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Until I listened to Doris Kearns Goodwin's "The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism" (2013) it didn't occur to me that anyone - other than George Washington - had been 'drafted' into the presidency. I'd assumed that people who become president have a burning desire for the office, and plan and maneuver over many years to get there.
Theodore Roosevelt, the brilliant, adventurous and beloved scion of a wealthy New York family, positioned himself his whole life to be president. Throughout his life, he was also a prolific and influential conservation and naturalist author. Roosevelt was such a maverick that the Republican Party tried to derail "that cowboy" by making him William McKinley's Vice Presidential running mate for the 1900 election. McKinley was assassinated in 1901, and secretly gleeful, Roosevelt became president.
William Taft, Roosevelt's long time friend and politically progressive ally, had one life long ambition: the Supreme Court. Taft's judicial decisions in the lower courts and later, the Supreme Court, were well reasoned and supported and are still used today. On the way to becoming Chief Justice in 1921, he was inveigled into the presidency by Roosevelt, and elected in 1908.
Four years later, Roosevelt wanted the presidency back. His long friendship with Taft had fractured, and Roosevelt's ego split the Republican Party in two. In the 1912 election, Taft, Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson ran. With Republican votes split, Wilson won.
Roosevelt's close relationship with journalists, including Ray Stannard Baker, who wrote "What the United States Steel Corporation Is" (1901) for McClure's Magazine (1893-1929). That lengthy piece, along with Ida Tarbell's groundbreaking "The Standard Oil Company" (1902), described trusts that ruthlessly snuffed out competition and endangered the country's resources. Roosevelt instituted such strong trust-busting reforms, he'd more aptly be a Democrat today. Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" (1906) lead to the "Pure Food and Drug Act" (1906) and what eventually became the FDA. Taft, while much more reserved with the press than Roosevelt, relied on journalists to investigate and publicize one of his main goals as president: tariff reform. Taft didn't get everything he wanted, but he got a lot.
Taft was a genuinely nice man who hard to make people comfortable, build consensus, and as appointed Governor General of the Philippines, showed an unparalleled empathy and understanding of that culture that enabled him to ensure that country's transition to peace. Roosevelt, however - well, he was dominating, extremely aggressive, pro-war, and hurt people that got in his way. The "Speak softly" part of his motto was aspirational. "The Bully Pulpit" disillusioned me about Roosevelt, whose lionization is even stronger than it was a century ago.
I listened to Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" (2005) and had trouble with that as an Audible. There were so many people that it was hard to remember who was who, and there's no Audio index. I had a much easier time with the Audible of "The Bully Pulpit". Goodwin 'reintroduced' people that had been mentioned much earlier in her book, and that was enough to remember who they were. I got a little mired in the chapter on Taft and tariffs, and had to listen to it twice to understand the problem and what Taft wanted, but I didn't mind.
"The Bully Pulpit" is fascinating and accidentally-drive-by-your-freeway exit absorbing. I got so into the book and the vivid descriptions of the people and places, I actually misdated a check "1914" instead of "2014". And Edward Herrmann as a narrator - let's just say that I heard a bushy mustache, waistcoat with a watch fob, and a Panama Straw Boater.
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156 of 163 people found this review helpful
This is a long book! Really, really long! In the very best way!
At first, it seemed as though Doris Kearns Goodwin might have bitten off more than she could chew in taking on the divergent lives and stories in one volume. But I came to realize that these characters, and this piece of history, do indeed belong together. These two amazing Presidents (and hooray, Doris, for reminding us of the admirable Taft!), began the struggle against the powerful business interests that has continued (with varying degrees of success) until this day.
Even less remembered or acknowledged was the work of tireless journalists who - at least at first - truly had the welfare of the country foremost in mind. We are so accustomed to viewing the Press as a cynical, self-serving bunch; thank you Ms. Goodwin for reinstating Ida Tarbell, McClure, Baker, Phillips and others to their important place in history. The Golden Age of Journalism was indeed a worthy and necessary inclusion in this effort.
This author/historian has a real gift for making historical figures come back to life. As this book progresses, the reader cares more and more for them as people. As in "A Team of Rivals" about Lincoln and his advisors, there's real feeling in the portrayals of Theodore Roosevelt and Taft and in the people who most influenced them, especially their wives.
It seems to me that Goodwin presents these people and this important time in American history with a good deal of objectivity and prospective. Often the faults of these men and women are as grand as their strengths, and what begins as idealism and vitality sinks into egotism and self-aggrandizement. As Ray Baker is quoted in the epilog, in their belief that injustice would swiftly be corrected if it was known, these early crusaders never realized fully "just how hard-boiled the world really was."
We may be appalled at how little things seem to have changed and at how often we repeat the mistakes of the past, but, reading "The Bully Pulpit" ultimately assures us that the effort has been worth it, some progress (however slowly) has been made, and we soldier on.
32 of 33 people found this review helpful