THE BULLY PULPIT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF JOURNALISM by Doris Kearns Goodwin

One of the most important friendships in American History was the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.  They had a strong bond that lasted for years and then over a short period of time their friendship began to sour resulting in a schism in the Republican Party that caused them to lose the presidential election of 1912 to the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.  Many historians have reached numerous conclusions as to why Teddy and Will went from being the best of friends to political enemies.  In her new book, THE BULLY PULPIT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF JOURNALISM, Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin goes beyond the issue of friendship between Roosevelt and Taft and has written three books in one that she masterfully integrates as she presents her narrative.  First, the reader is offered a detailed biography of Theodore Roosevelt, next we are exposed to detailed biography of William Howard Taft, and lastly, and most importantly Goodwin explores the world of investigative journalism, what Roosevelt eventually referred to as the “muckrakers,” primarily through a history of McClure’s Magazine and their well known stable of journalists.  Goodwin does a remarkable job synthesizing a vast amount of material as she merges the lives of S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, William Allen White, Lincoln Steffens, and others throughout her narrative.  The main strength of the book is her argument that it was the influence of these investigative journalists that fostered the Progressive reform era at the turn of the twentieth century.  She argues further that Roosevelt’s colorful personality and drive allowed him to develop reciprocal relationships with these writers that fostered public pressure on a small group of conservative Senate Republicans that brought about the reforms of the Roosevelt era. Goodwin writes, “this generation of gifted reporters ushered in a new generation of investigative reporting that allowed Theodore Roosevelt to turn the presidency into the ‘bully pulpit’ to achieve reform.” (xiii)  On the other hand, Taft’s personality and laid back approach to politics did not allow him to achieve the same type of working relationships with the press and he lost the ability to codify and expand upon Roosevelt’s legacy, “underscoring the pivotal importance of the ‘bully pulpit’ in presidential leadership.” (xiv)  In the background, Goodwin tells the story of the friendship between these two men and why it did not survive the political theater of the day.

The narrative begins with the standard biographical information of both men.  In terms of Roosevelt there is nothing that is really new as this story has been well mined by the likes of Kathleen Dalton, Edmund Morris, Henry Pringle and others.  The information on Taft is more interesting in that fewer biographies of the twenty-seventh president have been written.  In terms of Goodwin’s thesis what is important at the outset is how she compares the personality traits of the two men as they mature as individuals and politicians.  We learn that as a child Roosevelt was a fragile and sickly and developed “a fierce determination to escape an invalid’s fate [that] led him to transform his body and timid demeanor through strenuous work.  Taft, on the other hand, blessed from birth with robust health, would allow his physical strength and energy to gradually dissipate over the years into a state of obesity.” (34)  At Harvard, Roosevelt was a “slender young man with side-whiskers, eyeglasses, and bright red cheeks.  While Taft’s sturdy physique, genial disposition, and emphatic manner won immediate popularity at Yale.” (42) On  the one hand was an individual who suffered from a  inferiority complex who would work his entire life striving for superiority to overcome this self-perception, while Taft developed into a secure person who he was self-aware and accepted his limitations.  According to Goodwin, these traits explain a great deal about the course of their careers and their successes and failures.

Goodwin’s frequent verbatim entries into her narrative allow the reader to feel as if they are experiencing life with Roosevelt and Taft.  Both men had the good fortune of growing up as favored children in close knit families.  Where Taft “developed an accommodating disposition to please a giving father who cajoled him to do better,” Roosevelt “forever idolized a dead father who cajoled him to do more and do better.” (48)  The correspondence that Goodwin includes between these sons and their fathers provide interesting insights into their formative years and development of their personalities.  Roosevelt learned early on in his career as a New York State Assemblyman the value of the press as he sought a journalistic alliance when he went after a corrupt judge who was a puppet of financier Jay Gould, and learned about poverty from touring tenements with Samuel Gompers.  The assembly and his stint as New York City Police Commissioner provided Roosevelt with an important education, as opposed to Taft who shunned the very spotlight that the future Rough Rider craved.  Taft favored to fight his battles from the inside, trusting logic, reason, and facts.  Taft always tried to avoid controversy, and would hardly ever compromise his principles as he tried to balance the rights of labor with the rights of capital as a superior court judge.

