A dynamic history of the muckracking press and the first decade of the Progressive era as told through the intense friendship of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft--a close relationship that strengthens both men before it ruptures in 1912 when they engage in a brutal fight for the presidential nomination that cripples the progressive wing of the Republican Party, causing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to be elected, and changing the country's history.
Goodwin writes with a strong narrative feel and this book fairly charges along and is much easier, more enjoyable and faster(!) to read than its length might suggest.
I think the author's point is if it was possible to introduce all of this progressive legislation then it is possible now. We just haven't discovered how to do it yet.
TR's personality comes through as adventurer and master politician. Taft comes through as a loving, generous, gentle giant who twice refused appointment to the Supreme Court (his greatest desire) because he believed his efforts elsewhere were needed. In this book we also see the development of the power of the press and how a good politician could utilize that power.
This book was extremely informative, however it could have been just as informative without being so wordy. Several passages were repetitive and could easily been omitted.
In many ways, I found The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism reminiscent of Goodwin's excellent presentation of President Lincoln's unique approach to the Presidency and the personal qualities that shaped that successful strategy. In this work, a time of exciting change, danger and opportunity is the setting for unique, fascinating characters to make their respective marks on our national history in surprising and impressive ways. The accurate and thorough grounding in time and place serves as a mere backdrop to the actions of individuals within the narrative, or rather, the political situation is presented within the narrative as material that sets great human forces in motion. Of course, the context is ultimately of singular importance since only in the effects of actions related do we find the historical significance to the country. It's impressive to me that without undermining that context or giving it short shrift, Goodwin invites the reader to feel and perceive the actions of these great leaders on a personal level.
I am aware and should let you, my fellow readers, know that I may be attributing too much intention to Goodwin's crafting of the work. I haven't close read this book on any level; I swept through it. I describe its qualities based on what ultimately engaged my heart and mind completely -- the human drama -- and there was no dearth of material to substantiate that interest. It could be I've greatly overstated the particular emphasis on this element.
I recommend this book highly to any who are interested in the people or political situation involved; I knew only general information about this book's subject matter. For me, that made it even more of a purely pleasurable read than was Team of Rivals; I was happy to learn so much! I would especially encourage readers with a particular affection for reading dynamic historical biographies to try this book (and other work by Goodwin if you have not yet). Don't be intimidated by the book's heft; Goodwin is a clear writer who tells a seamless story in the context of a sophisticated analysis of the history.
I plan to read this book again at some point; I will do so more slowly so that I may pay greater attention to Goodwin's craft. This review will be updated with whatever more specific insights I pick up at that time. Please be advised that I received a free copy of this book through the Goodreads Giveaway program on the sole condition I would publish an honest review once I read the work.
Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts; I hope they are helpful to some of you.
Also a major part of the book is the story of muck-raking journalism. There was a time when good investigative journalism in this country roused public opinion against the powerful entrenched interests, and motivated politicians to make fundamental changes to benefit the masses. Of course, these were the days before Americans sat for hours mesmerized by glowing screens. The story of how the public was once mobilized behind McClure's magazine and writers such as Ida Tarbell, Ray Baker, and William Allen White was completely fascinating.
I highly recommend this book.
Not a full blown biography of either man, but one that tracks their rise to power initially in a parallel fashion which merges during the Presidency of Roosevelt, and then flies apart during the Presidency of Taft. The two men; Roosevelt, the scion of a rich New York family, born a sickly child who by the sheer will of his personality transformed himself into the "rough rider" we are all familiar with, and Taft, whose father was a successful businessman and public servant, who seemed less driven than Roosevelt, but who possessed a highly developed sense of what was right and wrong, and whose intelligence propelled his successful career, formed an unlikely though deep friendship that turned into deep enmity during the Presidential campaign of 1912.
Both men were part of the progressive wing of the Republican party, willing to impose regulations on businesses that used their influence in a way detrimental to the public good (trust busting), and who took up the cause of the working man proposing limits on the length of the work week, a raise in the minimum wage, and safety and health standards. Their eventual falling out came about as a result of the largely mistaken view on Roosevelt's part that President Taft was not carrying on this progressive legacy. During their careers both were the beneficiaries and targets of a new style of journalism - one that used investigative reporting to advocate for reforms in business and government to root out endemic corruption. This came to be known as muckraking.
Goodwin traces the rise of muckraking journalism - not a negative term at the time - as it rose during the careers of Roosevelt and Taft. Some of America's greatest journalists came out of this progressive tradition including most notably, Ida Tarbell. Focused largely on the journalists working at McClure's Magazine, one of the first and most successful of the muckraking publications Goodwin details the many ways in which both Roosevelt and Taft relied on the work these journalists were doing to provide the factual basis for the progressive policies they were pushing.This alliance produced some of the most progressive and far sweeping reforms of the twentieth century. And it also propelled Roosevelt into the top rank of U.S. Presidents. However, it also set an impossibly high standard for Taft to reach while he was President. So despite the fact he had some notable successes during his administration, by comparison, he looked like a failure in the eyes of Roosevelt and the Muckrakers, who turned on him with a vengeance in 1912.
