Book Report: The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of JournalismThe Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A splendid biography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft covering a period of American History, Gilded Age to just prior to World War I, that I’ve been trying to learn about.

The progressive era may be a “distant mirror” with apologies to Barbara Tuchman. It was a response to the vast accumulation of wealth by a few with little consideration for the poor or even working class. Before the progressive era took hold, the heads of companies stated that labor did not have the right to even request higher wages or better working conditions. All of that was to be held in reserve for the owners. It took a battle over a few decades to level the playing field. Roosevelt and Taft went against the established Republican Pary machines to effect the changes. In fact TR was shunted to the Vice Presidency under William McKinley in order to get him out of the governer’s office of New York where he was stirring up trouble for captial. After McKinley was assassinated the common reaction was “That damn cowboy is president” (p 279). It evokes the 1% v the 99% in today’s American life.

This book skillfully weaves the three story strands of Roosevelt, Taft, and investigative (muckraking) journalism that set the stage for many of the social improvements in the early 20th century. TR was a charismatic person who developed a passion for improving the human condition. William Howard Taft was a great second-in-command; a terrific judge, first governor general of the Philippines, excellent Secretary of War, and (I think based on this book) a good president whose accomplishments were overshadowed by the larger-than-life Roosevelt. Sam S McClure’s magazine virtually invented investigative journalism; the accurate and compelling stories on the downsides of trusts and the horrible working conditions in the developing industrial age set the stage for the trust busting and improvement legislation and enforcement instigated by TR and Taft.

Roosevelt came to regret his pledge to run for a third term as president; his ambivalence let the public focus on him rather than Taft’s campaign. While Taft accomplished a lot in continuing trust busting, his judicial temperament caused him to stay back and react to events rather than shaping them. “Perhaps it was inevitable that Taft’s temperament – his aversion to dissension and preference for personal persuasion – would ultimately lead him to work within the system rather than mobilize external pressure from his bully pulpit.”(p 587). He waited too long to step in and stop the in-fighting between Chief Forrester Gifford Pinchot and Interior Secretary Richard Ballinger”. Taft eventually fired Pinchot, which alienated Roosevelt.

My takeaway is that Roosevelt simply wanted to be president again and, as was his way, personalized the conflict with Taft. Because TR was so enormously popular, he naturally turned much of country against Taft.

The chapters on the work of the Samuel S McClure, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Baker and other journalists were fascinating reads.

Interesting tidbits. Roosevelt created a room at the White House for the press, whose relationships he assiduously cultivated. Taft was responsible for the remodeling of the White House resulting in the creation of the Oval Office. He was the first to throw out the first baseball of the season.

All-in-all a terrific book on a dynamic era of American politics that shaped much of the 20th century.

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