As both men evolved in their careers Goodwin relates the deeply personal details of their personal lives.  Goodwin does a nice job exploring Roosevelt’s emotional trauma whether dealing with the deaths of his father, mother, or his first wife Alice.  Goodwin provides intimate details reflecting a side of Roosevelt that was not open to the public.  His “recourtship” and marriage of his childhood friend, Edith Carow is especially enlightening as Roosevelt had pledged never to remarry, and reflect the author’s insights and handling of their rekindled relationship, a topic that seems missing from most biographies of Roosevelt.  For Taft, the love of his life was Nellie Herron who after their marriage would be the driving force behind her husband’s career.  At each level ranging from his role as Solicitor-General, a judgeship on the Federal 6th Circuit District Court, Governor-Generalship of the Philippines, as Secretary of War and then his presidential campaigns, Nellie was his most trusted advisor and confidante.  Later, when she suffers a stroke and is incapacitated, Taft will make a series of mistakes that greatly affect his career.

As Goodwin breezes along with the narrative through Roosevelt’s presidency, coverage is not equally distributed.  The emphasis of the first half of the book is on Roosevelt, followed by significant sections on investigative journalists, and the remainder on Taft.  From my perspective I would have liked more emphasis to have been placed on the journalistic component of the story because Goodwin brings a great detail of refreshing new material to the fore.  Her discussion of S.S. McClure, the founder of the magazine of that name is wonderful.  Throughout the book the reader is presented with an egomaniac, who suffers from manic-depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but despite these “limitations,” the man is a literary genius.  McClure travels the world to find writers for his new publication with emphasis on the literary, but also investigative articles that will propel a new generation of writers to the American reading public that will foster careers allowing them entrance into the corridors of power, particularly that of Theodore Roosevelt, and engender a tremendous amount of influence as they prepare articles that support major legislative reforms.  The private lives of Tarbell, Baker, Steffens and White are chronicled as well as their personal relationship which created a family-like atmosphere at McClure’s.  Ida Tarbell’s research and writings dealing with trusts, especially John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, and examination of the tariff structure in the United States are thoughtful and set the stage for Roosevelt’s reputation as a trust buster and a proponent of lower tariffs.  John Stannard Baker’s investigation into labor practices and political corruption are the basis for labor legislation and a movement to reform representative democracy.  Lincoln Steffens’ SHAME OF THE CITIES educates the American public about political bossism and corruption on the state and local level.  William Allen White served as Roosevelt’s eyes and ears in the Midwest from his perch as editor of the Emporia Gazette headquartered in the small town of Emporia, Kansas. Lastly, Upton Sinclair, who was not part of the McClure’s team, novel, THE JUNGLE sent a message to congress about conditions in the meat-packing industry that culminated in the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and regulation of the meat-packing industry, and Jacob Riis, also not part of the McClure’s family educated Roosevelt on the role of poverty in the United States.  In all cases Roosevelt established a relationship with these journalists, inviting them to the White House, sharing speeches with them in advance, and gaining their confidence that he proof read some of their articles.  This relationship, along with the publicity that McClure’s and other magazines engendered created a climate whereby the Republican conservatives in the Senate who were tied to different industrial trusts eventually had to compromise and give in. As a result Goodwin’s conclusion as to the historical importance of this group of writers cannot be underestimated.

