The Bully Pulpit – Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, published in 2013, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It is a monumental work, 752 pages of text, 910 pages total.
I was drawn to the book for a lot of reasons – one being that I was legislative aide to Cincinnati City Council Member Charlie Taft, son of William Howard, back in the 70s, and heard every now and then stories of that era.
Another is that I love the art of politics, and this book is full of fascinating political minutiae. And then the fact that I have loved journalism since being editor of my high school newspaper and yearbook, back in the day. The Muckrakers – one of a number of names they were called – are highly featured, including their major impact in creating the reformist mood of the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, often called the Golden Age of Journalism.
Cincinnati itself, and a number of its prominent citizens, are also featured. And we get a real sidelight into transportation, communication, regional differences across the country, and the two political parties in that era. We don’t learn much about Democrats, though – they didn’t have much success in that time period – until the Roosevelt – Taft fight made Woodrow Wilson’s win possible.
It was interesting to learn that Republicans then, as now, were very much the rich man’s party – using the word man advisedly, since women did not have the vote and were not in many discussions. Except that Teddy and Big Bill both took heed of their wives’ advice – Big Bill in particular.
Teddy, with the Muckrakers, was able to push through lots of bills and new regulations that assisted the common man, and still do. He was an outlier Republican in many ways, where Taft was more measured, and indeed was always judicial in his behavior and opinions. Teddy would go nuclear fairly frequently, where Taft would go read the reports, the legislation, the opinions of the courts.
And yet these two were best friends, partners in solving problems and fixing inequities for many years. Between the extroverted Teddy and Taft’s ambitious wife, Nellie, Taft was often pushed into positions he probably would not have taken otherwise. He always wanted to be on the Supreme Court, and yet turned down offers several times, to make Nellie or Teddy happy.
Another job he totally loved was as Governor General of the Phillipines. During those years, he began the process of creating a thriving democracy across those many islands. His fairness, openness and geniality won over the people. Roosevelt had appointed him to that job – it took a lot of pressure to get Taft to give it up and return to DC to be Roosevelt’s Secretary of War – and in practice, chief cabinet officer.
Roosevelt pushed Taft into the presidency, and then left the country – for an African safari – for a year, to give Taft room. Which turned out to be a fatal mistake. Taft was too indecisive about who to keep from Teddy’s cabinet in his own – and about many other issues as well. Taft’s biggest problem came when he put the next-in-line conservative politician / bureaucrat, Richard Ballinger, as Interior Secretary, rather than Roosevelt’s favorite conservation crusader, Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot. Actually, this has done us harm to this day, as Ballinger put much Western land back up for development by the private sector, that Roosevelt / Pinchot had withdrawn. That single act set up dominos of problems that shocked many Roosevelt supporters, and began Taft’s downfall. The rupture between Taft and Roosevelt broke many ties, and really caused suffering for both men. Goodwin’s writing really brings out the pain it caused for both men – and the fallout for the country.
Taft won the Republican nomination in 1912 – but Roosevelt then ran as an independent – for the Bull Moose party. And Wilson, the Democrat, carried the day. Which I, as a Democrat, might normally cheer. I would rather, in many ways, that Roosevelt’s policies of regulation and protecting the public, had continued.
It was six years later, May 26, 1918, that Taft and Roosevelt first spoke to each other after that. And become close friends all over again. January 6, 1919, Roosevelt died in his sleep. And on October 3,1921, Taft was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the job he had always wanted, by President Warren Harding. He streamlined court procedure, sped up and improved the delivery of justice, and improved the whole system of federal courts. He left the bench early in 1930, and on March 8, 1930, Taft died.
This book really brings us into the politics and machinations, the big sweeping changes to the country, of that fateful time – as well as the warm personal family stories of Taft and Roosevelt. History, it turns out, can be discerned through the big picture – and the small daily decisions that come directly out of our characters, as we react to the big picture tumult. I found this book to be excellent – and very sad.