With the soul of America at stake, Teddy Roosevelt formed a rough alliance with crusading journalists to battle for workers’ rights and a better nation for everyone. Their foes were a familiar group: the vested interests of big corporations and their trusts. In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism” (ISBN: 9781416547860), the skirmishes are exciting even if the writing is tepid.
Almost from the very beginning of the first page of the Preface, the story of “The Bully Pulpit” is made clear:
In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, an immense gulf had opened between the rich and the poor; daily existence had become more difficult for ordinary people, and the middle class felt increasingly squeezed. Yet by the end of Roosevelt’s tenure in the White House, a mood of reform had swept the country, creating a new kind of presidency and a new vision of the relationship between the government and the people.
The next 750 pages tell that story and hint at the reasons why the struggle continues now, more than a century later. The era of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft was a significant period of our nation and one that resonates today, if only we would learn from it.
The sheer number of facts assembled for the book is impressive, and Doris Kearns Goodwin is to be lauded for her work, yet her writing is curiously limp and the lack of passion in the prose is vexing — especially when you consider the importance of the topic and the fascination many of us have for T.R. as a working person’s crusader as well as for his intriguing attempt to start a progressive political party.
You might expect something more laudable from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author but Goodwin’s Pulitzer isn’t for literature — her category was History when she won in 1995 for her “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II”). Perhaps all her books contain mere recitation of facts rather than insightful analysis and/or dynamic saga. I haven’t read any of the others and based on this one I don’t intend to do so. It is disappointing to have to say this but time and time again Goodwin fails to electrify readers in a tale that is otherwise full of interest. Still, it is stimulating to read passages dealing with T.R. calling for such things as:
greater regulation of interstate corporations, prohibition of child labor, enforcement of an eight-hour workday, strengthening of workmen’s compensation, the establishment of a postal savings system, and an inheritance tax. “The danger to American democracy lies not in the least in the concentration of administrative power in responsible and accountable hands,” he argued. “It lies in having the power insufficiently concentrated, so that no one can be held responsible to the people for its use.” What might have been interpreted as “an infringement upon liberty” before the Industrial Revolution and the rise of massive corporations “may be [the] necessary safeguard of liberty today.”
T.R.’s National Progressive Party (the “Bull Moose Party,” 1911-1912 or so) also called for women’s right to vote, a living wage, and “a system of social insurance designed to protect citizens against ‘the hazards of sickness … involuntary unemployment, and old age’ to which employers and employees would both contribute.”
“Surely there never was a fight better worth making than the one in which we are engaged,” Roosevelt proclaimed. “Whatever fate may at the moment overtake any of us, the movement itself will not stop.” Indeed, it continues now in the work of crusaders like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Absolutely amazing throughout much of the story are the uncanny parallels between Teddy’s battles and our nation’s current struggles against the troglodytes of conservatism. If only the writing had the oomph necessary to make this the monumental work it obviously wanted to be.
One reason things just kind of plod along in “The Bully Pulpit” is Goodwin’s decision to make the scope of the book so overly broad. Yes, that’s a bad joke, but there’s no getting around the fact that it is distracting and pointless to continually read about Taft’s attempts to keep his weight under 300 pounds. Having tons of details about many peripheral characters also slows things down needlessly. (One can’t help remembering Jon Stewart gently admonishing Goodwin about the sheer size of her book when she appeared on “The Daily Show.”)
Perhaps Goodwin felt that the facts themselves were compelling enough to propel a reader through the thirty-seven score pages of her tome. The main socio-political issues — income inequality and the deck being stacked against the vast majority of the population — are almost always shunted to one side in order to concentrate on the outsized personality of T.R. and the disintegration of his friendship for the outsized Taft. It is a sad tale:
Roosevelt had thrown all his inexhaustible energy behind the drive to make Taft president… He had edited Taft’s speeches, relayed a constant stream of advice, and corralled his own immense bloc of supporters behind Taft’s candidacy. When Taft was elected, Roosevelt reveled in the victory, both delighted for a “beloved” friend and confident that America had chosen the best man suited to execute the progressive goals Roosevelt had championed–to distribute the nation’s wealth more equitably, regulate the giant corporations and railroads, strengthen the rights of labor, and protect the country’s natural resources from private exploitation.
Those superb goals have been on the progressive agenda from the early 1900s but have been continuously obstructed by conservatives of every stripe and odor. Steps forward have occurred during the presidencies of T.R.’s fifth cousin, FDR, and to a certain extent, Obama, but faced with neo-cons, know-nothings, tea baggers, and the GOP’s huge moron base, getting the American people to live up to the nation’s potential is damn hard work.
Tired and True Story
Before Taft emerged as a lily-livered compromiser and appeaser, T.R. appeared to the world as a demi-god bull-in-the-china-shop. And a lucky thing, too, as there was much about the era to abhor as:
corporate consolidation had produced more than a thousand new mergers, including the creation of the world’s most colossal trust, United States Steel. And every passing week heralded new combinations, stirring fear in small businessmen and consumers alike. Across the country, mergers brought absentee ownership, disregard for working conditions, higher prices, and lower wages.
Power of the Press
One of the main thrusts of the book is how T.R. was able to effect positive change in America because of “the massive persuasive capacity of the press to stir public resolve and exert pressure on otherwise unassailable insiders.”
