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No Ordinary Time

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

Theodore Roosevelt laughing
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• January 11, 2014 5:00 am

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There is so much going on in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit that writing a mere summary of the historical events it recounts would miss the point. This is a book on a mission.

The subject of The Bully Pulpit is the birth of the modern American progressive movement led by Theodore Roosevelt, his close friend and sometime rival William Howard Taft, and an extraordinary group of high-minded political journalists. Goodwin traces the biographies of each of the principal players at length before arriving at the heart of her story: an examination of how Roosevelt and Taft ushered in sweeping new social welfare regulations with the aid of a like-minded press.

By the time Roosevelt was elevated to the presidency by the assassination of President William McKinley, he was already a progressive reformer. He had seen first-hand, as police commissioner of New York City, head of the D.C. Civil Service Commission, and governor of New York, how wealthy business interests bribed politicians to maintain a laissez-faire approach to business regulation. He had seen how the laboring classes often suffered under horrendous conditions as a result. The general public, however, was not as aware, and Roosevelt’s early attempts at anti-trust and business regulation failed for lack of support.

Roosevelt’s fortunes soon changed, however, thanks to the efforts of the progressive political journal McClure’s, headed by the brilliant and mercurial S.S. McClure. McClure was a reform-minded idealist who recruited some of the nation’s most talented journalists and charged them with exposing corporate and governmental corruption. The McClure’s writers were the original muckrakers (as they would later be dubbed by Roosevelt in a fit of pique) and the muckrakers, along with a legion of imitators, had a profound effect on public opinion. Ida Tarbell wrote a twelve-part series detailing how John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil used underhanded means to ruin its competitors in pursuit of a monopoly. The ensuing public outcry provided enough momentum for Roosevelt to push through the kind of rigorous anti-trust legislation that had previously eluded him.

Roosevelt treated progressive journalists like colleagues, and welcomed their advice and collaboration. The press amplified Roosevelt’s "bully pulpit" (a term he coined) and, as a result, his was an extremely effective presidency. Under Roosevelt, the tide of public opinion began to shift from commitment to free-market principles towards support for far-reaching federal regulations.

This was a pivotal moment in American history, and Goodwin believes that it contains lessons for the present age. She draws a parallel with the present in the first page of the preface: "In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, an immense gulf had opened between the rich and the poor; daily existence had become more difficult for ordinary people, and the middle class felt increasingly squeezed." Except for the bit about the Industrial Revolution, of course, that statement accurately describes the last five years.

The Bully Pulpit is filled with such parallels. The defining political struggle of Roosevelt’s time took place within the Republican Party, between its progressive and conservative wings. The Democrats, seemingly dominated by far-left, racist, rabble-rousers, were consistently crushed by the Roosevelt-Taft juggernaut, until the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, which was arguably accomplished only because Taft and Roosevelt were at each other’s throats by that time and had split the Republican ticket.

But the struggle between progressives and conservatives was no less vicious for taking place within one party. Conservatives vilified Roosevelt as a "socialist," a fact that Goodwin repeatedly emphasizes in the book. In return, progressives demonized conservatives as soulless corporate puppets. As president, Roosevelt grappled with an often-intransigent conservative Congress. He responded by taking unprecedented, unilateral executive actions that infuriated constitutional conservatives, including Taft. At one point, in response to a coal-miner’s strike, he threatened to unilaterally nationalize coalmines. Conservative journalists excoriated Roosevelt for his "uncontrollable penchant for impulsive self-intrusion."

The lesson Goodwin wants her audience to take away from the book is clear. There are few if any morally ambiguous characters in The Bully Pulpit. Goodwin gives us heroes and villains, reliably distinguished along the left/right divide. For instance, one of the first men to accuse Roosevelt of having socialist sympathies was the elderly boss of the New York State Republican Party, Sen. Thomas Collier Platt. Sen. Platt is depicted as a revolting machine politician, a kindred spirit of Boss Tweed, who pulls strings from the shadows with the sole aim of enlarging his personal power. Almost all of the book’s hard line conservatives come in for similar treatment.

Goodwin can hardly contain her praise for the book’s progressive heroes: Roosevelt is an extraordinarily brilliant leader of men who delights and astounds all he meets; Taft is a universally loved avuncular character with an unshakable devotion to justice and the greater good; McClure is a genius; Tarbell possesses profound maternal wisdom; and so forth. It seems that every time Roosevelt and Taft enter a new phase of life, Goodwin fills paragraphs with adoring quotations from their new colleagues and contemporaries.

There is much more of interest in the book, but the stark hero/villain divide makes the central action seem more like a morality play than a sober retelling of historical fact. This absence of nuance may detract from the quality of this book as a serious work of history, but it is a tremendous asset to it as template for a Hollywood movie, and this, it seems, is the point. Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks (the team that adapted Goodwin’s last presidential history into the 2013 hit, Lincoln) purchased the rights to The Bully Pulpit in October.

In a few years, in cinemas across the country, America will be treated to the spectacle of a brilliant young progressive politician whose righteous struggle for the common good is besieged at every turn by wicked conservatives. These right-wing fiends will call him a socialist and claim that he flagrantly violates the Constitution, but our hero prevails with the aid of a noble press, and our country is an immeasurably better place for it. Fade to black.

Goodwin, a lifelong Democrat who worked in the Johnson administration, no doubt sees history along exactly these lines. She was not consciously creating a work of propaganda. But, taking all parallels with the present and the book’s moral earnestness into consideration, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that The Bully Pulpit is an argument in favor of progressive politics generally, and the modern Democratic Party specifically. And it’s coming soon to a theater near you.

Published under: Book reviews