Books Bullu PulpitJust finished listening to a very able Audible reading of The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s paean to Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism.  Anyone who’s ever been in a political campaign, or staffed a public office, anyone who’s imbibed the legends and been thankful for the conservationist legacy of Teddy Roosevelt will enjoy the book. There are are boatloads of information, much new to the casual history reader, some corrective and some confirmatory.  One tid-bit is how the sense of the word “bully pulpit” has changed since TR coined it.  Bully was an exclamation much in use, not only by him but likely the whole eastern male culture.  It meant, good or great!  The bully pulpit simply meant the great pulpit, like no other.   There’s a lot to like in the two men, and more in the group that came together at McClure’s magazine and continued each in his or her own way after the boss went crazy.  There’s a lot to learn, too, about United States history, political effort and political mud and about what determined, smart, well-funded reporters can do to enable a nation’s conscience.

Goodwin draws together from hundreds of sources and makes her choices about what to bring forward and what to merely mention, some of which I wish had been made differently.  There is a good deal of interesting though not, in the big picture, important material about the parents and grandparents of Taft and Roosevelt as well as their wives, Nellie and Edith.  There are paragraphs devoted to entertaining at the White House and the differing styles of the two women. And yet the long ocean trip Taft was sent on to the Philippines and Japan as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War gets only a few pages.  Roosevelt’s extreme racial theories of Anglo-Saxon superiority are disposed of in a brief mention that he had enjoyed reading a book by Professor John Burgess when laid up after being tossed out of his carriage (in which his favorite secret service man died.)  Not mentioned is that Roosevelt had studied under Burgess at Colombia and was fully taken by his racial theories.   The book he enjoyed  was by no means a first reading of the man.

It seems to me at least a paragraph might have been spent on the Boone and Crockett Club he founded in 1887, the first conservation organization in the US, with a strong thread of eugenics running through it, and another on his long friendship with Madison Grant whose book The Passing of the Great Race Hitler declared to be his bible. Small things perhaps, but if not present at all we get a Roosevelt through deep rose-colored glasses.

The McClure’s people — Ida Tarbell, William Allen White, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffans and even Upton Sinclair–  get a fair share of Goodwin’s attention,  though I personally would have liked even more.  Alerted by their success the Hearst Yellow Press reporters picked up some of the exposé zeal but without the laborious research and judicious editing of McClure’s, leading them to wild and outrageous ‘scoops’ which resulted in Roosevelt’s labeling of them — not the McClure’s people- as muckrakers.  An example or two of the offending articles and/or reporters would have been helpful.  All knowing requires context. 

And, however Roosevelt despised their muckraking on the one hand, Hearst’s bellicosity towards Spain and his drumbeat over the sinking of the Maine, exactly matched Roosevelt’s own.  He was salivating for a war.  As under secretary of the Navy he had personally, without word to his vacationing boss, ordered the US Pacific fleet to be topped off in fuel and ready for any eventuality.  Dewey’s famous one-blow defeat of the Spanish in Manila Bay happened almost entirely due to Roosevelt’s race and empire motivated bellicosity.  Ida Tarbell, then at McClure’s, who thought a great deal of Roosevelt as a reformer, and with whom her fellow McClure’s writers were close friends, was disgusted at his war drive and expansionist views.

Of the two men, Taft and Roosevelt, we learn more and are perhaps more impressed with Taft.  He of course is much less known than his famous mentor and friend.  The admiration almost everyone held for him — at least in Goodwin’s telling– seems deserved; we wish we could point to men in high positions today who seem so genuinely interested in public service and so little in political p0wer.  He did not covet and tried to escape, the burdens of being President. He twice turned down nominations to the Supreme Court –the one job he most wanted– because of felt obligations to work he had already started.  He seemed to have an accurate measure of himself and how his personality fit him admirably to the judiciary.  A brief review of his Supreme Court decisions would have been useful to let us know what actions flowed from that judgment.

His devotion to his wife, Nelly, who had a disabling stroke just before a big dinner party at the White House, is admirable by all lights — though her incapacities seem to have stripped Taft of his already slender resources of engagement and confrontation with the serious issues of the day.