Much of the book is focused on domestic issues but certain important foreign policy problems receive coverage.  The traditional story of the Spanish-American War and Roosevelt’s role are related and its affect on the Rough Rider’s growing political profile.  As a result of the war the United States acquired control of the Philippines and it is here that Taft reenters the picture as Governor-General of the archipelago.  It is at this juncture of his career that Taft is happiest.  He enjoys the everyday intricacies of governing and he treats the Filipino people as fairly as possible when compared to the imperialists in the United States.  It is interesting to compare Taft’s views on race with that of the social Darwinists views of Roosevelt.  Once he is recalled by Roosevelt, who succeeded to the presidency following the McKinley assassination, Taft delays his departure as long as he can until he takes over as Secretary of War.  The other major foreign policy issue that the Roosevelt administration is known for is the building of the Panama Canal, or as Roosevelt stated, “I stole it!”  Here Goodwin offers a perfunctory approach, but there is little to add to David McCullough’s THE PATHWAY BETWEEN THE SEAS.

The best way to compare how Roosevelt and Taft approached reform and used the levers of presidential power is to compare a few of the many problems that Goodwin explores in depth.  The best place to begin is to develop a definition of what progressive reform was in the eyes of Roosevelt which Goodwin does not do.  For Roosevelt all trusts were not bad, and conservation was not radical environmentalism.  In Robert Wiebe’s BUSINESS AND REFORM AND THE SEARCH FOR ORDER we learn that Roosevelt believed in the concept of “efficiency.”  If a trust was deemed to be efficient and benefited the American people and they abided by certain government strictures, Roosevelt saw no reason to go after them.  As far as conservation, Roosevelt wanted to conserve America’s land and resources for future generations, but he also allowed their development, if done in a practical manner, and benefited society as a whole.  It is interesting that most progressives were not wide eyed radicals, but mostly middle class individuals who wanted to grow the American economy for the benefit of all.  In examining Roosevelt’s anti-trust suit against the Northern Securities Company, the Beef Trust, and Standard Oil, we see an executive who uses the levers of power and the publicity generated by his investigative journalist compatriots.  In gaining passage of his reform program which turned the 59th Congress into one of the most productive in American history Roosevelt had to overcome the opposition of a small group of Republican conservative senators who could block any legislation, sound familiar!  Roosevelt fed information to Ray Stannard Baker who wrote a six part series for McClure’s, entitled, “The Railroads on Trial.”  Goodwin provides interesting excerpts of their correspondence and the information that passed between the two was essential in creating a bill to set maximum rates railroad companies could charge.  After wheeling and dealing, the Hepburn Act emerged that allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission to set maximum rates.  After reading THE JUNGLE by Upton Sinclair, Roosevelt sent investigators to Chicago, which in the end resulted in the Meat Inspection Act.  Finally, Roosevelt met with Mark Sullivan the author of a series of articles for Collier’s Magazine that described the contents of the food Americans consumed as well as industrial practices in their preparation, the result was the Pure Food and Drug Act.  As in most cases, Roosevelt would use the “bully pulpit” to gain public support for his reform legislation.  As Goodwin describes further, it was not uncommon for the president to travel across the country by railroad to educate the American public and gain their support.

In comparing Roosevelt’s approach with that of Taft after he assumed the presidency there are two glaring examples that reflect poorly on the Ohio native.   The tariff issue has dogged most presidents throughout American history.  Taft was seen as a conservative Republican who was tied to eastern corporate interests.  Taft himself wanted to lower the tariff on certain items and make it easier for the Philippines to export goods to the United States.  Taft’s approach was to gain support for legislation through personal relationships rather than “the big stick through the press.”  During the 1908 presidential campaign Taft promised tariff reform.  When Ida Tarbell wrote a series of articles explaining how high tariffs plagued the poor Taft was in a political corner.  Much like President Obama he had recalcitrant conservatives to deal with, particularly Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon.  Taft feeling he had no choice decided to support Cannon as he believed it would be very difficult to oust him from the Speaker’s chair.  The Payne-Aldrich Tariff that emerged did little to satisfy Republican insurgents who had enough with the conservative minority in Congress.  If that was not bad enough Taft’s public declaration after meeting with Cannon that the “conservative leadership’s promise to prepare an honest and thorough revision of the tariff” made him optimistic for the future reflected how weak he appeared. “Perhaps it was inevitable that Taft’s temperament-his aversion to dissension and preference for personal persuasion-would ultimately lead him to work within the system rather than mobilize external pressure from the “bully pulpit.” (588)

