THE BULLY PULPIT. By Doris Kearns Goodwin. Simon & Schuster. 928 pages. $40.
Perhaps only Abraham Lincoln has seduced more historians than Theodore Roosevelt. With few exceptions, Roosevelt's biographers have celebrated him as a popular war hero, an unapologetic nationalist and a rugged outdoorsman: just the kind of magnetic and masculine leader the nation needed at the tumultuous turn of the 20th century.
The latest historian to take on Roosevelt is Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose prize-winning books about other imposing subjects such as Lincoln and the Kennedys make her a likely candidate to offer a fresh perspective on Roosevelt.
Goodwin's "The Bully Pulpit" is named for Roosevelt's famous phrase describing the U.S. president's ability to shape public opinion. Goodwin's take on Roosevelt's mastery of the bully pulpit is at once a comparative biography of Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and a collective biography of some of the people who most influenced the two men.
A cast of investigative journalists surrounded the two presidents and helped to shape their reform agendas. Among them were Sam McClure, the eccentric founder of McClure's magazine; Ida Tarbell; Lincoln Steffens; William Allen White; Ray Stannard Baker; and Archie Butt, a friend and aide to both Roosevelt and Taft whose death in the Titanic disaster in April 1912 eliminated one of the few remaining bonds between the two men.
Focusing on the people around Roosevelt and Taft, Goodwin argues, "illuminates" new and interesting things about the two men's longtime friendship and their falling out shortly after Taft succeeded Roosevelt in the White House. While Goodwin is not the first to mine the voluminous correspondence of Roosevelt and Taft, her focus on their feelings for one another, revealed through conversations in candid letters to friends and family, is revealing.
Taft's good-hearted nature becomes clear in his reluctance to say anything negative about his old friend, even at the height of tensions between the two men in 1912, when Roosevelt tried and failed to block Taft's renomination as the Republican candidate for president.
Roosevelt, on the other hand, openly mocked Taft. When asked during the campaign for a comment on President Taft, Roosevelt shot back, "I never discuss dead issues."
While Goodwin's insights into the personalities of Roosevelt and Taft are compelling, the real strength of the book lies in her contention that journalists such as Steffens and Tarbell helped shape Roosevelt's reform agenda. While scholars have long acknowledged the roles investigative journalists (later dubbed "muckrakers" by Roosevelt himself) played in revealing corporate corruption and influencing public opinion in favor of government intervention, Goodwin describes how specific work, such as Tarbell's expose on Standard Oil, directly influenced Roosevelt's response.
Goodwin describes Roosevelt's extensive correspondence with these journalists, revealing that he knew them intimately and often consulted with them privately on difficult policy issues, sometimes through correspondence but also in face-to-face meetings at the White House. More than Roosevelt's force of personality or even his insatiable appetite for attention, this, Goodwin suggests, was the reason for Roosevelt's mastery of the bully pulpit.
He was the first American president to appreciate the power of public opinion and to treat reporters as advisers, understanding all too well how vital both were to the success of a bold reform agenda that targeted some of the most powerful and entrenched forces in America.
While Goodwin offers a fresh perspective on her characters, her analysis of Progressive-era America ignores the more unseemly side of the period. Goodwin serves up the Progressive Era with a generous heaping of sentimentality, describing it as a positive period of transformation and "a national movement to apply an ethical framework, through government action, to the untrammeled growth of modern America." This romantic assessment ignores the most infamous reforms of the age.
During the Progressive Era, Southern white reformers passed disfranchisement amendments under the guise of electoral reform, stripping African Americans of their constitutional rights. Other Progressive reformers championed sterilization campaigns under the influence of eugenics, the pseudoscience of selective breeding. Still others instituted chain gangs, which supposedly rehabilitated prisoners but instead brutalized them. To the detriment of her book, Goodwin never acknowledges the troubling legacies of Progressive reform to which Roosevelt and Taft both contributed.
Similarly, Goodwin whitewashes the story of U.S. imperialism. In her detailed account of Taft's role in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), Goodwin scarcely mentions the bloody suppression of Filipino nationalism that tested public support for America's imperial agenda back home. Despite Taft's courtesy towards his Filipino subordinates while serving as governor-general in Manila, he was devoted to the racial politics of imperialism, immortalized in Rudyard Kipling's famous poem, "The White Man's Burden."
It was Taft who coined the paternalistic description of Filipinos as "little brown brothers" whom the United States had a duty to educate and civilize before entrusting them with their own government. In Goodwin's evaluation of the good-hearted Taft, however, his willingness to invite Filipinos into the governor's mansion absolves him of any criticism for his role in perpetuating colonial oppression.
Goodwin is often so forgiving of her characters that they appear to us as familiar caricatures. Taft is too nice a man to succeed in the rough-and-tumble world of politics. Roosevelt is the hero with a dynamic personality who is prone to fits of petulant outrage, jealousy, and anger when challenged on national affairs. And other figures are stereotypical Horatio Algers: men and women who triumph over adversity even when, like Roosevelt, they are born with silver spoons in their mouths.
In this sense Goodwin knows her audience well: Readers do not want to be disabused of the notion that Taft's oversized generosity matched his physical proportions (about which he often joked) or that Teddy Roosevelt was a plucky and courageous patriot. Such characterizations are possible only because Goodwin accepts her subjects at face value and describes them in terms that they themselves tried hard to cultivate.
For those new to Roosevelt, Taft and the Progressive Era, "The Bully Pulpit" is a good place to start. It provides a thorough overview of national politics at the dawn of the 20th century and contains an important argument about the role of journalism in shaping presidential legacies. Certainly, historical perspective on the personal and professional relationships between the press and presidents is one that can help us better understand how our modern media functions in national politics today.
But, for the most part, "The Bully Pulpit" tells us a story we already know and ignores decades of scholarship on Progressivism and Imperialism, both critical contexts for the story Goodwin seeks to tell.
Reviewer Tammy Ingram is a professor of history at the College of Charleston.