Posted: May 20, 2014
For political scientist turned historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, history is all about telling stories, but how many times can a story be told before it becomes hackneyed? The challenge, especially when puffing up liberal icons as she’s done in previous books on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (for which she won the Pulitzer Prize), the Kennedys, or her old boss Lyndon Johnson, is to find some new angle that will bring the oft-told tales to life again. She managed this trick brilliantly in Team of Rivals (2005), a Lincoln Prize-winner and the basis for Steven Spielberg’s hit film, in which a wider focus on Abraham Lincoln’s contentious cabinet brought the president’s shrewd statesmanship into starker relief—even if she mistook him for a liberal. In her new bestseller, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, Goodwin weaves together two stories—three if you count the wives’ tale—that make vivid how the American public came to support the far-reaching reforms of the Progressive era introduced by T.R. This is story-telling with a moral, for her “greatest hope” is that readers in the age of Obama will be inspired to support reforms that will help “bring our country closer to its ancient ideals.” What precisely these “ancient ideals” are she never says, but before one has read very far into the book, it becomes clear that they bear a remarkable resemblance to 20th-century progressivism.
As Goodwin tells us in the Preface, her interest in the subject dates back nearly 50 years to when, as a young professor, she taught a seminar on the Progressives, and most of her scholarly references are to the standard, predictably Left, accounts from the mid-20th century. Although she has included a scattering of more recent scholarship, as far as I can tell from the 113 pages of endnotes (there is no bibliography), most of her new research focuses on the letters and writings of the principal characters, along with newspaper reports of the day. These add color, but hardly a critical perspective. Goodwin adds nothing new when she gushes that the transformations taking place at the end of the 19th century were so profound that it seemed as if “a molt” had taken place, and “an altered country” had begun to emerge. A big part of this molt was “a new kind of presidency” (T.R.’s “stewardship” theory in which the executive could do whatever the needs of the people demanded) and, with this, she adds breezily, a “new vision of the relationship between the government and the people.” All this perfectly captures the mood of mid-20th-century progressivism, re-packaged for mass consumption as a series of human-interest stories.
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The first of these is the story of the friendship and later rivalry between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, who emerged, to Goodwin’s surprise, as “a far more sympathetic, if flawed, figure” than she realized—sympathetic, because Taft was more of a progressive than the historians she read decades back gave him credit for. But he is nevertheless flawed because, for a variety of reasons, ranging from temperament to training, he failed to carry out his predecessor’s policies in the proper “spirit,” thus contributing to the smash-up of the Republican Party in 1912. Here then is the major result of Goodwin’s seven years of research: she is no longer willing to brand Taft a “conservative” as T.R. did; in every other respect her thinking remains preserved in progressive amber.
Interwoven with this account of a political friendship turned sour is the second story of T.R.’s and Taft’s very different relationships with muckraking reporters—especially the big three, Ray Stannard Baker, Ida Tarbell, and Lincoln Steffens, who worked at the Progressive magazine, McClure’s, headed by S.S. McClure—and their willingness to use the bully pulpit to promote their policies. From early on, Roosevelt recognized that a sympathetic press could be a useful ally in advancing his reforms—and his career—and courted its members assiduously. Unable to win the support of more conservative Republican lawmakers, he conspired with reporters to stoke public demand for his proposals. As president, T.R. repeatedly used the press to go over the heads of Congress and appeal directly to the people. This successful collaboration commenced “the golden age of journalism,” according to Goodwin. By contrast, Taft failed to ally with these firebrands to stir up public opinion, preferring instead to work with party leaders in Congress to advance his agenda. And although he succeeded in enacting significant reforms where the ever more splenetic Roosevelt had failed, Taft fell short by not understanding the historic role journalists could play in educating the public and mobilizing support.
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Many of Roosevelt’s exploits will be familiar to readers of The Bully Pulpit—all too familiar. This sprawling 750-page book would have been improved if Goodwin had contained her story-telling enthusiasms and concentrated on the parallel lives of her two antagonists (as John Milton Cooper did in his study of T.R. and Woodrow Wilson, The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt , a classic that Goodwin does not cite) and their differing relations with the muckraking press. But Goodwin can’t resist throwing in juicy details about McClure’s nervous breakdowns and extramarital affairs. The third story, of the wives—the pensive, private Edith Carow Roosevelt and the adventurous Helen (“Nellie”) Herron Taft—seems designed simply to boost the book’s female readership.
