling with being part of family without being trapped by it.  She deals very honestly with the reality that some of her observations and memories differ substantially from those of other members of the family.    

Our group had an interesting discussion of memoir writing.  Westover writes from the perspective of the age of about thirty. This gives her an advantage of proximity to the events she writes about, but limits the perspective that may come with more distance and maturity.  We expect that the bulk of Westover’s professional and personal development still lies ahead of her and might lead to new reflections of her forming experiences. The etymology of “educated” suggests a drawing out.  Usually this implies drawing lessons from the past or work of others or drawing the best out of oneself.  This tale also evokes Westover drawing herself away from the complexities of her birth family into the world of higher academia as she studies at Cambridge and Harvard.  As education should never end, we await what will fuel Westover’s future memoirs.   

— Bill Smith