Big Men And Eager Beaver Journalists

By John Milton CooperMarch 7, 2014

Big Men And Eager Beaver Journalists

The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN’s standing with the reading public has brought huge drawing power to this book, as shown by its continuing presence high on the bestseller lists. Besides renown, Goodwin has also brought to the book the advantage of writing about what she knows best: politics. With the exception of a personal memoir about her love of baseball, all her books have been about politics and politicians. It began when, as a graduate student and White House intern, she became a confidant of President Lyndon Johnson. Her first book, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, remains one of the most insightful things written about that great and flawed leader. She holds a PhD in political science from Harvard and taught there for a time, but she has never gone in for the lifeless behavioral and quantitative outpouring that sadly afflicts that discipline. Instead, she has made the political the personal and vice versa, especially in her two most successful books, Team of Rivals, about President Lincoln and the people around him in the Civil War, and No Ordinary Time, about President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the people around them in World War II.

Goodwin’s gifts as a writer and her familiarity with American politics are on full display in this book. The opening third of it recounts the lives of its leading men, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, up to the time the first of them became president. Goodwin gives plenty of attention to their personalities and family lives, and both men’s wives, Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt and Helen Herron Taft, receive the attention they deserve. Each woman was an important presence in her husband’s life, although in opposite ways. Edith Roosevelt acted as a calming agent on her rambunctious spouse and kept out of the public spotlight as much as possible, unlike her irrepressible stepdaughter Alice. Helen Taft served as a political partner to her husband, liked mingling with people, and often goaded him to aim higher than he might have done otherwise. Predictably perhaps, she and Edith Roosevelt never liked each other.

It was a singular misfortune that Helen Taft suffered a stroke just months into her husband’s presidency, and although she recovered to a great extent, she could not play as big a role in his career as both of them wished, and which probably would have helped him. Other members of the family get attention, too, although I would have liked to see more about the Tafts’ three accomplished children: their older son, Robert, who became a senator and major conservative force in Republican politics; their daughter, Helen, who earned a PhD in history from Yale (her father’s and brothers’ alma mater) and taught and served as acting president at Bryn Mawr (her alma mater); and their younger son, Charles, who was mayor in Cincinnati and a reformer in Ohio politics.[1]

The cast of characters surrounding the principals comes in for much depiction as well, and greatest attention goes to the company of journalists whom TR (he hated being called “Teddy”) came to dub “muckrakers.” Their ringmaster was the gifted but unstable editor S. S. McClure, and his star performers included Ray Stannard Baker, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and, from a distance, William Allen White. They made a big political impact through their exposures of municipal and state-level political corruption, corporate fraud and manipulation, and the overweening power of big business. Their magazines, McClure’s and later The American Magazine, became the first national news medium and spawned a host of imitators. They and their activities can sometimes rival even TR for color and excitement.

The book’s subjects endow parts of it with a abundance of sheer entertainment value. Theodore Roosevelt is one of those characters in history about whom it is nearly impossible to write a dull book. His zest for life and incorrigible activism are notorious. One of his favorite phrases and watchwords was “crowded hour,” and his life seems to have consisted of nothing but crowded hours. Such a colorful, curiosity-filled, and, surprisingly to some, intellectually deep person acted like a magnet in attracting others endowed with similar traits. And though Taft may have lacked his friend’s appetite for physical activity, he was also a man of depth and gifts. His greatest misfortune as president was to succeed Roosevelt, the toughest of acts to follow in the White House, and then to precede Woodrow Wilson, who was his and Roosevelt’s intellectual equal and their superior in political luck. Afterward, Taft would become the most successful ex-president in the nation’s history, with nearly a decade of distinguished service as Chief Justice.

This book has an arresting title. “Bully pulpit” is perhaps the most overused phrase in American politics. It has become a cliché for the White House as a glorified soapbox, and its never-ending use makes people who follow politics automatically cringe. Also, anyone familiar with the purported coiner of the phrase knows that he had something different and more interesting in mind. I say “purported” because, as with other too-often used phrases, some have doubted whether these words really came from this person’s lips. Goodwin lays to rest any question about TR having coined the term. On the book’s first two pages, she tells the story of the new president reading a draft of his first message to Congress to a group of friends. “I suppose my critics will call that preaching,” one of the listeners recalled him saying, “but I have got such a bully pulpit.” So, hats off to Goodwin for establishing the provenance and prominence of the “bully pulpit” in TR’s era of the nation’s history.

Unfortunately, she does not follow this observation with a good account of what his presidential preaching amounted to. Naturally, he promoted his programs and defended his actions, as every president does. But TR had higher and broader aims. He wanted to awaken, enlighten, and inspire the public not just to address specific problems but also to elevate the tone and goals of public life. Goodwin does not discuss those greater purposes, nor does she point out that two subjects dominated his presidential preaching: one domestic and one international.

