Thursday, March 26, 2015

SW Reads: The Bully Pulpit - Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and The Golden Age of Journalism

I think Picky Girl recommended this one.  I dunno.  She'll have to chime in.

He's talking about Roosevelt and Taft again.  Safe to close the post and move on,

At some point in college on a lark I picked up the Henry Pringle biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and - like a lot of folks who happened to read something about TR - ever since I've found no end to the interest in reading not just about the man, but about his times.  His political career is astounding, complete with stumbling backward into the presidency, where his reputation grew to such proportions that the US included his face on Mt. Rushmore with Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington.

I read a few reviews before putting finger to keyboard for this post, because I knew a Doris Kearns Goodwin book would have already generated plenty of bits in the press.  As evidence of the vitality of the material covered, I almost laughed when I saw what a big percentage of both reviews was dedicated not to discussing the book, but to discussing what the book covers, like a little mini-historical synopsis.

So, I'll keep it brief.

Ha ha.  No I won't.

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism provides impressionistic biographies of the key players, even where the material (particularly in the case of Roosevelt) is pretty well documented, including by Roosevelt who has written an autobiography.  Taft and Roosevelt each get a full section devoted to their lives prior to their meeting, as do their wives.  This also includes brief bios of luminaries in the Progressive press of the turn from the 19th to the 20th Century, such as Sam McClure, Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens.

Given the cursory glance at US History inherent in a few years of public education and the 2 semesters of history requirements at public universities, the near pop-history of a book like this is great stuff to have out on the shelf for folks who want to get the history along with a non-fiction narrative.  There's some handholding biographically, but it also doesn't really talk down to the reader.  Frankly, there are times when I wish Goodwin had spent a bit more time providing biographical sketches of players I recall from classes I took 20 years ago, but it's not like you lose context.  I remember "Battling" Bob La Follette and certainly William Jennings Bryan.  But her details regarding who each person really was and suggestions of their motivations is good stuff.

The book pulls on itself, very much about Roosevelt and Taft and their relationship, and how it impacted the nation - but Goodwin also inserts (I'd argue, rightfully) the participation of the press during the era and how each President's personality and way of working wound up impacting their relationship with the press movement that pushed Progressives to the fore during the period - and, of course, how the reciprocal relationship with the press impacted each president and their legacy.  The dueling stories do create a schism where it sometimes feels there are two or three books folded into the volume, but it is all interconnected and you can understand why she chose to tackle the material as she did.  Too often in driving home a point about an historical figure, details get left out that are, indeed, quite important to understanding the complete picture.

Never forget - Taft was a @#$%ing baller

There's an 8-episode TV series in here somewhere, something which would certainly serve the material better than the 2-hour movie we're like to get if Spielberg exercises his option on the book. The wealth of material is derived from a well-researched, original source perspective as not just TR and Taft are presented in their own letters, public statements and through their actions, but also the journalists of the era.  While Goodwin clearly has an interpretation, she seldom outright states her opinion herself, allowing the source material to speak for itself and support the narrative she's driving at.  It's an epic story of friendship of two towering figures of their era, both with incredible personal stories to tell, and with achievements almost unthinkable in today's climate (Taft, por ejemplo, was both a President AND a Supreme Court Chief Justice AND Governor of the Philippines).

Goodwin is pretty clearly sympathetic to the Progressive cause, so heads up there if you're expecting a lot of criticism of the movement.  The argument for the Progressives is put forth with varying shades of how it played out from moderates (Taft) to radicals (rioters, for example).  Not as much nuance is given to the Conservatives, and they're seen mostly through the lens of the movement, though not cast as villains so much as an immovable object.

I am always unsure why other people study or are interested in history if it is not for the twofold purpose of (1) understanding how things came to be and what sort of people shaped the world we currently inhabit and (2) understanding that these issues come back at us again and again.  It's as vital to understanding what forces led to Progressivism as it is to understanding the ambitions, motivations and spirit of the people who took up their causes.  Why would a wealthy Manhattanite and Harvard man such as Roosevelt become a champion of the Progressive movement and why would he push so hard to gain a third term?

The men just had different approaches to large, hoofed mammals

It's funny, because I read a review that complained that Goodwin didn't state why these things occurred, and I wondered if the reviewer had read the same book.  No, Goodwin doesn't put words in anyone's mouth, but she certainly guides the reader along and presents facts in order to make suggestions without getting directly into editorializing or conjecture.  That's not really the job of the historian, especially one using journalistic/ original-source methods of presenting a scenario.

Running over the course of the two main players' lives, following their joining as lunch buddies to kindred spirits working for the country in the highest offices, the personal split that leads to the 1912 bifurcation of Republican Party and the rise of Woodrow Wilson (who does not secure a majority of the vote) is heartbreaking.  And almost impossible to understand were it not for the personalities of both men and how they approached challenges differently.  Just as heartbreaking but perhaps more predictable is the rise and fall of the Progressive press, deemed "Muckrakers" by Roosevelt himself, just as the "muckrakers" were fully in support of he and his administration.

The participation of spouses is covered at length, and there's something to admire in both First Ladies (I have always regretted I was unable to take Lewis Gould's history class on the First Ladies.  He once even got Lady Bird Johnson to stop in.  Can you imagine?).  Further, Goodwin gets into the workings of McClure's Magazine, the mindset of the contributing writers, how Sam McClure managed to form such an operation - and you kind of know these things never last even as she talks about the golden age the journalists enjoyed.

I am well past accepting that we're doomed to repeat our history.  It's what we do as a species.  Hubris and a failure to understand anything outside our personal experience will always mean we see the actions of our time as somehow different from those of prior generations.  But we can see not just how things came to be, but examine how those time inform and reflect our own.  If you can't compare one era to another and find the similarities and understand how that reflects the current climate, from the era of Roosevelt to the Roman Coliseums, you and I will just have to agree to disagree.  And like all works regarding history, the attitude of the modern historian will always shade the interpretation - sure.

In the modern era you can't point to either a dynamo of a leader like Roosevelt, who embodies that Dark Knight idea of living long enough to become the villain - for I surely do not know what a third term would have held in the wake, especially had he and Taft rejoined forced.  Nor is there anyone so accomplished and generally liked in the political world today that I can think of that America would embrace as a Presidential candidate as well as Supreme Court Justice (and wearer of better mustaches).   And, certainly, the modern press is a shadow of the roaring engine of the era, even if it has gone back to operating openly along ideological lines.

Anyhow, I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  All 36 hours of it as narrated by the late, great Edward Hermann (who did an outstanding job of giving voice to all the players, from Roosevelt to Jane Adams).



picky said...

I did not recommend this, but I can see why you'd think that, as obsessed as I've become with the Roosevelt clan.

Just finished Hissing Cousins, about Eleanor and her cousin Alice, who was, by all accounts, just a firecracker. But we remember Eleanor, not Alice.

Anyway, I will definitely have to check this out. And that First Ladies class? Whoa. I would have eaten that up.

Anonymous said...

Superb write-up. Living now in NYC i'm so much more in touch with the legacy of the Golden Era of Kickerbocker progressiveness. It's next on my list!

The League said...

Steven, I have sworn to Jamie that one of these days we'll be going to New York so I can see Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelt brownstone and a few other locals as well as FDR related sites in New York. I'm not sure Jamie's onboard, but start planning the day-trip now.

The League said...

@picky - I need to look up Hissing Cousins. Yeah, Alice seems like a handful to say the least. Somewhere between a Rikki Lake guest and a class 4 hurricane with her mother's looks and father's will - just undirected.