I really enjoyed this book quite a bit. While many books have been written about Roosevelt and a fair number on Taft, there are few that have looked at them in tandem and that also included looked at the important role played by the media on their careers. It's an important aspect of the Progressive era that is usually overlooked.
Three things really struck me as I read this book. First, it really hits home how far the modern Republican Party has strayed from its roots. There have been, arguably, three Republican Presidents that are nearly universally acknowledged to be great - Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower - none of whom would be welcome in today's hyper-conservative party. Second, while Roosevelt deserves the acclaim he has received, he could also be petulant, hyper-sensitive to any perceived slight, and disloyal to formerly close friends, as evidenced by the way he turned on William Howard Taft. And last, I have a renewed respect for Taft who is caricatured in history as the bumbling fat man that squandered Roosevelt's accomplishments. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was highly accomplished prior to his time in the White House, was a more successful President than is usually acknowledged, and had a very distinguished career as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Like Goodwin's Team of Rivals, the deep profiles of the leading characters around the central figure (here, of course, it has to be Roosevelt despite the book's shared billing with Taft), gives a way of understanding TR that in most ways far surpasses other biographies, including Morris's. Millard's River of Doubt may surpass Bully Puplit in terms of its powerful storytelling, but not by much--which says a lot considering Goodwin's substantial page count.
Roosevelt and Taft were close friends from their early careers when Roosevelt was civil service commissioner and Taft the U.S. solicitor general. Their personalities contrasted sharply; Roosevelt the energetic, exuberant mover-shaker and Taft more cerebral and cautious, but with a warm personality that charmed everyone. Roosevelt skyrocketed to political supremacy through skill and fortune (McKinley's assassination). Taft was drawn to the judiciary until he was tapped to be governor-general of the Philippines, a role whose execution brought him much favorable attention. President Roosevelt tapped Taft to become his secretary of war and the men developed ever deeper political and personal ties. As Roosevelt was leaving office he promoted the presidential candidacy of Taft and played an active part in Taft's electoral success.
During Taft's tenure relations between the men began to sour. Roosevelt disagreed with many of Taft's priorities and edged toward seeking a third term in the 1912 election. Goodwin gives a sense that as much as the desire to return to public service Roosevelt was psychologically compelled by the lure of power and adulation that came with the presidency. The nomination process became quite acrimonious culminating in Taft's nomination and Roosevelt forming a third party -- the National Progressive Party also known as the Bull Moose Party. Roosevelt, who despite his "trust buster" image during his terms in office was fairly conservative on progressive issues, became in his quest for a third term quite a bit more radical on progressive issues. The Republican's bitter split resulted in the election of Wilson.
A parallel story in this book is a depiction of the two men's wives. Edith Roosevelt was devoted to her husband and family, but always uncomfortable with the social requirements of being First Lady. Nellie Taft was a social whirlwind, organizing the cultural scene in Washington until she suffered a stroke that limited her ability to speak. While always a strong advisor to her husband on political matters she was never able after the stroke to pursue the social aspect with as much vigor.
Goodwin's treatment brings together with the stories of the presidents the work of notable "muck raking" journalists of era. The journalists she features were the epitome of influential investigative reporters who raised public awareness and outrage about the negative impacts of the trusts -- Standard Oil, the railroad trusts and the financial barons of Wall Street -- and the pernicious corruption of machine-style politics. The mutual intertwining of interests and aims of the presidents (particularly Roosevelt) and these groundbreaking journalists is a major aspect of the book.
In telling the stories of Roosevelt, Taft and the muckrakers, Goodwin gives a vivid portrayal of the ethos of era. The growing disillusion with the trusts' excesses through concentration of wealth, their power over politicians and the oppression of the working classes by capitalist elites brought about a shift of sentiments from conservative to progressive ideology. What is amazing is how the issues that divided at the onset of the 20th century parallel the issues we hear about today: income inequality, influence purchased through money's place in the political process and contrasting philosophies on the role of government versus the market. Rather than the permanent "victory" of one particular ideological perspective on how our polity should best achieve equity and fairness for all we see a shifting of predominance of one over the other. In the progressive era chronicled in this book the predominance of unfettered market capitalism and the laissez faire attitude of government shifted toward increasing acceptance of governmental controls over the most egregious corporate abuses and a growing sense that government has a legitimate role in ensuring social welfare of the people. We have seen the same shifts throughout the 20th century and still into the 21st century. In the ever ongoing conflict between conservative and liberal ideologies, I suppose we can say that the conservatives dominate until their successes become too great while the liberals dominate until their failures become too great.
As with all of Goodwin's works, the research is deep and the writing is excellent. A highly recommended read.
Many historians and economists believed that powerful governmental regulation was needed to rationalize the structure of the economy in order to make it more just and equal. But the plutocrats who benefited from that economy would surely oppose such regulation--hence the need for a “Bully Pulpit” from which reformers were able to rouse public opinion to compel the government to adopt “progressive” policies. The bully pulpit’s principal practitioners were President Theodore Roosevelt, who coined the term, and the staff of McClure’s Magazine. Goodwin’s book focuses on them and on William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s immediate successor as President, who continued most of Roosevelt’s policies.