The domestic subject was national unity. Like other privileged people in the English-speaking world who had read Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and who had witnessed or heard about the Paris Commune of 1871, Roosevelt dreaded the dangers of upheaval and revolution that seemed to seethe like a volcanic mass among discontented lower classes. Unlike present-day conservatives who decry “class warfare,” however, he believed that the well-off were at least as guilty as the dispossessed of fomenting such strife, and he later equally damned “the greed of the haves and the envy of the have-nots.” Everyone must rise above self-interest, whether material or ethnic or racial, he argued, and devote oneself to the common good by embracing a sense of transcendent national purpose. In 1910, after leaving the White House, he borrowed from the journalist Herbert Croly the phrase “New Nationalism,” and that became his campaign slogan when he ran again for president two years later.

Earlier, while using his bully pulpit, he had preached on the need for America to play an involved, leading role in world affairs even more often than he had on unity at home. Actually, he saw domestic concord as both a necessity in itself and a means to fulfill America’s destiny on the global stage. Although Goodwin does not talk about this aspect of TR’s preaching, either, she does allow foreign affairs to play an oblique part in this book. She recounts how as a young historian and aspiring politician TR had interested himself in international matters and military subjects, and he owed his rise to the presidency to his battlefield heroism in a foreign war, the Rough Riders’s charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba in 1898. Taft got to be Roosevelt’s successor thanks to his work in the newly acquired transpacific colony of the Philippines, management of the army as Secretary of War, and service as TR’s diplomatic right-hand man. Ironically, foreign affairs was curiously absent in the 1912 campaign. Even though it came less than two years before the outbreak of World War I, only one candidate, TR, mentioned foreign affairs at all, and that was with a single, passing reference to the need for strong armed forces to enable the nation to play its proper role in the world.[2]


The author’s stature and literary gifts and the book’s subjects have gained for it not only success in the marketplace but also near-unanimous praise from reviewers. The only partial dissent has come from Nicholas Lemann, in The New Yorker. He voiced concern about excessive concentration on personal factors as opposed to larger political forces, and he raised a mild objection to the book’s length, observing that some of its pages accomplished the remarkable feat of making TR seem tedious. Those criticisms are worth mentioning because they point to flaws that make this book much less successful than Goodwin’s earlier works on Lincoln and the Franklin Roosevelts.

The book’s length is a problem, especially regarding TR. So much has been written about him — more, probably, than about any other president except Lincoln — it is tempting to amend Ecclesiastes’s “Of the making of books there is no end,” by inserting “about Theodore Roosevelt.” Authors have a tough time finding much new and fresh to say about him. And many of their books are overlong — something about this man encourages prolixity in those who write about him, especially when it comes to piling on the colorful anecdotes and snappy quotations.[3] Less about TR really would have been more in much of the book.

Yet tedium-inducing prolixity about him strikes me as a symptom rather than the cause of this book’s shortcomings, which come more from the book’s confused, unresolved purposes. Goodwin admits at the outset that her subjects grew on her. She started with TR but soon included his relations with the muckrakers, and then, to her surprise, she came to find Taft “a far more sympathetic, if flawed, figure than I had realized.” The resulting book does not hang together well. It consists of discreet, often not closely related parts. First come two lengthy pre-1901 biographies of TR and Taft, which take up nearly half the text. Next, there is an excursion into the muckrakers. Following that, an impressionistic treatment of TR’s time in the White House with glances at Taft’s assistance. Finally, less than a quarter of the way from the end, there is an account of Taft’s presidency, the break between the two men, and their titanic conflict. While this makes for enjoyable reading much of the time, there are stretches of tedium and little sense of dramatic development.

Although a reviewer should not chastise an author for not having written a different book, either the part on Taft’s presidency or that on his break with TR could have made a better book. Taft does not attract readers the way his predecessor does, but if anyone could draw them to him it would be Goodwin. There is precedent for such a feat. Goodwin’s one true rival in this field for reader appeal, David McCullough, originally planned to write about both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who similarly enjoyed close friendship and political collaboration, then had a bitter falling out, and at last reconciled and became fast, though strictly epistolary, friends again. But McCullough found Adams so appealing that he wrote about him alone and made him a figure of major interest once more. Taft deserves similar treatment. The last full biography of him appeared 75 years ago, and he deserves the elevation on the reading public’s horizons that widely celebrated writers such as McCullough and Goodwin can provide.[4]

The break between TR and Taft would have been an even better fit for Goodwin and would have allowed her to repeat the success of her Lincoln and FDR books. Each of those covered a four-year period dominated by a war. The rupture between the Damon and Pythias of TR and Taft, with its massive political fallout, likewise occurred during the four years of Taft’s presidency, and it culminated in intraparty strife that had all the earmarks of a war except physical violence (which may have occurred sporadically before and during the tumultuous 1912 Republican convention). If Goodwin had concentrated on that period and its events, she could have produced something resembling her earlier works. Instead, Taft’s presidency gets less fulsome treatment than it merits, and the great fights of 1912 come in for cursory recounting. This is a colossal missed opportunity.

