January 20, 2014

The Bully Pulpit

by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Following on from her magnificent group biography of Lincoln’s cabinet, Team of Rivals, Goodwin’s new volume looks at Teddy Roosevelt, his protégé William Howard Taft, and the talented group of journalists centered at McClure’s Magazine who were the engine the drove the Progressive movement.

Interestingly, this book views Roosevelt’s Progressivism more optimistically than other recent treatments, especially Edmund Morris’s Theodore Rex and James Chace’s 1912. It is interesting, too, to see the interplay between Roosevelt, the first real master of modern press relations, and a circle of brilliant, cynical, and committed journalists. At one point, struggling under the weight of letters, telephone calls, and White House visits from Upton Sinclair, Roosevelt begged Doubleday to “tell Sinclair to go home and let me run the country for a while.”

Like Taft himself, this book is ponderous – large in size and broad in scope — yet so intelligent and genial that it turns out to be remarkably good company. Goodwin is, I think, the only major historian of the period who truly likes Taft. The bones of tragedy are here: a great statesman betrayed by his disciple, a bitter-fought campaign between the two of them that hands the Presidency to the Democratic Party they both despised. Yet Taft did not much want the presidency, was not terribly distressed to lose it, and later he received the Supreme Court chair which was the only thing he had wanted all along.