It is somewhat hard for the modern reader to appreciate the influence of investigative print journalism in the days before television and radio. Great orators could reach at most a few hundred people at time, but newspaper accounts and magazine articles could reach millions. Goodwin points out that “Investigative journalism…had assumed the proportions of a movement, exerting an influence on the American consciousness hardly less important than that of Theodore Roosevelt himself.” Magazines like McClure’s had become so politically significant that William Allen White quipped it was as if we had “Government by Magazine.” The staff of McClure’s became known as the “muckrakers” for all the dirt they turned up about American business and politics. [Parenthetically, muckraker originally was meant to be a term of abuse, but it became one of approbation because of the high quality and importance of the reporting at McClure’s.]
McClure’s ran serialized featured articles on many industries, frequently uncovering bribery, conflicts of interest, and unfair business practices rife therein. But of all their features, Ida Tarbell’s series on the Standard Oil Trust of John D. Rockefeller stands out as the most influential. Tarbell argued that the oil trust was built by “predatory” price cutting, intimidation of competition, and unfair practices such negotiating discriminatory railroad rates. Tarbell’s father was a small oil producer who ultimately “sold out” to Rockefeller. Goodwin seems to have accepted Tarbell’s view of the industry. Goodwin writes that Tarbell proved that Standard Oil would never have obtained its monopoly without “special transportation privileges.” And once it obtained market domination, “Rather than use this domination and the efficiencies of scale to reduce costs, Standard Oil sought to maximize profits.” The author seems completely unaware of John S. McGee’s 1958 study, Predatory Price Cutting: The Standard Oil (N.J.) Case that appeared in the Journal of Law and Economics (1 J.L. & Econ. 137, 1958). McGee showed convincingly that Standard Oil grew not so much by driving out the competition but rather by outright purchases of the competition, leaving the former competitors quite wealthy and Rockefeller with a virtual monopoly.
Goodwin sympathizes with Roosevelt, who believed the way to curb the power of the trusts was through detailed regulation. TR focused on behavior like “unscrupulous promotion, overcapitalization, unfair completion, resulting in the crushing out of competition…” He sought to enhance the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission, even to set railroad rates directly. She gives only passing reference to the Sherman Antitrust Act, which was already on the books before TR and the muckrakers and which prohibited “contracts and conspiracies in restraint of trade.” Later developments were to show that the Interstate Commerce Commission (since dissolved) became the least effective governmental agency for promoting economic efficiency, while the Sherman Act became the government’s most powerful weapon against monopoly.
Quibbles about her version of economics aside, the author writes well about the politics of the era. In writing the book she found that Taft “was a far more sympathetic, if flawed, figure than I had realized.” He had been a highly respected federal judge, and the author of an important antitrust, antimonopoly opinion, Addyston Pipe and Steel v. U.S. (175 U.S. 211, 1899). He had also served with considerable distinction as Governor General of the Philippines and as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War. But even though Roosevelt himself designated Taft as his successor, Taft was emotionally more disposed to be a judge than an executive. His presidency was only partially successful. He attempted to follow Roosevelt’s progressive policies, but he was stymied by the conservative wing of his own (Republican) party.
The author goes well beyond the story of public edification and subsequent enactment and enforcement of progressive regulation, and in a sense, this volume is two books in one: one part political and economic history; and a second part personal biography. Goodwin includes a great deal of minutiae about the childhoods, early lives, and later familial relationships of her protagonists. I found myself more interested in the history than the personalities, but Goodwin has sold a lot of books by detailing the personal lives of historical figures. [Cf. Team of Rivals.]
In addition, most of the focus of the story is on domestic politics, and even there, you find practically nothing about Roosevelt’s conviction that whites were the superior race, and that they should try to outbreed other races lest they commit “race suicide.” Goodwin loves her subjects, and mostly endeavors to show them in the best light.
Evaluation: In terms of my personal taste, I think I would have liked this book more if it had less biographical tidbits and if it had been subject to the scrutiny of a good antitrust lawyer or economist. Nonetheless, it is worth reading, and most readers will probably appreciate and enjoy all the personal details about Roosevelt and Taft, and about the importance of their relationship with one another.
Aside from the great entertainment offered by a portrait of great personalities, I loved learning about the Progressive Age, the brief spate of correction to the excesses of the first Gilded Age, when American politicians first talked seriously about the government's obligation to provide a social safety net and to rein in the power of the greatest corporations. Today, when even the politicians of the Left lean right, it's refreshing to read about a time when the politicians of the Right leaned left. This is a book to get lost in, partly for fun, and partly for rebalancing.
The book also tells the story of how investigative journalism first came into its own at the dawn of the 20th Century and how Roosevelt (and, to a lesser extent, Taft) enlisted its practitioners to advance their own reform agenda.