Goodwin does touch on enough of the politics surrounding TR and Taft to show that even in the depths of their estrangement they almost never differed on fundamentals. Both were conservative reformers who sought to keep together a Republican party being torn asunder as increasingly obdurate conservatives fought increasingly irate progressives. Taft sided with the old guard, while TR chose to lead the insurgents, but they really differed only over tactics: was it better to batter away at blind reactionaries or stand fast against wild-eyed radicals? Both wanted to preserve what they found good in the polity, economy, and society, and both knew well the shortcomings of their own camps. TR coined the term “lunatic fringe” to describe some of his own supporters in 1912.

There is another pertinent point that Goodwin mentions but does not develop sufficiently, about their fight first for the Republican nomination that year and TR bolting to run as the nominee of his newly formed Progressive Party. This pushed them further apart politically than they had been before. Although TR suggested that he wanted to lead the insurgents so that he could, in a later generation’s term, “co-opt” them, he embraced many far-reaching programs to expand government intervention in economic and social life and became impatient and contemptuous of constitutional limitations. For his part, Taft spoke about preserving the Republican Party as “a nucleus for future conservative action.” Likewise, becoming the first sitting president to campaign publicly for reelection, he declared in one speech, “A National Government cannot create good times. It cannot make the rain to fall, the sun to shine, or the crops to grow.”

Such stress on governmental limitation was new to Republicans. With their origins in defending the Union during the Civil War, they prided themselves on being the party of a more powerful central government. Even the party’s conservatives of 1912, who pined nostalgically for the days of William McKinley, extolled government, which they saw as a partner with, not an adversary toward, business. (This would be the reigning Republican dispensation again in the 1920s.) Limited government and states’ rights views had been the credo of Bourbon Democrats and, as such, carried a taint of secession that made them anathema to Republicans. Such baggage notwithstanding, Taft’s remark offered a small straw in the wind that pointed toward the long march which would lead many Republicans a century later to proclaim themselves skeptics and even foes of government itself.

Goodwin’s cursory treatment of that year and almost exclusive concentration on TR and Taft also leave out Woodrow Wilson. He belongs in the story not only because he won the 1912 election, dashing any further White House hopes of TR and Taft, but also because he was such a perfect foil to TR. It helps to dig deeper than Goodwin does into TR’s personal motives for breaking with Taft and opposing his reelection. She emphasizes rightly that he was an ex-president at 50 — younger when he left the White House than all but eight other men have been when they entered it — and he could not stand no longer having the only job that had ever truly engaged his energies and talents.

But TR also bemoaned his own success in keeping the country peaceful and prosperous, and he envied Lincoln for having had the Civil War to make him a great president. With seductive prompting from insurgents and progressives, he convinced himself that the current conflicts between big business and ordinary people, and between bosses and reformers, ran as deep as the slavery sectional controversies that had ignited the Civil War. Either by wresting control of the Republicans away from conservatives or by leading a new crusade of responsible reformers, he believed he could assure national salvation the same way Lincoln and the original Republicans had done a half century earlier.

Because she does not explore that part of TR’s thinking, Goodwin also fails to note the weak point in his 1912 calculations (besides a lot of self-inflation and wishful thinking). He was expecting the Democrats to oblige him by nominating either someone tainted by connections to their big city machines or a Southerner stigmatized by memories of the Civil War (less than a half-century in the past). That would thereby open the way to victory for himself and his Progressives, or at least to making themselves a strong, lasting party as the original Republicans had done in 1856. The Democrats nearly granted TR his wish at their less fractious though agonizingly protracted convention, but in the end they nominated the one person most likely to frustrate his plans. Though a political newcomer, Wilson had racked up a stellar progressive record as governor of New Jersey, and before that he had been a leading writer and thinker about politics and a well publicized reforming president of Princeton. TR recognized that his best hope lay in impugning Wilson’s credentials as a progressive, which led him to attack the governor’s devotion to governmental power and intervention, in an effort to tar him with the brush of despised Bourbon Democrats.[5]

That move made this an election to remember for more than its heat and drama, which included an assassination attempt on TR. Wilson responded by easily refuting the Bourbon Democrat charge; he was and always had been as warm a devotee of big government as Roosevelt. Further, he mounted a counterattack in which he expounded his vision of the “New Freedom,” whereby government would intervene to maintain free, fair competition and keep open doors of opportunity and social mobility — today extolled as the “American Dream.” Thrown on the defensive, Roosevelt gave fuller exposition to his New Nationalism, which he had been expounding for the previous two years, again stressing the necessity to rise above self-interest and pursue lofty, unifying goals.

