The Bully Pulpit

bullypulpThe Bully Pulpit:
Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism
by Doris Kearns Goodwin
2013/ 928 pages
rating: ___/US history – 19th/20’th century

I’ve come to understand through reading and reading that one should pay careful attention to the titles and introductory material of non-fiction because that’s where the authors *usually* state somewhat more explicitly what the book is going to be about than in the actual first section of the title.   This is exactly the case with The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism in which Kearns sets out to explore, NOT the biographies of Roosevelt and Taft in general, but their relationship to the press and how that affected American Progressivism of the early 20th century. The whole title has a broad scope giving Goodwin lot of territory to cover.

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin

In the Preface Kearns tries to explain the meaning of “Bully Pulpit,” but I’m still not sure if the word “bully” means the adjective “good” or “wonderful” (as in the British usage) or if it means  “pushy and mean”  as in the noun of the current school-yard.  I suspect Roosevelt meant it in the British sense when he  said  “‘I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit.’  ”  (Kindle).  

I suspect the publisher’s liked the idea of the school-yard type bully in the title.  Goodwin might have enjoyed the ambiguity –

But the point is that Roosevelt carefully developed his relationship with the press and that aspect is specifically addressed in the sub-title –  “…the Golden Age of Journalism.”

“Roosevelt understood from the outset that this task hinged upon the need to develop powerfully reciprocal relationships with members of the national press.”


Theodore Roosevelt and family

So rather than starting Chapter 1 with the childhood or background of Roosevelt or Taft, as a normal biography would do, Goodwin starts with Roosevelt’s coming home reception after a time in Africa. The focus of this opening chapter, “The Hunter Returns,”  is his welcome by the press and Roosevelt’s attention to them.


William Taft and family

Chapters 2 and 3 give nice little biographical sketches of the early years of Roosevelt and Taft, through their early careers including Roosevelt’s early ideas of the press and politics.  Chapter 4 gives the background on Nellie Herron Taft – an amazing woman and Chapter 5 does the same with Edith Carow Roosevelt. Chapter 6 continues a compare and contrast element between Taft and Roosevelt in their early careers in anti-corrupuption work,  and their meeting in Washington, but is still pretty biographical – a bit dry.

The book really takes off in Chapter 7 when we meet the founder of McClure’s Magazine,

Sam McClure

Sam McClure

Sam (S.S.) McClure.  This material is new and rather exciting for me in part because it really develops prior knowledge of that “turn of the century” (broadly speaking) era with a focus on the politics and journalism.

I thought my interest might let up after McClure, but then the narrative got  to Ida Tarbell in the same chapter.  Yes, of course I’ve heard of her and her exposés,  especially of the Rockefeller stories,  but I really knew nothing of her life,  not specifically like Goodwin is relating.

This chapter is so full of historical figures and events I’ve read smatterings  about elsewhere (and quite a few I’d not met prior), so I’m able to hook into and expand on what I’ve got.  It also makes me want to know more about material which is likely outside the scope of this volume.

Ida Tarbell

Ida Tarbell

Finally in this same chapter (yes, still 7) is some background on the causes and underpinnings of the Progressive Movement to which Roosevelt and Taft later subscribed in their own ways.  The monopolistic oil and railroad corporations, rampant government and corporate corruption (this was NOT corruption to those who practiced it as it wasn’t against the law yet),  property laws in general (fits in with Dewey and his fight for academic freedom) and  the high protective tariffs are all touched on lightly as are the personalities and backgrounds of  McClure’s core reporters,  Tarbell,  Lincoln Stevens, William Allen White, and Ray Stannard Baker .  These folks with a few others”would become the heart of the muckraking movement.”  (p. 200 – Kindle)

The whole book doesn’t continue with information presented as densely as it is in Chapter 7 but it continues to be fascinating – Taft in There are places where the narrative is repetitive – who said “like a boy on roller skates”? Or was it said by more than one person?   There are places where Goodwin gets carried away with her quest for the telling detail –  and the reader gets a wee bit bored.  There are places where her preference for Taft shows through – perhaps understandably.  So although this is by no means a perfect book – it’s a great one –

TR-teddy_2There were lots of political cartoons about Roosevelt over the years but most showed him in good light following the successful negotiations between the railroad trust (J.P. Morgan) and the union.  The National Parks Service has a nice little article about this and the “Teddy Bear.”

The Notes section is a marvel (I guess the author Teddy_Bearlearned) although it’s technically cumbersome in the Kindle version (I had to bookmark it and use the quote marks in the narrative). This is a developing area in ebook nonfiction, I think – not on Goodwin! Interesting to note that The Imperial Cruise by James Bradley is used as a source –

And a film may be in the making:

Chapters 8 and 9 explore Roosevelt’s time in charge of  the Spanish American War Rough Riders,  the Dept of the Navy, and the New York City police force as well as the Governor of New York State.  During this process his political position moved from a normally conservative, laissez faire type of upper class businessman to that of a Progressive,  but he didn’t change his party so there were fights.  Goodwin presents this clearly and easily.  It’s sometimes hard these days to see the Republicans as progressives but this is when they changed from the party of Lincoln to the party of Coolidge (or Hoover).  The Republican “boss” (head of the state Republican machine) Thomas Collier Platt,  apparently regarded “altruism” as the equivalent of socialism. (p. 247)  Does that sound like today??? (heh)

And so it goes, Goodwin alternates personal stories of the two men and their families with the political episodes, that cuts the dryness of all the tariff talk. And there are the interwoven adventures of the journalists, the muckrackers. The conservationist battle later in the book, Taft’s presidency, is interesting but really complex and detailed.

By the end of this remarkable book Goodwin had drawn me so close to the major subjects it felt like I was saying goodbye to a group of dear friends. In a work of nonfiction this is truly smazing.

I was intrigued by the courage, intelligence and perseverance of Nellie Taft and how much time the family spent abroad – the Philippines, Cuba, Europe and elsewhere.

Overall if you enjoy history of this period I recommend the book,  Goodwin is excellent and there’s a whole wealth of  subjects which are just touched on which provide fodder for extra reading.

A few early NOTES:  >>>>>>>>> (annotations and extraneous stuff) 

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