Wow. Biography of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the best of the “muck-raking” investigative journalists all in one book! Doris Kearns Goodwin pulls this off by exploring the interaction of these three in promoting Progressivism in early twentieth century America. What Goodwin highlights in particular, justifying her title, was the skillful use of the “bully pulpit” of the presidency by Theodore Roosevelt, including the close relationships he developed with writers like William Allen White, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. By contrast, Taft, with a more judicial temperament, tended to allow his speeches and policies to speak for themselves.
Having read Edmund Morris’s three volume biography of Roosevelt recently, I did not find this book casting much new light on Roosevelt except that it seemed that Goodwin probably took a less favorable view of Roosevelt’s role in the breach of the friendship between him and Taft over the 1912 election where he ran against Taft.
What I found particularly illuminating in this book were the portraits of Taft and of the investigative journalists brought together by Sam McClure. Taft is from my home state and was more or less an unknown to me before this novel. Goodwin’s portrait not only underscores his strengths as a jurist and as an administrator, but also that this is a man whose friendship one would count as precious, as did Roosevelt until the break between them. Taft ably governed the Philippines after America’s victory in its war against Spain, putting down insurgencies and turning over government to the Filipino people, albeit an elite. He always wanted to sit on the Supreme Court more than wanting to be president and considered being named Chief Justice in 1921 the highest honor of his life. That he was elected president was a result as much as anything of Nellie Taft’s ambitions and Roosevelt’s orchestration. Sadly, Nellie was afflicted with stroke ten weeks into her husband’s term of office and never fully enjoyed being First Lady. It was Taft who initiated reconciliation with Roosevelt in 1918, less than a year before Roosevelt died, and he who stood quietly weeping at Roosevelt’s grave.
Equally fascinating was Goodwin’s account of the writers for McClures and Sam McClure himself, who took investigative journalism to a high point that may have been matched but probably not exceeded by others. Ida Tarbell’s work investigating the monopolistic practices of Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller represented years of careful tracking down of information, interviews with sources on all sides and an effort to achieve a balance of reporting that made the case against Standard Oil all the more convincing. Such reporting served as a valuable adjunct to Roosevelt’s reform efforts, creating the public support that enabled Roosevelt to fight business interests.
Because of the focus on the presidencies of Roosevelt and Taft, other aspects of their lives, and particularly their life after the presidency are covered in a more cursory manner than in a focused biography. But the relationship of presidents with the press is crucial to the effective use of presidential power, and thus, this is a landmark study with continuing relevance.