In a quotation that Goodwin does not include, one of her fondly depicted journalists, William Allen White, later did a great disservice to this de facto debate between TR and Wilson when he wrote, “Between the New Nationalism and the New Freedom was that fantastic imaginary gulf that has always existed between tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee.” That is dead wrong. Between them, these two men conducted the deepest-delving, most intellectually rich colloquy in American presidential politics. Nothing like it has come again since then. Failure to reach that level again has stemmed, I think, less from the qualities of mind and character of more recent presidents and contenders than from the kind of manipulation in campaigns afforded by money, advertising, and electronic and social media. This race between and TR and Wilson is as good as it gets.

The 1912 election is a well known event in the nation’s history, but it deserves to be better known still. It was a four-way race. Besides the three presidents, past (TR), present (Taft), and future (Wilson), it included the veteran Socialist nominee Eugene Debs, who combined fieriness and folksiness on the stump and garnered the largest share of the vote ever polled by a Socialist for president. All four of these candidates were men of great intellectual substance, and each expounded the basic philosophies behind their political stances: big government conservatism (anomalous though that may sound) for TR; big government liberalism for Wilson; the germ of small government conservatism (which has come to dominate Republican thinking today) for Taft; and democratic socialism for Debs. In some ways this was also an odd election. Despite its color and excitement, and the exalted intellectual level of the combatants, turnout barely rose from four years earlier. Nor did many votes appear to change. Wilson won by holding intact the normal Democratic minority vote (42 percent), though polling about 200,000 fewer votes than the previous nominee (William Jennings Bryan in his third and last race). TR and Taft split the normal Republican majority vote, with the larger half going to TR, but between them they polled about 100,000 fewer votes than Taft had gotten previously. The one surprise in the returns came with Debs, who doubled his total from four years before.[6]

To reiterate, this epic political battle and the four years that led to it would seem tailor-made for Goodwin’s gifts and could readily have led to another volume to stand alongside her Lincoln and FDR books. For whatever reasons, she chose not to follow that path, and more’s the pity. The book she has written has many virtues and can afford pleasure and enlightenment in the reading of it, but it can be a slog, and it falls far short of what it might have been.


[1] Taft’s brothers were also notable figures. His older half-brother Charles was a pillar of the Cincinnati business community, publisher of one of the city’s newspapers, and a financial angel behind “Will’s” public career. One younger brother, Horace, founded a boys’ boarding school in Connecticut, the Taft School, which both the president’s sons attended. The other younger brother, Henry, became a prominent New York attorney and founding partner of the prestigious firm Cadwallader, Wickersham & Taft.

[2] It needs to be noted that the same thing happened in the 1936 election, which came less than three years before the outbreak of World War II. The only candidate who mentioned foreign affairs, just once, was President Franklin Roosevelt, who avowed, “We are not isolationists except insofar as we seek to isolate ourselves completely from war.” A dyed-in-the-wool isolationist like Senator William E. Borah of Idaho or Senator Hiram Johnson of California would not have said it any differently. Obviously, this remark was no predictor of FDR’s pre–Pearl Harbor policies.

[3] Two recent examples of great length in writing about TR are Edmund Morris’s three volumes covering his 60-year life, the shortest of which is 766 pages covering the last decade of his life, and Douglas Brinkley’s The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (New York, 2009), which consumes 940 pages without treating his whole life. The most insightful and best-paced biography of TR is Kathleen Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life (New York, 2004).

[4] The best recent work on Taft is Lewis L. Gould, The William Howard Taft Presidency (Lawrence KS, 2009).

[5] On TR’s hopes and dreams see Patricia O’Toole, When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House (New York, 2005), esp. pp. 137-91.

[6] The best book on this election Lewis L. Gould, Four Hats in the Ring: The 1912 Election and the Birth of Modern American Politics (Lawrence KS, 2008. On the debate between TR and Wilson, see John Milton Cooper Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (Cambridge MA, 1983), pp. 187-227.


LARB Contributor

John Milton Cooper is an American historian, author, and educator and the author of a dozen books on 19th and 20th century American history. His most recent book is Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009).


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