Master biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin has tackled the life of Theodore Roosevelt with gusto and insight, and this is no surprise. After all, her works on Abraham Lincoln, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys have helped shape our current notions of what a successful president should be.
With his physical courage, raw ambition and intellectual reach, Teddy Roosevelt epitomized the role of a dynamic chief executive, and Goodwin ably captures his intensity and historical importance in The Bully Pulpit. The title is the phrase Roosevelt coined to dramatize how he used the presidency as a platform to advance his agenda.
But TR has already had his share of splendid biographies. What sets this new work by Goodwin apart are a sympathetic portrait of William Howard Taft and her examination of how crusading journalists helped fuel the reforms of the progressive era and boost Roosevelt’s efforts to curb the power of Standard Oil and other monopolies.
Roosevelt’s colorful career — leading the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, writing 40 books and countless articles, conducting safaris in Africa and the Amazon — obscures a less obvious side. He was a skilled politician who cultivated the press and collaborated closely with them to expose corruption and aid his programs.
At the turn of the century, a remarkable stable of reporters wrote for McClure’s magazine. Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker and William Allen White were given the time and freedom by Sam McClure to delve deep into urban poverty, machine politics and the clash of industry and labor.
The star of the group may have been Ida Tarbell, whose serialized expose of Standard Oil and founder John D. Rockefeller in 1903 helped President Roosevelt push through Congress measures that reined in giant trusts. McClure’s circulation soared, and Goodwin shows how a growing, literate middle class hungered for reliable information at a time of economic uncertainty.
The narrative spine of Bully Pulpit is the long, close friendship of two young Republican reformers — Roosevelt of New York and Taft of Ohio — who aided each other’s careers. With TR’s love of a good political fight and Taft’s calm, judicial temperament, they were an effective team. When Roosevelt left the White House, he worked tirelessly to elect Taft as his successor in 1908.
With access to hundreds of letters the two wrote to each other, Goodwin shows how the relationship flourished and then unraveled in a Shakespearean drama of betrayal. Taft’s one term as president was unhappy. His vivacious wife Nellie suffered a stroke. His accomplishments and political skill could not match Roosevelt’s.
When Roosevelt returned from a long overseas trip, he did not need much prompting from progressives who were disappointed with Taft. TR challenged Taft for the GOP nomination, and when he lost, launched a new Progressive Party to retake the White House. In the epic three-way race of 1912, Roosevelt and Taft traded bitter attacks, split the GOP — and lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Many of Roosevelt’s goals, such as labor rights, women’s suffrage and popular election of senators, were eventually achieved, but Goodwin sees TR’s third-party race as something of a quixotic vanity project. The personality of this “great rumbling, roaring, jocund tornado of a man,” as William Allen White described him, simply overwhelmed the issues.
As for Taft, losing the presidency was not a tragedy. Nine years later, at the age of 64, he achieved his dream job when he became chief justice of the Supreme Court. Taft and Roosevelt even reconciled a few months before Roosevelt’s death, to Taft’s great relief. “Had he died in a hostile state of mind toward me, I would have mourned the fact all my life,” he told TR’s sister.
When Roosevelt and Taft were allied, they showed how effective government could make a difference in people’s lives. But as Goodwin makes clear, they could not have done it without a press, led by magazines like McClure’s, that laid bare the nation’s problems at the dawn of the 20th and mobilized public opinion.
Sam McClure and his “muckrakers” showed in detail how big money dominated politics and monopolies exercised great power. To counterbalance that, “there is no one left — none but all of us,” he told his readers. It’s an exhortation that holds true today.
Frank Davies is a writer in northern Virginia.