THE BULLY PULPIT –NOT JUST TEDDY–A NEW LOOK AT TAFT–THE RISE OF THE MUCKRAKERS

Who would place in the same context Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft?

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Doris Kearns Goodwin, just as she did with Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, No Ordinary Time (FDR and Eleanor), Team of Rivals (Lincoln) has humanized Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in The Bully Pulpit, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism.  It is remarkable that by comparing these two very different personalities, Goodwin has been able to create a finite understanding of the birth of the Progressive era in American politics.

This extremely well researched work probes so deeply into the personalities of the two that the reader is left wondering who might have been the better to successfully carry out the reforms of the Progressive Movement, TR or Taft! The book captures the two friends joined at the hip, partners in a mission of reform, and then torn apart by TR’s un-checked ” Bull Moose” ambition; finally coming together again after self-imposed mutual defeat. It reminds me of the deathbed reconciliation of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams so emotionally detailed in David McCulloch’s, John Adams.

 

The Bully Pulpit is four books in one! The reader is served up two great biographies, one of Theodore Roosevelt, the other of William Howard Taft. The other two Goodwin gifts are an understanding of the birth of the Progressive Movement in America and not by any means in descending order, the advent of investigative and advocacy journalism, Muckraking, in American politics. The Bully Pulpit establishes the critical role played by the press in determining public policy at the turn of the 20th Century. The term Muckraker has a new meaning in Goodwin’s book and the role of S.S. McClure’s  McClure’s magazine in promoting progressivism is a book unto itself.

Read about muckraker journalists Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens and William Allen White, including the unique relationships they established with both Roosevelt and Taft. The insight given into Publisher Sam McClure’s ambitious role of investigative journalism shaping national policy can be projected into the 21st Century. When asked by Sam McClure to embark on a series of investigative articles on labor strife, journalist Ray Baker replied, ” Why bother with fictional characters and plots when the world was full of more marvelous stories that were true: and characters so powerful, so fresh, so new that they stepped into the narratives under their own power.”

Great books stimulate and The Bully Pulpit, while is has the greatest emphasis on Teddy Roosevelt, raises dramatically the profile of President Taft and his wife Nellie. Taft defies a Progressive, Liberal or Conservative label. He could not be easily categorized in the 21st Century political vernacular. His wife Nellie, unlike Edith Roosevelt, played a large role in Taft’s decisions which was prescient indeed for the relationship that followed between his successor Woodrow Wilson and his wife, Edith.

One of the reasons that The Bully Pulpit is so compelling is that the philosophies, conflicts and important social issues of the time could just as well have been written about the beginning of this century.

The following paraphrase from The Bully Pulpit was made by President Roosevelt in 1905 at the beginning of his presidency, in effect separating the Republican Party into Progressive and Conservative factions. ” If the people at large perceived that the Republican Party had become unduly subservient to the so-called Wall Street men–to the men of mere wealth, the plutocracy, it would result in a dreadful calamity. To see the nation divided into two parties, one containing the bulk of the property owners and conservative people, the other the bulk of the wage workers and the less prosperous people generally, each party sullen and angered by real and fancied grievances would bring a calamitous future.”

With that perspective, in the spirit of Ray Baker’s ” why bother with fiction,” there is more grist for the mill for historians and Muckrakers to ponder in today’s America.

Note: For lovers of history one good read prompts another. I will seek out the biography  William Howard Taft by Louis Gould and one of Sam McClure, The Muckrakers by John Simkin.

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