Another example of Taft’s political implosion in relation to his relationship with Roosevelt took place while the former president was traveling in Africa.  Gifford Pinchot, the Director of the Forest Service was a close friend of Roosevelt and shared his conservation views.  When Taft became president he replaced John Garfield as Secretary of the Interior with Richard Ballinger.  The first dust up occurred because when Roosevelt left the White House he had withdrawn 1.5 million acres of federal land along sixteen rivers in western states to prevent corporate takeovers of the land as the railroad and oil industry had done.  Upon taking office, Ballinger who was a former corporate lawyer restored the land to the public domain leading Pinchot to publicly condemn the action that he felt would result in the creation of a “waterpower trust.”  Next, Ballinger allowed a Seattle syndicate access to 5000 acres of Alaskan land for development.  It turned out that the spokesperson for the syndicate was tied to coal interests and before he was appointed as Interior Secretary Ballinger had been their legal counsel.  Goodwin explores this situation in her usual detail and points out that Ballinger may have done nothing wrong, but insurgents led by Pinchot never forgave Taft for firing John Garfield and a political scandal ensued culminating in a nasty congressional investigation.  Whether this was a true scandal is irrelevant because of the way Taft handled it.  When Louis Brandeis the attorney for the Pinchot forces learned that certain documents were predated by the Attorney General all was lost.  Taft should have fired Ballinger, but instead kept him on even after the investigation.  Goodwin is correct in stating, “The bitter struggle had consumed the attention of the country for more than a year.  Reformers’ faith in the president, already weakened by the tariff struggle, had plummeted.”  (627)  Once Roosevelt was brought up to date by Pinchot as to what had occurred the Roosevelt-Taft relationship was at the tipping point.  What would push it over the edge was the Taft administration’s filing of an anti-trust suit against U.S. Steel.   With Roosevelt’s return to the United States and his embankment on a sixteen week tour of the west, a progressive-conservative split in the Republican Party was at hand.

The U.S. Steel issue angered Roosevelt because during the Panic of 1907 it was the work of J.P. Morgan in agreement with the then president that if Morgan assisted the government his company would not be the target of an anti-trust suit.  This led to accusations and counter accusations headlined in newspapers across the United States between Roosevelt and Taft forces.  By 1912 the Republican Party rupture was complete.  Goodwin provides in depth analysis and details of the split that led Roosevelt to challenge Taft for the Republican nomination, and failing that, forming the Bull Moose Party that led to the election of Woodrow Wilson.  The campaign was extremely nasty and one could never imagine that the two former presidents would ever rekindle their relationship.  Goodwin does their relationship justice as she describes the emotional reunion before Roosevelt’s death.  In 1921, President Harding nominated Taft as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position he longed for his entire career.

Goodwin’s final analysis of their Roosevelt-Taft relationship is accurate.  When she states in closing that the “two men had strikingly different temperaments [but] their opposing qualities actually proved complimentary, allowing them to forge a powerful camaraderie and rare collaboration” that during Roosevelt’s presidency brought progressive reform to the nation.  Under Taft, that legacy may seem to have been tarnished, but there were many progressive reforms that seem to have slipped past the public’s awareness.  After reading Goodwin’s encyclopedic narrative my opinion of Roosevelt remains the same, a man driven by a large ego who was responding to unconscious needs that revert back to his earlier life.  For Taft my view has changed; he was exceptionally competent in many areas, and though limited by his own personality and loyalty to what he perceived to be constitutionally correct emerges as the larger man (not physically!) than his lifelong friend.  Goodwin has mined an enormous amount of material as she has done in all her books.  If you are interested in exploring an age in American history that is rich in substance and contains many interesting characters then sit back and enjoy Goodwin’s latest work.

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