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book review

‘The Bully Pulpit’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin

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Seven years ago Doris Kearns Goodwin set out to mine one of the richest veins in American history, the progressive movement and its bully-pulpit spokesman, Theodore Roosevelt. But as she examined the period she came to realize that there were two other strands, indispensable but not inevitable, to the story.

One was William Howard Taft, often regarded as a historical afterthought or worse, a discordant coda to the TR era. The other was the muckraking press, celebrated in journalism schools but often relegated to a few respectful asides in general histories. Goodwin put all three at the center of her new history, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” and by doing so has shifted the center of gravity of the period.

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Journalists played a role in Roosevelt’s life that has no analogue in American history, accompanying him to Cuba and creating the Rough Rider myth and mystique; fueling his progressive impulses; and performing the role of Greek chorus when he was president and, just as important, ex-president. In inclination, temperament, and habits, he was one of them, and vice versa.

Taft was Roosevelt’s boon companion, in spirit if not in style. An ardent progressive and reformer he was, unlike Roosevelt, introspective, restrained, a man of thought rather than action, all befitting his career — no, more than that, his identity — as lawyer and judge. He trod carefully, but he also trod on the Roosevelt legacy, and the combination shattered the great progressive coalition and ended perhaps the greatest presidential friendship in history.

It was telling, Goodwin says, that at the very time TR was being celebrated in the press upon his return from his post-White House trip to Africa that Taft was being “hammered’’ by the press. But Taft lacked the zip of his predecessor, and his openness to conservative Republicans unnerved the progressives and their own boon companions in the press.

The muckrakers committed no such betrayal. An important figure in this period, and in “The Bully Pulpit,’’ is Samuel S. McClure, editor, entrepreneur, and, above all, visionary prophet of progressivism. He introduced America to Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle — and to a new kind of journalism, one that investigated as well as illuminated, which was where (and how) Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, and William Allen White came into the story, and into history.

“Their disclosures of the corrupt linkages between business, labor, and government educated and aroused the public,’’ Goodwin writes, “spearheading the Progressive movement that would define the early years of the twentieth century.’’

Though Goodwin artfully establishes the influence the muckrakers had on Roosevelt and the influence he had on them, the effort to make this connection the thread that holds together a 910-page book sometimes seems forced. That said, “The Bully Pulpit’’ is, like so many of her books, carefully researched, amiably written, and appealingly presented. The result is an engaging tour of an important passage in American life.

It is true that several of these journalists’ pieces prompted meetings with Roosevelt: Baker on immigration and corruption; Steffens on what he called the “Shame of the Cities’’; and Upton Sinclair on the meatpacking and stockyard disgraces he detailed in “The Jungle.’’

Eventually McClure was summoned to the White House also, and the two men talked until midnight. Later, TR would ask Baker to review his annual message on American corporations; the writer would offer a frank critique: “It was too general, there was too much of the President’s favorite balancing of good and evil.’’

These muckrakers were creatures without precedent in America, and as a result of their work, as Baker argued, “men were questioning the fundamentals of democracy, inquiring whether we truly had self-government in America, or whether it had been corrupted by selfish interests.’’

This was a critique completely congruent with Roosevelt, and yet it was the president, alluding to John Bunyan, who first made the term muckraker a pejorative, saying that the bearers of the muck rake were comparable to “the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness on that which is vile and debasing.’’

That was one TR misstep. Another came in 1904, when he prematurely and unnecessarily renounced a 1908 re-election campaign. And, from his point of view, he erred, too, in having wanted a Taft presidency more than did Taft, and his later disillusion with Taft propelled Woodrow Wilson into the White House in the fabled four-way contest of 1912.

Roosevelt didn’t understand that a conservative tide was rising, possibly because of fatigue with progressivism and TR himself, possibly because the eclipse of the muckrakers that Roosevelt had himself set in motion. That partially explains the administration of Taft, who had the progressive roots of Roosevelt but not his predecessor’s instincts or turn of mind.

Here is where Goodwin’s account soars. She captures with masterly precision the depth of the Roosevelt-Taft relationship, the slow dissolution and the growing disillusion, the awkward attempts at rapprochement, and then the final break.

“Taft had long considered himself a moderate progressive, aligned almost perfectly with the sentiments and policies of his old friend,’’ she writes. “In the throes of the brutal campaign, however, he had withdrawn increasingly from more progressive ideas.’’

But that is after their grand split. Beforehand, they were an incomparable pair in American politics. This book reminds us, as Goodwin puts it, that “[t]here was a time, at the height of their careers, when Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft stood shoulder to shoulder as they charted a different role for the U.S. government that would fundamentally enlarge the bounds of economic opportunity and social justice.’’ It is a story worth telling, and one well told.

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.
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