The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism
“…I am ready and eager to do my part so far as I am able in helping to solve problems which must be solved…. This is the duty of every citizen but it is peculiarly my duty, for any man who has ever been honored by being made President of the United States is thereby forever after rendered the debtor of the American people.”
Teddy Roosevelt was a president among presidents --- successful in so many ways, a man of the people but able to run in high society, well-loved and well-respected. The above quote comes from the speech he gave when he arrived back on American shores after a year-long trip, post-White House, in Africa. He was greeted by millions of people from the wharf where his ship docked to the porch of his private home, and it was clear that his presidency still meant so much to the American people.
So begins THE BULLY PULPIT, the latest weighty tome from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, in which she looks not just at Roosevelt’s work and legacy through his own life but also through the life of his close friend and successor, William Howard Taft, and the ways in which they used or misused the media to help them on their leadership journeys and throughout their political and personal friendships.
Goodwin is a remarkable writer; she crams so much information into every volume with her friendly writing style that readers feel as if they are reading a highly intricate book. Her language is specific and strong, her ability to make us feel the ups and downs of such public lives palpable on every single page. THE BULLY PULPIT brings you in, as close as a family advisor, towards the whirling center of the Washington tornado that is the White House. It also allows readers to peek into the nitty-gritty of poignant and painful memories of those times for American history as well as the Roosevelt and Taft families.
"Doris Kearns Goodwin has created an easy-to-read page-turner that will resonate with both readers who are interested in the personal politics of Roosevelt and Taft, and those who are obsessed with the history of media in America."
Roosevelt’s presidential career began from violence, with his taking office after the assassination of President McKinley. Yet the big booming man with the big booming voice that was Roosevelt was a thoughtful, caring humanitarian who saw his role as being a true Protector of all people, especially those without the wherewithal to help themselves during a time when there were more haves than have-nots (1%, anyone?). Although not a wartime president, Roosevelt had major experience in the military (Rough Riders, anyone?) but used his power and experience to bring revolution of another kind: he was responsible for important regulations on the rail system, breaking down industrial monopolies, creating child welfare laws, and curbing the political corruption that had been running rampant in the U.S. He came to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue at a time when the government was working hard to keep from “interfering” in the lives of its people (Tea Party, anyone?) but exemplified that by allowing corporations and rapscallions with cash to run rampant. He curbed those rats and brought order to the whole span of America, standing up for the common man and then the common land, going so far as to start to preserve some of its natural national beauty. Roosevelt was the first environmentalist.
THE BULLY PULPIT, however, surrounds all this Teddy goodness with two important ideas: it was the way in which Roosevelt made the “muckraking” journalists of the time his allies, giving him a platform to espouse from that few other presidents had ever had before, and his relationship with Taft and how he groomed him to take over the presidency after him, that made him such an effective and unforgettable leader. All his hard work did not always end up positively. The journalists comply, becoming an important part of the President’s inner circle, but, once elected, Taft took all of Roosevelt’s good works and turned many of them upside down, much to Teddy’s chagrin.
The progressive era was considered a major force in the reorganization of American political practice, and Roosevelt’s legacy is still safe, regardless of Taft’s inability to maintain it. The best part of the book gives readers a window into what happens between presidencies and how that transition from one group of leaders to another can appear seamless. However, as soon as the new administration is in place, everything can turn around, regardless of the continuing pressure from the previous President.
THE BULLY PULPIT sometimes reads like a list of “MUST DOS” for a President in today’s world: make sure that the media is well within your grasp and understanding, use it to your best ability to get across your ideas, and use your time in office to put into place legislation that cannot be undone by the next group of leaders. The remarkable achievements of Roosevelt in a time when corruption could have continued tenfold make for some compelling political analysis, and their effect on the world in which we live today (particularly his love and protection of the environment) shows how a bold leader can change, quite literally, the forward thrust of history with his provocative measures.
Doris Kearns Goodwin has created an easy-to-read page-turner that will resonate with both readers who are interested in the personal politics of Roosevelt and Taft, and those who are obsessed with the history of media in America. THE BULLY PULPIT is a surefire success that many an ardent history buff will like to see weighing down their stockings this holiday season.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on November 8, 2013