Bully Pulpit shows historical roots of our own divided society

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The Bully Pulpit
By Doris Kearns Goodwin. Simon & Schuster, 910 pp, hardcover

At its core, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism is a story of friendship. A complicated friendship, to be sure, but one that bound two U.S. presidents together for nearly 30 years, and survived a bitter estrangement.

It’s also the story of the Progressive Era, which not so coincidentally flourished at exactly the same time. As leaders of the Progressive movement, Roosevelt and Taft introduced and guided much of the movement’s legislation to end political corruption, break up trusts, create workplace and consumer protection programs, and generally right the excesses of the Gilded Age.

However, as Goodwin (Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) shows, they didn’t do it alone. Presidents may have, in Roosevelt’s words, a “bully pulpit”—a wonderful position to advance their goals—but then, as now, successfully navigating the quagmire of Congress was a difficult proposition.

Fortunately for the Progressives, the rise of investigative journalism helped sway public opinion their way. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle galvanized the American public behind the Pure Food and Drug and Meat Inspection acts, and McClure’s Magazine, with its wildly influential staff of writers—Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, William Allen White, and Lincoln Steffens—created popular support for reform following in-depth probes of big business and political corruption. For one sweet spot in American history, it was a near-perfect storm of executive resolve, watchdog journalism, and public will.

In Goodwin’s capable hands, it’s a fascinating story. Despite a mountain of background exposition and legislative detail, the writing is crisp and lively, and the pace never lags. Framing the work around Roosevelt and Taft is a clever device, keeping the story personal and preventing it from drifting into an overly academic territory. As a former staffer for Lyndon Johnson, Goodwin understands the personal side of the presidency like few historians, and it shows. Hazily remembered historical figures become real people—the often caricatured Roosevelt is three-dimensional, full of strengths and flaws; and Taft has rarely been portrayed in such a sympathetic light.

Though friendship, its ups and downs and ultimate redemption, may underscore the narrative, The Bully Pulpit also serves as a cautionary tale. The conditions that created the Progressive movement, it’s obvious, also reflect our turbulent modern times: big business runs unchecked; government health and safety regulations are gutted; and there is an ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots.

The people of the early 1900s, for their part, had Roosevelt. The real question that arises from Goodwin’s book is: who will save us in the 21st century?

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