Review: The Bully Pulpit

I haven’t read a lot of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s work, but she seems to like coming at the interesting periods of American history from interesting angles.  Her Team of Rivals was a fascinating look at Lincoln and his cabinet told in a compelling structure. The Bully Pulpit traces the careers of two of the most interesting personalities of the late 1890’s and early 1900’s looking at their relations to one another and to the expanding popular press.

The Taft/Roosevelt relationship is central to the book, but has been explored before. What Goodwin brings here is an interest in an sympathy for Taft’s position. Most of what I’ve read about these two comes from Roosevelt biographies, and those are necessarily about Teddy’s feelings and motivations.  Taft’s position worth understanding.  He seems such an odd duck in American politics.  He’s a justice who became president to make TR and his wife happy – a strange role indeed.  Having Roosevelt turn on him so harshly, essentially costing the Republicans the 1912 election, confused and saddened Taft.

Though they’ve been dissected at great length, Roosevelt’s motives in the election remain foggy.  There’s some amount of anger at Taft, some amount of concern for the nation, and some amount of sheer egotism in there, for a start. I don’t know that Roosevelt knows what compelled him entirely, but it does make for fascinating reading.  Goodwin relates it all well.

She also brings in the writers at McClure’s magazine as a character.  She argues that Roosevelt made use of reporters in new ways to set the national agenda and advance his plan for the nation when presidents had little power to do so.  Her position is that the top-notch reporting on the excesses of capitalism formed the Bully Pulpit that allowed Roosevelt to make his trust-busting and corporate regulation aspirations into legislation.  Goodwin spends time showing both the people who made that reporting happen and their relation to the White House of the time.  It’s an interesting position and well articulated and defended; it makes Roosevelt’s later turn against the profession – he basically coins the disparaging term “muckraker” – more confusing.

Overall this is a wide-ranging and compelling exploration of an interesting time in American politics and journalism, framed by larger than life characters.  Well worth one’s time.

Strongly Recommended.

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