The split between Roosevelt and Taft, after Teddy left the White House, is politically instructive to readers of today — Taft much more of a compromiser and Roosevelt, out of power, increasingly distressed at what the weakening of his intended legacy, becoming even more “energetic” in defense of, and in expanding, them.  He had had his own run-ins with the populists — whose strong hold, of all places (given today’s realities) was Kansas.  His constant refrain was that big business was necessary for the heath of the nation; it was only the greatest ‘combinations’ he felt were a threat — above all, to the growth of new, large corporations.  With his “New Nationalism” speech at Osawatamie, Kansas, in the summer of 1910, on the occasion of dedicating a park to John Brown of abolitionist fame, Roosevelt condensed and sharpened his progressive ideas.  We are struck on reading them today how recently arguments raged over things we now take to be fundamental to our national life,  though in some cases arguments still rise from the same forces of reaction.  The PoliticalPlatform of the New Nationalism was:

  • A National Health Service to include all existing government medical agencies
  • Social insurance, to provide for the elderly, the unemployed, and the disabled.
  • Limited injunctions in strikes.
  • A minimum wage law for women.
  • An eight hour workday.
  • A federal securities commission.
  • Farm relief.
  • Workers’ compensation for work-related injuries.
  • An inheritance tax.
  • A Constitutional amendment to allow a Federal income tax.

The political reforms proposed included

In addition, trying to outflank the populists, Roosevelt came close to advocating direct democracy including urging Initiatives and Referendum, recall of judges and the ability to overturn court rulings by plebiscite. — measures which led Taft and others to inveigh against Roosevelt’s anti-constitutional recklessness.  It’s instructive to read his neo-populism against the forcefulness of his own personality: calling for rule of the majority while actually ruling by the diktats of one.

The economic history Goodwin brings, in particular about the great coal strike of 1902, and how Roosevelt stood against the truculence of the coal operators is particularly welcome.  John Mitchell, founder of the United Mine Workers, was willing to go to any meeting, craft any deal to bring a measure of relief to the workers; he met absolute rejection and organized vituperation from the bosses, fueling Roosevelt’s reformist zeal.  That Hart Crane, whom we all know as the author of The Red Badge of Courage, did moving descriptions of child labor in the mines was a revelation — sending me into the stacks to make myself more acquainted with him. Though Goodwin mentions the Panic of 1893 several times, and the effect it had on Roosevelt, then a second term Civil Service Commissioner in Washington, D.C., a bit more economic data and thickening of the linkages of cause and effect would have been helpful. It is Goodwin’s style to write personality rich histories, which certainly adds to the popularity of her books.  Her hero, the great Ida Tarbell, knew as much in her best selling books of exposure and calls for action:  abstract numbers and ideas must be told in compelling stories.  Ida, however, insisted on the numbers and the details of the trusts.  I, for one, wanted more of the same in The Bully Pulpit.

There is plenty of material on Roosevelt’s most remembered claim to fame — his conservationsin ethic, including a knock-down drag out fight between the Secretary of Interior, Richard Ballinger, and his much more radical, Forestry Department chief, Gifford Pinchot.  It was the public airing of this, after Roosevelt left office and was in Africa, which led on his return to the wrenching end of the Taft — Roosevelt alliance and friendship. Worth reading as we re-visit similar issues having to do with wilderness, conservation, natural resources and ‘in whose interest.”

Fascinating are her descriptions of the heat and partisanship in the Republican Party leading up to the 1912 presidential nominating convention.  Roosevelt, taking back his promise in 1904, when he won the presidency, of never running again, was campaigning full steam against Taft.  Supporters of each got into regular brawls at big speeches.  The police were often called. At the nominating convention itself, though it seemed that Taft had sufficient delegates from party directed selection processes instead of direct primaries, which Roosevelt called for but which were few in number, had few delegates, Roosevelt would not acquiesce.  Charges flew of bought delegates and corrupt procedures.  Only after Taft won the nomination did Roosevelt bolt the party to form the Progressive Party, popularly known as the Bullmoose party.  He came in second to Wilson, with Taft –for all his amiability and generally likable aura– coming in third. 

[Reading this as the Republicans seem on the verge of their second big schism, though this time splintering to the retrograde instead of towards progress, is instructive indeed.]

Had the two been able to put together an alliance, Wilson would have lost the popular vote by a large number but, all things staying equal, would have won the electoral college. Just as well: Roosevelt would undoubtedly have moved the US into the European war much much earlier, believing as he did that,

that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.

Despite my reservations, and desire for more detail in some cases, The Bully Pulpit is an all together fine book, certain to be appreciated by anyone who has lived a political life, or even been on the fringes of it.  The compromises made to get legislation through are a striking to see and instructive for all who despair at politics.  The turning of a wealthy young man into a champion of the laboring classes — initially in long wanders through New York slums with the to-be famous photographer and advocate, Jacob Riis, revalatory.  Reading of the long, emotive letters sent between Taft and Roosevelt to each other, and each to their wives, as we complain of the lack of time to keep up with friends,  makes us reflect on friendship, what we value today, and examine what exactly takes up our time.