The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

I love a well-written biography. I suppose I always have. Many of the books I remember reading as a kid were biographies. In particular, I remember one about Abe Lincoln that covered his youth and early pre-presidential days and one about Benedict Arnold that spoke of the whole man and circumstances such that I was left with the sense that this man was not simply a wholly evil traitor, someone to be to be reviled. Before his defection to the British he had spent much of his own money on the war effort (on ‘our’ side), fellow officers took credit for some of his accomplishments and he was wrongly accused of things he’d not done–these do not absolve him of his defection but I did come away with empathy for the man.

I went through a long period of reading mainly fiction and then one day a friend, Mary MacBain Youngblood, recommended two wonderful biographies: Mornings on Horseback about Theodore Roosevelt and The Great Bridge which I consider to be a biography–a biography of the Brooklyn Bridge, both by one of my favorite biographers David McCullough. Thank you Mary for this re-introduction to a great genre! I find in biographies a good story, a good history, impeccable writing and masterful use of the English language (both from the biographer and from letters and articles written at a time of patience and care in correspondence) all backed by intense research. Another favorite biographer is Doris Kearns Goodwin. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak soon after publication of Team of Rivals.

Today I have the pleasure of reading her latest book The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2013). This is not referring to “Bully” as in “neighborhood bully” like Scut Farkus in A Christmas Story. From Wikipedia:

A bully pulpit is a position sufficiently conspicuous to provide an opportunity to speak out and be listened to. This term was coined by President Theodore Roosevelt, who referred to the White House as a “bully pulpit”, by which he meant a terrific platform from which to advocate an agenda. Roosevelt used the word bully as an adjective meaning “superb” or “wonderful”, a more common usage in his time than it is today.

What Kearns Goodwin has done in The Bully Pulpit is create a history of an intensely fascinating and crucial time centered on two former presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and their friendship alongside a group of true journalists whom Roosevelt recognized as playing a pivotal role in educating the people of the United States.

Whenever I heard William Howard Taft referred to I always envisioned him as no more than our obese President, picturing the cartoons done of him during his presidency. How wrong I was. As a young man Taft was physically fit. Even after his weight ballooned the man was exceedingly well-read, well-educated, well-versed in the judicial process, well-respected and well-liked by all who came to know him. He was admired, often by opponents, for his friendliness, his fairness, his willingness to learn all sides of an issue. In him Roosevelt recognized “…a staunch comrade, a steadfast advocate of advancement due not to cronyism but to competence.” Indeed Taft had been willing to resign his post…”rather than bow to demands that he fire the best men in his department due to their political affiliations.” Many of his judicial decisions on highly controversial cases were groundbreaking and have been used as precedence in important decisions. “Taft’s clear and forceful defense of labor’s right to strike was perhaps the most definitive pronouncement on the subject to that date.”

The brilliance of the book is that each chapter stands alone as a fascinating biography of the circle of people involved in the progress to presidency in addition to the story of a ground-breaking influential magazine, McClure’s, consisting of brilliant writers who

All passionately believed, with S. S. McClure, that ‘a vigilant and well-informed press, setting forth the truth,’ could become ‘an infinitely greater guard to the people than any government officials’. The new fusion of journalism, exposé, and human interest that emerged…would turn the microscope on humanity, on the avarice and corruption that stunted the very possibility of social justice in America.

Here we meet many journalists who were also successful independent writers. Of course even then there was crooked “journalism”. The writers on the staff of one paper were under strict orders not to write anything that could be construed as positive about, then Governor, Roosevelt causing at least one honest reporter to leave his position there.

Roosevelt and Taft both had the ability to remain on friendly terms with those who opposed their ideas and ideals. Roosevelt, in particular relished hearing and considering arguments against his ideas and he delighted in articles and cartoons that lampooned him, even complimented some of the lampoonists. He told one writer who often disagreed with him in person and in print “You have shown yourself a friend indeed, and above all, when you differ I know you differ because you honestly think you must.” What a contrast to so many of today’s “friendships” that at the slightest disagreement terminate abruptly. How dull to have only “friends” whose main purpose is to sit around and say “I know…I agree…Yes…” Makes for pretty short conversation too. This was a time when people looked to others’ ideas and arguments as a way of continuing their education and broadening their minds.

Many figures covered in this book were born of privilege and in their early days didn’t understand need for reform. However, instead of basing beliefs on limited experience these men and women set out to educate themselves. They visited tenement buildings and workhouses and marched alongside laborers striving for better conditions and literally got a glimpse into “how the other half lives” and often found it deplorable and worth working to rectify.

Issues sound dishearteningly familiar in this book covering the turn of the century–not this century–rather late 1800s through early 1900s–and as I read I often feel anger and wonder what is it about us that we have slipped back and are once again struggling with issues that were tackled a century ago. After the Industrial Revolution…

an immense gulf had opened between the rich and the poor; daily existence had become more difficult for ordinary people, and the middle class felt increasingly squeezed. Yet by the end of Roosevelt’s tenure in the White House a mood of reform had swept the country…A series of anti-trust suits had been won and legislation passed to regulate railroads, strengthen labor rights, curb political corruption, end corporate campaign contributions, impose limits on the working day, protect consumers from unsafe food and drugs, and conserve vast swaths of natural resources for the American people…

I’m not yet halfway through this book yet feel compelled to recommend it. So far one of my favorite lines from the book: “Roosevelt seemed, White’s description concluded, ‘to be dancing in the exuberance of a deep physical joy of life.'”

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