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Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit” Review Makes This Book Sizzle

November 24, 2013

I can not wait for this book to land in my mailbox.


The title, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism,” suggests three books in one, two biographies and a press history, and Goodwin does indeed have an ambitious undertaking. Besides the two principals, her cast includes their adored wives — Edith Roosevelt (literary and reclusive, a brake on her impetuous husband) and Nellie Taft (politically aware and astute, a goad to her chronically circumspect husband); they are treated not just as first ladies but as essential partners in and insightful commentators on the careers of their mates. There is also a colorful cast of industrialists, labor leaders, political rivals, cabinet members and, especially, fired-up journalists. Goodwin directs her characters with precision and affection, and the story comes together like a well-wrought novel.       

“The Bully Pulpit” is built around two relationships — one between Roosevelt and Taft, lifelong friends and reformist comrades, until the partnership ruptured; the other between power and the press.

The two men met in the 1890s when they were already comers in President Benjamin Harrison’s Washington, Roosevelt as a civil service commissioner, Taft as solicitor-general. They bonded over civil service reform, and became so close that their correspondence reads like love letters. (Roosevelt addresses Taft in one missive as “you beloved individual.”) As war secretary Taft would become the most indispensable member of President Roose­velt’s cabinet, a “veritable pack horse” for the administration, the overseer of the Philippines and the Panama Canal commission, the president’s campaign surrogate, an effective lobbyist of Congress and Roosevelt’s confidant in all things.       

“Though the two men had strikingly different temperaments — Roosevelt’s original and active nature at odds with Taft’s ruminative and judicial disposition — their opposing qualities actually proved complementary, allowing them to forge a powerful camaraderie and rare collaboration,” Goodwin writes. Together they would “fundamentally enlarge the bounds of economic opportunity and social justice.”

In 1893, the publisher Sam McClure assembled a dream team of young writers and started a magazine, bearing his own name, that aimed to rattle the ramparts of power and mobilize the literate middle class. The new technology of photo engraving made the venture economically feasible, the corrupt hegemony of trusts and political machines made for abundant subject matter, and a growing national discontent provided an eager audience. McClure’s published wave upon wave of exquisitely researched exposés. One issue alone, in January 1903, would include Ida Tarbell on the predatory practices of the Standard Oil Company, Lincoln Steffens on the avaricious political cabal that ran Minneapolis and Ray Stannard Baker on turmoil in the labor unions. The public could not get enough of it.       

“Month after month they would swallow dissertations of ten or twelve thousand words without even blinking — and ask for more,” an astonished Baker would recall.       

The writers of McClure’s became the shock troops of the progressive movement, “putting faces and names to the giant corporations, shining a bright light on the sordid maneuvers that were crushing independent businessmen in one sector after another.” In Roosevelt they found the most effective patron a journalist could hope for.       

From the beginning of his political career, as the youngest member of the New York State Assembly, Roosevelt “understood that the most effective means of circumventing the machines and transforming popular sentiment was to establish a good rapport with the press corps.” Many politicians, of course, have courted the press and used the media to rally popular pressure. Roosevelt’s bond with the press was of a different order. Goodwin calls it “authentically collegial.” A more apt word might be symbiotic.

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