For good reason Goodwin refers to the era as the Golden Age of Journalism, including the important contributions of the “muckrakers” themselves, an extraordinary group of individuals who produced a stunning amount of superb work in book form as well as in the pages of magazines such as McClure’s, American, and Collier’s.
During this period, Ida Tarbell documented John D. Rockefeller’s illegal monopolization of the oil industry in “The History of the Standard Oil Company.” Ray Stannard Baker wrote “Following the Color Line” and numerous articles focusing on racial issues. Lincoln Steffens exposed political corruption, graft, and abuse of power in “The Shame of the Cities.” William Allen White won a Pulitzer for his writing on behalf of free speech. Burton Hendrick examined the slow death of genuine business competition in “The Age of Big Business.” Jacob Riis was a pioneer of photojournalism with “How the Other Half Lives.”
George Kibbe Turner did important work despite his editors going overboard with some of the headlines (“The Daughters of the Poor: A Plain Story of the Development of New York City as a Leading Centre of the White Slave Trade of the World, under Tammany Hall” was one of his pieces for McClure’s). Will Irwin’s magazine pieces included a take-down of patent medicines, “The Great American Fraud,” and he wrote a book entitled “Propaganda and the News: Or What Makes You Think So?”
Still studied today are two important works: Frank Norris’ “The Octopus,” a novel that exposed the despicable actions of monopolistic railway corporations, and Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” which so shocked readers about the unsanitary conditions in the meat-packing industry that the result was creation of governmental reforms that led to the Food and Drug Administration.
But this raises an important question: does our current era lack writers, journalists, investigators and reporters of similar stature? It is tempting to say so considering the lack of new reforms and the caving in to the rapacious desires of those who seek to poison us for profit (hello Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Exxon, and the Koch brothers, among others). But excellent reporting is available — the problem is that we as a people refuse to act on it.
Week in and week out, you can find excellent writing that discusses or exposes GOP perfidy on behalf of their corporate masters. Story after story is printed or broadcast about the way conservative organizations pervert our educational system, disrupt our social safety net, and commit economic rape upon the middle class.
The list of superb scribes includes E.J. Dionne, Tina Dupuy, Will Durst, Melissa Harris-Perry, Jim Hightower, Michael Hiltzik, Ezra Klein, Steve Kornacki, Charlie Pierce, Robert Reich, Eugene Robinson, Matt Taibbi, and Joan Walsh, to name just a few.
Taking the comedic approach to combatting conservative treachery are Andy Borowitz, Stephen Colbert (“The Colbert Report”), The Daily Show, and Gerry Trudeau (“Doonesbury”). On television are several fact-based commentary shows, of which Rachel Maddow’s is consistently wonderful while the Bill Maher (“Real Time”), Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Hayes, and Ed Schultz programs frequently approach her level.
In addition, important books like Chris Mooney’s “The Republican Brain,” Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein’s “It’s Even Worse than it Looks” and Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “Rule and Ruin” are readily available.
But does America respond to all of this important work? Not very often. Is the public outraged by what these writers and broadcasters reveal? Doesn’t appear so. Is there a groundswell of support for reason and science and ideas and compassion and proven policies? No. When right-wing nut jobs obstruct legislation, do Americans rise up in anger and punish the GOP? Nothing like that appears to happen. Instead, millions are buying into the lies and cuckoo drivel of the Faux News whores and the vast plethora of RWNJ radio bloviators.
Considering the achievements of both Roosevelts in fighting conservative chicanery, it is ironic that the GOP knuckle-draggers are correct in saying that some things were better in the past.
Throughout the book, Goodwin makes the assumption that her readers will be comfortable when she tosses in names like Tammany Hall without any explanation. Only after many pages does it begin to be revealed that Tammany stands for the patronage-driven organized thievery that once tied up New York in much the same way that the railroads and slum lords oppressed the working class across the country.
Similarly, she offers little in the way of delineating the differences between yesterday’s republican and democratic parties and those of today. Reasonable people might assume that “republican” means “vile” the way it does now but the reality during 1890 to 1910 was a bit more complex. This lack of explication is astonishing for a historian.
It would have been so much more worthwhile if this had been a dramatic work rather than being so dry. Still, it is gratifying to be given a ringside seat at some of the last-century clashes for the soul of the United States as Teddy Roosevelt teamed up with crusading journalists to fight for what we now recognize as the 99 percent. Then, as now, America’s foes were a familiar group: the vested interests of big corporations and their collaborators. Teddy and the self-confessed “muckraking” journalists won a lot of skirmishes but one glance at current conservative perfidy and you can see that the war continues.
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More information on the book (publisher’s website): http://books.simonandschuster.com/Bully-Pulpit/Doris-Kearns-Goodwin/9781416547860 .
Doris Kearns Goodwin interview:
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This original review is Copr. © 2014 by John Scott G and originally published on PublishersNewswire.com – all commercial and reprint rights reserved. No fee or other consideration was paid to the reviewer, this site or its publisher by any third party for this unbiased article. Editorial illustration based on book jacket created by Christopher L. Simmons. Reproduction or republication in whole or in part without express permission is prohibited except under fair use provisions of international copyright law.