Admirers of Theodore Roosevelt (who doubtless will form the main audience for the book) may well disagree, but the chapters on Taft are far more interesting, partly because his life is less well known and partly because he is, as Goodwin shows, a genuinely sympathetic character. Amiable and easy-going, his meteoric rise in Republican politics was no less spectacular than Roosevelt’s, though predictably Goodwin detects in his very virtues an underlying weakness: Taft was too willing to please others and reluctant to steer his own course. What she means is that, although Taft was temperamentally suited to be a judge (Roosevelt twice offered to appoint him to the Supreme Court), he too readily gave in to the entreaties of his family to aim for the presidency, an office he was ill-equipped to fill. But such amateur psychologizing is belied by his considerable political successes, beginning with his stint as solicitor general of the United States, and including his exemplary service as governor-general of the Philippines, and secretary of war. Although she is happy to explore the limitations of Taft’s temperament, she pulls her punches when it comes to Roosevelt’s erratic motives and actions, especially his bolt from the Republican Party to challenge Taft in 1912.
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Worse, her emphasis on temperament discounts, without benefit of argument, Taft’s devotion to constitutional forms and formalities. Unlike T.R., who dropped out of Columbia Law School, Taft’s legal learning went deep and formed in him an appreciation for how the federal government was designed to work. As president, he adopted a different approach to conservation, for example, not because he was unconcerned with it, but because he thought Roosevelt’s methods and those of his top appointees, especially James Garfield and Gifford Pinchot, exceeded their constitutional authority. It was “a very dangerous method of upholding reform to violate the law in so doing,” Taft objected, “even on the ground of high moral principle, or of saving the public.” And unlike T.R., who positively enjoyed taking the battle to his enemies, Taft worried that demagogic grandstanding undermined the dignity of the executive office. In casting the dispute between them simply as a matter of temperament, Goodwin adopts, without acknowledgment, T.R.’s account in his Autobiography of his differences with Taft. In a similar vein, Goodwin makes no mention of Taft’s response to Roosevelt’s attacks in his scholarly book on the presidency, Our Chief Magistrate and His Powers (1916). Furthermore, she softpedals as an “unorthodox design” T.R.’s plainly unconstitutional plan in the 1902 Anthracite Coal strike to have the government take over privately owned mines if his mediation failed.
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The opposite side of Goodwin’s lack of concern with constitutional strictures is her enthusiasm for Roosevelt’s partnership with the muckraking reporters, especially the big three associated with McClure’s, but also the Kansas editor, William Allen White. This story is indeed riveting, though not for the reasons she thinks, but because it highlights how Roosevelt and progressive journalists worked together to loosen the government from its constitutional moorings, establishing a pattern that continues to this day. At crucial points in his presidency, to drum up support for his policies Roosevelt leaked damaging information about his opponents to the press. Did it matter that some of these reports were untrue, that the stories were overwrought and vindictive, that some of the reporters were outright socialists, that they were—as we now say—“in the tank” for Roosevelt, with McClure himself boasting that his magazine had the power to make a president? Not to Goodwin, who never pauses to consider whether “Government by Magazine,” as William Allen White dubbed it, was good for the country or for the cause of constitutional government. Nor does she raise an eyebrow in recounting how, when Roosevelt was pushing for railroad regulation, Baker was given a desk and a stenographer at the Interstate Commerce Commission as well as complete access to all published documents for his six-part series, “The Railroads on Trial.”
Nowhere does she point out that Roosevelt regarded setting maximum railroad rates as only a “good first step” in regulating the railroads, or that he wished to use the railroads, which were common carriers invested with a public interest (and thus subject to greater government supervision), as a model for regulating the larger industrial economy. She seems unaware that by the end of his presidency, Roosevelt had moved very far in the direction of statist control. Likewise, she devotes a mere two pages to Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech, and even then spends more time describing Taft’s startled reaction than she spends analyzing the speech’s radical reinterpretation of property rights. As always for Doris Kearns Goodwin, the bottom line is that the progressive papers loved it—and still do.