'The Bully Pulpit': Doris Kearns Goodwin on a partnership of presidents and muckrakers

Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft were rugged progressives, aided by a 'Golden Age of Journalism'

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The Civil War is an ongoing fascination for Americans and historians, but when was the last time a bunch of wanna-be Rough Riders re-enacted the charge up San Juan Hill?

The Spanish-American War lacks the appeal of that terrible conflict; it was short, far less bloody and produced far fewer heroes. Its legacy, however, reverberates to this day.

By Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Simon & Schuster ($40).

Think of Cuba, waterboarding and the enduring reputation of Theodore Roosevelt, the war's most famous soldier whose foolhardy attack on Spanish soldiers in Cuba launched his national political career.

William Howard Taft preferred to ride a desk during the war, yet his role in America's awkward venture into colonialism also benefited the genial Cincinnatian's position and landed him in the White House following his friend TR's presidency.

Taft's Ohio connections led to a stint as governor-general of the Philippines. His earnest efforts in that troubled part of the world following the U.S. military's brutal repression of insurgents brought him back to Washington, D.C., for a place in Roosevelt's Cabinet where he again shone.

This brief refresher in history seems necessary because the period from 1890 to 1912 remains a largely unobserved one without a David McCullough or a Ken Burns to put a spotlight on it. (Mr. Burns is doing the Kennedys instead.)

Doris Kearns Goodwin tries her best, though. The popular historian's account of Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet, "Team of Rivals," was well-received, revived her career and led to a Steven Spielberg film to boot. Aside from giving actor John Goodman another role, there seems no interest in starring the 300-pound Taft in a Hollywood picture.

Yet the era featured colorful personalities, major improvements in American life, progress toward a wider democracy, the emergence of a national media and finally, the assertion of the United States as a world leader.

Roosevelt and Taft, who began the period as good friends, then political rivals, did their part in forming a 20th-century America. Ms. Goodwin adds a third element -- the "new journalism" pioneered and perfected by Samuel S. McClure and his team of muckrakers on the magazine bearing his name.

What made the work of McClure's team "new" was its investigative approach to their subjects from Ida M. Tarbell's coverage of the Standard Oil trust to Lincoln Steffens' sweeping condemnation of urban corruption, "The Shame of the Cities."

As Ms. Goodwin tells it, McClure, an Irish immigrant, was proof that the Horatio Alger stories could be true as he started with nothing and built a media powerhouse that made him a wealthy and powerful man.

His reporters became celebrities whose counsel was sought by Roosevelt and whose influences, writes Ms. Goodwin, pushed the aristocratic snob further and further to the left until he became a true "progressive," an embodiment of the reformist movement that dominated American politics in the mid-teens of the century.

Ms. Goodwin's admiration for these crusading reporters enlivens her telling of their exploits, but she fails to explore the fact that they were not neutral observers, but advocates for the progressive point of view. Tarbell, for instance, had a grudge against John Rockefeller whose predatory business practices ruined her father, a small-time oilman in Titusville, Pa.

Roosevelt's relationships with Steffens and William Allen White, a McClure's contributor from his rural kingdom of Emporium, Kan., would be controversial today. However, the historian doesn't pursue the implications of a president who courts journalists with White House access, not to mention gallons of lemonade.

The McClure crew was the exception to journalism in the 1900s where the "yellow press" of media barons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer made their millions trading on sex, murder, celebrity and fabrication. Ms. Goodwin gives them a wide berth, although crediting a Hearst screed, "The Treason of the Senate," for inspiring Roosevelt's muckraking charge.

Ms. Goodwin, though, is not a groundbreaker, but a surveyor of what is there. Theodore Roosevelt's life and times have been thoroughly researched. The remarkable 1912 presidential election has also received a wealth of attention, although she provided a renewed appreciation for Taft's stellar career.

Combined with her marvelous knack for storytelling, "The Bully Pulpit" is an impressive effort to synthesize this complicated, transforming period in American history into a manageable account. Credit Ms. Goodwin with the attempt, but those times were too messy and unpredictable to wrestle into submission.

Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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