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Lunch » Tags » Untagged » The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of journalism » User review

Heroes and villains go down with the ship

  • Aug 31, 2014
Teddy Roosevelt has always been such a ridiculously heroic figure in American history, and from my high school history classes I dimly associate the muckraking journalists of what Goodwin calls this Golden Age with villainy, perhaps because it was Roosevelt himself who painted them all with that onomotopaeic term.  But after finishing The Bully pulpit, Goodwin has forced me to reassess the heroes and villains of the story, and in the end both go down with the ship.

Let's start with Roosevelt for after all, doesn't every story in which Roosevelt plays a part have to start with him--so boisterous, so smart, such a bundle of pure energy and action that he is always the hero.  Fighting corruption in the New York City police and the New York state legislature, taming the West as a working ranch owner, publishing on a broad variety of topics, Roughriding up San Juan Hill, surviving an assassin's bullet, taming wildlife on African safari, American bear hunt, and South American river exploration.  Oh yeah, he was even President of the United States in there somewhere.  The word "hero" was invented in every language for men and women like Roosevelt.

Succeeding Roosevelt as President and often obscured in the glare of his brilliance was William Howard Taft.  He too had a bright career as a respected lawyer, Solicitor General for the US, young Ohio Judge and up and coming candidate for the US Supreme Court.  A quiet hero, he crafted decisions that validated and shaped the Progressive legislation politicians like Roosevelt were drafting.  A charismatic and respected second in command, his success as Governor General of the occupied Philippine Islands and then Secretary of War for his friend Roosevelt, along with the urging of his wife and Roosevelt, steered him away from a quiet career of jurisprudence into the rough and tumble of Presidential politics.

Painted as villains by conservative historians (and high school history teachers) the investigative journalists of McClure's Magazine were in fact the fact finding and documentation driven heroes of  Progressivism, that turn of the 20th century realization that the Industrial Revolution in a laissez-faire capitalist economy had unleashed not just vast wealth but equally broad and deep economic,social, and human suffering that government could and should take steps to address.  Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffins, Ray Stannard Baker, and William Allen White, given time to investigate and write while being held to high standards of proof by the mercurial but generous S. S. McClure, uncovered the history behind the vast corporate monopolies and interlocking boards then called "Trusts", documented corrupt relations within and between the Trusts and city, state, and federal elected officials, and documenting the interlocks between these special interests and the political party machines that made the system self perpetuating.  Truly heroic given the tenor of the times, they were befriended by Roosevelt to help shape his political platform and uncover abuses he could address through his adoption of Progressive policies.

Doris Kearns Goodwin (fresh off the triumph of her classic Lincoln political biography) outlines these stories and is at her best when she draws the intersections and connections between them, in the process uncovering for me an unsung hero and an unexpected villain.   Despite and because of their polar opposite personalities and spouses, Roosevelt and Taft became good social and political friends early in their careers, as they arrived at similar political philosophies from different starting points and took different routes to solve political problems with compatible (if not similar) solutions.  When Roosevelt declined to run for a "third" term ( his first being the completion of McKinley's brief tenure terminated by an assassin's bullet) he did so in part because of his friendship with Taft and trust that his policies would be continued.  He also left behind his friend and valuable aide Archie Butts to serve in the same role for Taft.  Butts becomes for me the unsung (and then stunningly tragic) hero of the piece as the relationship between Taft and Teddy unravels and as Taft's political career unwinds as well.  Butts was loved and respected by both men and reciprocated the feelings, served both honorably and without dissembling or disrespecting either even when there was a complete break between the men and their families politically and personally.  It is clear from her writing and footnotes that Butts official communications and personal letters and notes both document and verify Goodwin's account.

Behind the break is the unexpected villain of the piece for me--Teddy himself.  Always Type A direct, full of bluster and bravado and eager to use the bully pulpit of the presidency and the Progressive press, as he watches Taft veer even minutely from his own policies and paths to achieve them, he just becomes--a bully.  Taft, by his own admission not a natural or very good political operator, feels his way falteringly to some great successes in progressive legislation but has offsetting failures that prove damaging politically.  Rather than credit Taft or provide guidance as a mentor, Roosevelt abandons him, first geographically as he leaves the country for over a year on his African safari and refuses to answer Taft's letters, and then politically when he returns and turns savagely on his former friend in very public forums including finally the unsuccessful Bull Moose challenge to wrest away the Republican presidential nomination.  While Teddy was and will always be a great American hero for his whole body of life and work and unassailable accomplishments, for this period of his life his outsized personality and ego drove  him to equally oversized mistakes and paint him into the villain's role.

Goodwin has established herself with these two presidential accounts as one of the premier narrative historians of our time, and one mark of the narrative historian s success for me is leaving me with notes and bibliographies for further reading.  While a bibliographic essay would have been valuable here but isn't included, the notes are full and well documented.  I definitely plan to follow up with a biography of Archie Butts and volumes of the collected writings of the muckrakers of McClure's Magazine.

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Todd Stockslager ()
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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