I finally read and finished Doris Kearns Goodwin's "The Bully Pulpit"
in a matter of weeks after starting it. It was a wonderful read, and I admit I learned more than I thought I would about the background of S.S. McClure
, the man who hired the great journalists I did know and read about, including William Allen White, Ida Tarbell, Ray Baker and Lincoln Steffens. For me, however, the biggest surprise from the book concerned William Howard Taft, the only man ever to serve as both president and chief justice of the Supreme Court in his lifetime. I already knew Taft brought more anti-trust suits in one term of four years as president than Theodore Roosevelt had brought in two terms. I also already knew Taft had some progressive principles despite his generally conservative pro-business outlook and supported the constitutional amendment to allow for a federal income tax and to tax corporations, and push for stiff inheritance taxes. However, the depth of information about Taft's progressivism, his mother's pro-women's right to vote and abolitionist background and his wife's political ambition that took the genial Taft farther than his son-of-a-trial-lawyer background would have ever risen were definitely new to me. Also, Taft's service as a lawyer, both in private business lawyering and time at the solicitor general's office, and his service as a judge were new to me as I admit I had little idea of his formal educational and vocational background. His genial personality was deeply moving to me and one felt his sadness in his being betrayed by a vanity driven Theodore Roosevelt.
As with Goodwin's "Team of Rivals,"
I felt as I read "The Bully Pulpit" that Goodwin wrote around the main subject for whom she should have written a straight up biography. In "Team of Rivals," the person who deserved her full and sometimes hagiographic treatment was William Henry Seward, Lincoln's able Secretary of State and a disciple of John Quincy Adams. In "The Bully Pulpit," I found that I reveled each time I reached a chapter that would deal with Taft. I adored Taft as a human being and felt so sad that the nation has not understood him better.
Goodwin's book also perhaps not so inadvertently re-affirmed to me that a president who knows how to move the American people with rhetoric and being out with the people, and developing relations with the most daring investigative reporters of the time, can effectuate great changes that resonate even after they leave office. Taft's successes were in large measure the result of TR's cultivation of the leading investigative reporters (who worked literally in tandem with TR on various exposes of American business and municipal corruption and abuse of power) and the American people. Taft was unable to move people because he was ultimately taciturn in office and approached a bi-partisanship that was almost like the now quaint John and John Qunicy Adams' approach--with the result that all three were, ahem, one term presidents. On the other hand, had TR not promised people in a rash moment of fear not to run for third term, there is little doubt he would have won a third term in the 1908 election and we would not have had Taft at all as president or else no Wilson. The "what if's" proliferate on this and we would rather avoid that right now, for the point remains that those who believe presidents cannot change the political discourse and policies by going among the people and using the "bully pulpit" should recognize that TR was president between William McKinley and William Taft, two personalities who refused to move the public and who did not change the public discourse or policies--but were followers of the conventional wisdom of the time in which each served. Again, Taft was in the shadow of TR and never emerged as his own political leader, and the good things he accomplished may be said to be the result
of riding on TR's momentum.*
After completing the book, I went back to Susan Dunn's review
of the book at the New York Review of Books and link to it here
. Dunn hits in a kind way Goodwin's hagiography about Taft's tenure as governor general of the Philippines, where Goodwin glosses over what Stanley Karnow and others pointed out was in its time and in retrospect one of infamy. 200,000 Filipinos perished in a period of a few years at the start of the 20th Century, mostly from disease as a result of America's suppression of the Filipino independence movement. The name of Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo
never appears in Goodwin's book and for reasons unknown not in Dunn's review. Aguinaldo was a true patriotic leader of the Filipino people and the suppression of the movement he led distorted the development of the Philippines for decades and into today.
Overall, though, even if one is familiar with the history of late 19th Century and early 20th Century America, and how TR transformed the presidency between two Ohioans who were ultimately limited in their pro-business outlooks--McKinley and Taft--and how the rise of nationally distributed political magazines began to influence American politics initially for good (but ultimately for bad, though Goodwin did not have the space to make the latter portion of the point), "The Bully Pulpit" is well worth the read. If one is unfamiliar with this time period, one will find the book transformative. Susan Dunn is absolutely correct that Goodwin is a great storyteller. I will add that Goodwin's knowledge also pours out on every page. I would further state that while Goodwin can sometimes be a hagiographer, she was not afraid to reveal TR's vanity and venality throughout his life. The contrast between TR and Taft in this respect could not be more clearly implied and reveals again to me that Goodwin should have focused solely on Taft for a biographical subject.
A quibble should be noted though that most reviewers did not discuss. I had hoped Goodwin would give readers more about the civil service and other 1890s reformers who initially felt betrayed by TR. She might have been able to introduce modern Americans to one of the most interesting reformer-writers of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, John Jay Chapman
. Chapman came from a family of New England abolitionists, knew Emerson in his last days, and became a leader in good government movements in the New York area where he was born and raised, and where his father served as president of the NY Stock Exchange. Chapman was worth mentioning because he wrote wonderful and then widely read essays in the tradition of Montaigne and Gore Vidal about American politics and mores. In fact, Vidal during his lifetime identified Chapman as an influence, which is how I learned about Chapman. It was interesting to me where Goodwin made editorial cuts of including or excluding names during the period of which she wrote, and while I agreed with most of her editorial decisions, her choice not to include Chapman hurt almost as much has her choice not to mention Aguinaldo.
Again, though, Goodwin's book should be seen as a triumph and is definitely worth reading.
* Goodwin's book expressly re-affirmed why I don't agree with Paul Krugman's recent attempt
to rehabilitate President Obama in Rolling Stone. Obama aimed low, and barely succeeded in pursuing a Republican plan on health insurance, and apart from that was anything other than the transformative president we needed following the Great Recession. Like Taft, he was taciturn with the media and the people at large, and preferred cocktail fundraisers with George Clooney than joining a labor rally. Obama is more Barack Hoover Obama as the tepid recovery over which he has presided has left the American middle class more powerless against corporate executives and plutocrats than at any time since the McKinley era. As with Taft, Hoover and Carter, Obama is a deeply intelligent and privately emotive man who nonetheless believes so strongly in the status quo of corporate governance of American society that he is unable to imagine reforming the basic structures of our society.