November 22, 2013

In a turbulent era, a clash at the top

By Doris Kearns Goodwin
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At the start of the 20th century, the United States faced significant and wrenching changes: rapid industrialization, the growth of corporations, a widening gap between rich and poor, abuse of power, and corruption in both government and business. In her sprawling and richly rewarding new book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin skillfully demonstrates how two presidents of the era dealt with these major domestic challenges. She shows how one president came to be regarded as a great leader, while the other fell short. Her compelling narrative also explains the crucial role played in this period by legendary investigative journalists.

At the center of Goodwin’s story are two close friends who became president: Theodore Roosevelt, then vice president, assumed the office in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley; William Howard Taft was elected in 1908 after service as the key member of Roosevelt’s cabinet and with Roosevelt’s enthusiastic support. Goodwin describes the private lives of the two men and their families in significant detail to give readers a better understanding of their close ties and their sudden and bitter break in 1912.

Roosevelt and Taft were temperamentally quite different, as were their approaches to leadership. From early in his political career, Roosevelt was aware of the importance of the press in public leadership. He placed strong reliance on “the bully pulpit," the phrase he coined to describe his use of the presidency to make the public aware of issues and to seek their support for appropriate action. He courted muckraking journalists, especially those with McClure’s, the leading progressive publication of the time.

The journalists brought together by “genius” publisher and editor Sam McClure included Ida Tarbell, who is probably best known for revealing the predatory and illegal practices of Standard Oil; Ray Stannard Baker, whose work included exposing how a small circle of private owners controlled the country’s transportation network; and Lincoln Steffens, whose outstanding series on municipal and state corruption inspired reformers throughout the country. McClure believed that, “The story is the thing,” and he gave his reporters time to do extensive research before publishing their articles. Roosevelt kept up with what they were doing, invited them to visit him and used their work in preparing legislation and writing speeches.

Goodwin notes that perhaps the biggest surprise in her research was that Taft “was a far more sympathetic, if flawed, figure than I had realized.” She shows how Taft, as secretary of war and in other ways, was TR’s most important cabinet member. Whenever the president was away, Taft was considered the “acting president.” Even before joining the cabinet, Taft had been widely praised as a judge, solicitor general of the U. S. and governor general of the Philippines. When Roosevelt ran for president in his own right, Taft was the most requested surrogate for the president on the campaign trail. Yet despite these achievements, Taft’s judicial temperament, aversion to dissension and preference for personal persuasion led him to work within the system rather than mobilize external pressure.

Although the investigative reporters offered to help him, Taft admitted that he was “derelict” in his use of the bully pulpit. Even his weekly press conferences became a chore and he stopped doing them. Timing is important in politics, and Roosevelt’s ideals were always moderated by his pragmatism and his ability to shrewdly calculate popular sentiment. Antitrust suits are an example of the Taft-Roosevelt difference in this regard. Roosevelt was popular as the nation’s “trustbuster,” while Taft was frequently criticized for doing the same thing. Goodwin points out that “Taft had actually instituted more antitrust suits than his predecessor.” But the populace had changed and wanted the government to prevent the formation of monopolies in the first place; it was seen as mean-spirited to litigate after the fact.

Goodwin excels at capturing the relationship between personalities and government policy in a turbulent period. The three interwoven strands of her story—Roosevelt, who expanded the role of government in American life and transformed the presidency; Taft, a cabinet member so crucial to Roosevelt’s success, yet temperamentally unsuited to be an effective president himself; and Roosevelt’s use of “the bully pulpit,” especially through his relationships with McClure’s investigative journalists—make for compelling reading.


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The Bully Pulpit

The Bully Pulpit

By Doris Kearns Goodwin
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781416547860

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