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

By Doris Kearns Goodwin

Simon & Schuster

960 pages, $40

By Edward Cuddihy

News Book Reviewer

Doris Kearns Goodwin has done it again.

The author of the universally acclaimed “Team of Rivals” has written another exhaustive, insightful and riveting book on the U.S. presidency at a crucial juncture in our nation’s history.

And again, this massive undertaking features the unique Goodwin touch: The inner struggle between two strong, resolute, yet utterly diverse protagonists.

In much the same way “Rivals” pitted Abraham Lincoln against his quarrelsome Cabinet, Goodwin’s latest book pits the dissimilar styles and personalities of two American presidents against each other.

In “Bully Pulpit,” it’s the bombastic and all-conquering personality of Theodore Roosevelt on a collision course with the staid, even, judicious temperament of his successor and bosom friend William Howard Taft.

Both men expressed the highest regard for the other in words as well as actions. In fact, each man played the pivotal role in the other’s winning presidential campaign.

But when ego and the politics of the day eventually drove a wedge between them, the result was personally bitter and politically catastrophic.

The ferocity of the Roosevelt-Taft fission polarized the nation, fractured the Republican Party and led to Democratic control of both houses of Congress for the first time in a quarter century, and then to the election of the first Democratic president in 20 years.

In Goodwin’s hands, the fates of these two presidencies revolve around their use or disuse of the presidential Bully Pulpit. The Bully Pulpit becomes the metaphor for dynamic presidential leadership, the symbol of one man and the perdition of the other.

Despite nearly identical political philosophies and nearly matching visions for the country, history has judged Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency as largely successful and Taft’s as a modest failure, although Goodwin goes some way to dispel that popular assessment.

Roosevelt probably was among the least prepared men to become president. He might be called the double-accidental president. William McKinley agreed to put Roosevelt on the national ticket only in response to pleadings from the New York City Republican machine which wanted the truculent Roosevelt out of its hair, and out of their state.

And then nearly a week after President McKinley was fatally injured by a young anarchist while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, Vice President Roosevelt still was hunting in the Adirondacks, as far from the affairs of state as possible.

Roosevelt was a 42-year-old radical, a firebrand, a loose cannon, yet he had that illusive quality we call leadership. He named the Bully Pulpit. In fact, he owned it.

Taft, on the other hand, was as prepared for the presidency as a man could be. He had been charged with “keeping a lid” on Washington for long stretches during the Roosevelt presidency. He had criss-crossed the nation extolling Roosevelt’s agenda in 1908, and had been de facto president of the Philippines. But the Bully Pulpit? He never saw it.

We’ve seen the same phenomenon in our lifetime. For all his human frailties, Bill Clinton had it, and for all his intelligence and hard work, Jimmy Carter didn’t. Ronald Reagan had it; George H.W. Bush didn’t.

There is a third protagonist in this drama. Goodwin hints at it in her subtitle: “Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.”

Historian Goodwin is referring to the much-maligned muckrakers as personified in the handpicked staff of Samuel S. McClure’s magazine, the high-end periodical that reached the pinnacle of investigative reporting in America before bankrupting its owner.

Today, muckraking often is confused with the so-called yellow journalism of that era. In fact, the original muckrakers were the elite of the investigative reporters. They spent months unraveling the complex webs of corruption permeating many of this country’s top institutions.

And just as FDR learned to use the new medium of radio, JFK learned to use TV, and Barack Obama learned to use the new e-media, Teddy Roosevelt was a master at using the muckraking periodicals and their investigators.

The president would leak tips on government involvement in public corruption to McClure’s staffers and in return, the reporters would turn over to the White House reams of evidence on corruption in the nation’s corporate suites. Roosevelt went as far as to tell muckrakers to investigate companies for him.

It was this behind-the-scenes teamwork that busted the Rockefeller Standard Oil Trust, the Harriman railroad monopoly and the financial shenanigans of John Pierpont Morgan. The major difference between the original muckrakers and today’s 24-7 talking heads is that the muckrakers didn’t let ideology get in the way of a good story.

They might be described as “equal-opportunity muckrakers.” They uncovered corruption in corporations as well as in labor halls. They exposed Wall Street kickbacks to both Democratic and Republican machines. And the incorrigible Roosevelt went after all comers.

Eventually, a swarm of copycat hacks moved in, and they and their shoddy work, with their preconceived villains and heroes, their silly sentiment and affected righteousness, became the trademark of what we know today as yellow journalism.

Goodwin breathes life into Roosevelt’s epic battle against the oil, railroad and meatpacker trusts. Such a topic might lead to terminal narcolepsy in the hands of a lesser author, but Goodwin leaves the reader turning the pages, waiting for the next shoe to drop.

The book is thoroughly detailed – about 750 pages of text and nearly 200 pages of notes and references – but it never bogs down in side issues. Goodwin displays a special talent for never letting a chapter or an event reach an ending without generating in her reader an anticipation of the next chapter or next event.

She is at her narrative best when Col. Roosevelt returns from his triumphant post-presidential African sojourn wishing he could disavow his no-third-term pledge. He told a friend he would be “willing to cut off the hand at the wrist” if he could rescind that pledge.

He is deeply disappointed in the man he chose to succeed him in the White House for what he perceives as Taft’s dismantling of the Roosevelt legacy. Goodwin is not in full agreement with that assessment.

In fact, the Republican Party was imploding. Roosevelt, through sheer force of will – that Bully Pulpit – had forced his party to accept his progressive agenda, but in his absence, the Old Guard was wresting back control of the party, returning it to corporate America, the people who paid the bills.

But the genie was out of the bottle. The Progressives were not to be denied. The Republican convention in Chicago that summer and the ensuing 1912 campaign and election are seen by many as the most contentious and chaotic in our history.

If the reader closes his eyes, he can almost see Doris Kearns Goodwin sitting at a PBS roundtable with colleagues Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith, excitedly analyzing last week’s convention or last night’s election.

When denied his party’s nomination, Roosevelt, claiming delegate fraud, broke away with more than a third of the convention delegates and formed what would become the Bull Moose Party. The nomination went to President Taft. Never before had an ex-president actively campaigned against a sitting president of his own party. It was not pretty.

Not only was the Republican vote split between Roosevelt and Taft, but for the only time in our history, the third-party candidate, Roosevelt, outpolled the regular party candidate, Taft.

The result was a plurality for college professor and political newcomer Woodrow Wilson. The GOP would not regain the White House until after World War I. Many of Roosevelt’s and Taft’s signature initiatives would be enacted by Democrat Wilson. A few would await another Democrat, Roosevelt’s distant cousin Franklin Delano.

Somehow, through this political chaos and upheaval, Goodwin keeps at least four distinct story lines moving forward until they burst simultaneously in the shattering defeat of both Roosevelt and Taft.

Theodore Roosevelt, for all his faults and foibles – and they were multitudinous – is larger than any single book or presidential historian.

But whether the colonel is a new interest of yours, or you are one of those TR aficionados who has devoured thousands of pages of Teddy Roosevelt, you owe it to yourself to read this one. Goodwin’s take on this tumultuous time is one not to be missed.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.