The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 13-JAN 14

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DEC 13-JAN 14 Issue

Potus Page-Turner

Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism
(Simon & Schuster, 2013)

It must be a tough racket, being a presidential historian. Your first problem is that there are only 44 of them. If you take on anyone who’s never appeared on Mount Rushmore or Meet the Press, you’re probably not moving many copies. If you take on one of the superstars, like Teddy Roosevelt, for instance, you can’t just churn out another 800-pager about his overcoming an asthma-plagued New York childhood by herding cattle out West and Rough Riding up Cuban hills, and then transforming the presidency by speaking softly and carrying a big you-know-what. No, you need an angle, even if you’re Doris Kearns Goodwin.

In The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, the Pulitzer Prize winner tackles Teddy through his relationships with Taft, his trusty aide-turned-successor-turned-political-rival, and the “muckraking” reporters who exposed civil and corporate corruption and helped him push through reform. The presidents and the muckrakers may get equal billing in the title, but make no mistake: Roosevelt and Taft are the focal points. It’s two presidential biographies for the price of one, and it’s a testament to Kearns Goodwin’s gift for getting inside a long-dead man’s head that placid, tubby Taft’s story is as much a page-turner as the burly fighter Roosevelt’s.

Readers will fast find themselves rooting for her protagonists, despite a four-chapter slog through the privileged, rather uneventful early lives of the two men and their future wives. Roosevelt’s the dervish who fields questions from the press during his afternoon shave; boxes, swims, sprints, and wrestles to relieve the day’s tensions; and, in the literal seconds between meetings, devours passages from books on Native American culture or some woodland creature. Taft’s the affable professor-type, temperamentally suited for a judgeship but propelled by his unrelenting competence and gosh-darn likeability to a presidency he does not seem to want.

Kearns Goodwin selects emblematic passages from the duo’s speeches and correspondence to make them less monument and more man. Taft’s frequent love letters to his wife Nellie will endear him to readers: “I wish I could get on a train and go right to you now,” he writes in a typical missive from the campaign trail. Or, if it’s anti-corporate rhetoric that warms your lefty heart, there are the declarations from Roosevelt that’d get him evicted from the modern Republican party: “we do not desire to destroy corporations; we do desire to put them fully at the service of the state and the people,” he said in a speech he made while governor of New York.

Despite their differing personalities, the duo strike up a friendship as second-tier bureaucrats in the Benjamin Harrison administration in the 1890s. A decade later, Roosevelt is president, and Taft, in quick succession, is his governor-general in the Philippines, his secretary of war, and his hand-picked successor to the top office in the land.

The book’s central tension comes from Roosevelt and Taft’s fight to push a progressive agenda through an obstinate Congress. (Sound familiar?) Roosevelt wants to break up the most flagrant corporate trusts and to regulate the railroads, where the biggest companies get the best rates and the smaller shops can’t compete. Taft, when he gets his chance on top, wants to lower the tariff on imported goods, which helps eastern manufacturers but raises prices on everyday items across the country. They’re aided by Kearns Goodwin’s supporting actors: Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and the other investigative journalists of the turn-of-the-century magazine, McClure’s.

Much more than Taft, Roosevelt recognizes the importance of public opinion to his success—“More than any president since Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt was able to shrewdly calculate popular sentiment,” Kearns Goodwin writes—and uses the press to sway that sentiment. A prolific writer himself, Roosevelt repeatedly reaches out to reporters for advice on policy and invites them for one-on-one meetings at the White House. The relationship the journalists have with Roosevelt is unimaginable in the modern era of objectivity: McClure’s writer Ray Stannard Baker sends him an advance copy of an article he’s writing on railroad rates; Roosevelt sends him the draft of a speech he’s planning to give on corporations. The magazine’s exposés—as well as Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, about the atrocious conditions in Chicago's slaughterhouses—rile the public and force lawmakers to follow the president on trustbusting and oversight of the railroad, food, and drug industries. By contrast, Kearns Goodwin links Taft’s shunning of the press to his failure to win meaningful tariff reform and, perhaps, a second term.

As Kearns Goodwin portrays Roosevelt and Taft, you can’t stop from falling a little in love with them. (It helps that the book’s focus on domestic policy minimizes Roosevelt’s warmongering.) The affection they have for each other is contagious: “Thank Heaven you are to be with me!” Roosevelt exclaims upon learning Taft is leaving the Philippines to become war secretary in Washington. That affinity keeps the reader on edge, anxious to see how the two men, who found each other so agreeable for so long, face off in the 1912 election. When the rupture comes at book’s end—caused by Taft’s perceived failure to deliver reform, and Roosevelt’s insatiable ego— it’s appropriately cataclysmic. Men fight in the streets. A party splits in half. Roosevelt calls Taft a “fathead.” With Taft the Republican choice and Teddy forming his own “Bull Moose” ticket, Woodrow Wilson strolls into the presidency. Our two heroes remain unreconciled until the twilight of Roosevelt’s life.

Kearns Goodwin is such an able guide to this one slice of the past, you want to travel an entire history by her side. Why stop with these two, Doris? Tell us how Wilson handled those bastards in Congress! Yet the superstar is not without her limitations. The spotlight she puts on Great Men leaves the conditions behind their Great Causes in the shadows. Reading The Bully Pulpit, you’ll learn Roosevelt chided Sinclair about the pro-socialism ending to The Jungle, but you won’t get any real appreciation for the plight faced by the meatpackers Sinclair describes. That’s another book.

There’s another book, too, focused just on the muckrakers, particularly Tarbell and publisher S.S. McClure. McClure, born poor in Ireland, worked his way through high school in the U.S. and built his own publishing empire. He’s a visionary madman, but zigzags between creative highs and depressed inactive periods. Tarbell grew up in western Pennsylvania, her father a small-town oilman whose business is broken by John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil trust. As a young woman, she moves to Paris to write, gets discovered by McClure, and, back in the U.S., pens a 12-part exposé that sparks outrage nationwide against the trust that wrecked her father. The glimpses Kearns Goodwin gives us into their lives are tantalizingly well drawn, but for her purposes, they’re bit players to the world shakers in the White House.


Greg Ryan

GREG RYAN is a writer and reporter who lives in Fort Greene.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 13-JAN 14

All Issues