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on 13 December 2013
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "bully pulpit" means "a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue." It was first used by Theodore Roosevelt, when asked for his view on the presidency, in this quotation: "I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!" The word bully itself was an adjective in the lingo of the time meaning "first- rate," somewhat comparable to the recent use of the word "awesome." Hence the title of this review. The term "bully pulpit" is still used today to describe the president's power to influence the public.
"The Bully Pulpit" clocks in at a hefty 928 pages in the hardcover edition, the reason why I chose the e-book version, and is lavishly illustrated. Each chapter starts with a contemporary photograph or cartoon beneath the chapter-title, and there's a separate photograph-section at the back of the e-book that has 68 photographs. Although a massive tome, it should be noted that "only" about 56% of the book consists of the main narrative. The rest of the volume is taken up by the extensive endnotes and index.
Rather than write another biography about a famous American President, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin has chosen for a different approach. In "The Bully Pulpit", she recounts the birth of America's Progressive Era through the close friendship between two Presidents: Theodore Roosevelt and his successor William Howard Taft. But rather than focusing exclusively on these two, she enlivens her account by twisting through the narrative the story of the "muckrakers" (another term coined by TR): the group of investigative journalists from magazine McClure's. In this magazine, they published popular exposes of fraudulent railroads and millionaire senators, aiding Roosevelt in his quest for change and fairness.
Author Goodwin starts her narrative with ex-president TR's return from a hunting trip to Africa in 1910. Then, switching between the two in alternating chapters, she charts the lives of Roosevelt and Taft from boyhood to maturity, and presents their wives Nellie Taft and Edith Roosevelt, before introducing McClure's Magazine and it's reporters.
Through this lengthy preamble, she brilliantly contrasts their very different childhoods and careers, as well as their differences in style and personality, a foreshadowing of the causes that would lead to one of the major political feuds of the age. Polar opposites, they still became firm friends, almost from the moment they first met in Washington at the beginning of their political careers.
The meat of the book concerns the period when Roosevelt became President, after President McKinley was assassinated in 1901. As President, T.R.'s goals were: "to distribute the nation's wealth more equitably, regulate the giant corporations and railroads, strengthen the rights of labor, and protect the country's natural resources from private exploitation." Roosevelt coined the phrase "Square Deal" to describe his domestic agenda, and developed a mutually beneficial relationship with the national press so they worked together to bring on the progressive era.
His close friend Taft became an indispensable member of President Roosevelt's cabinet and later his handpicked successor, after Roosevelt decided not to run for a third term. On TR's return in 1910 he broke bitterly with President Taft on issues of progressivism and when in the 1912 election Roosevelt failed to block Taft's re-nomination, he launched the Bull Moose Party, which ultimately led to them both losing to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who became President.
In the epilogue, author Goodwin touchingly describes how the old friends reconciled during a chance meeting not long before Roosevelt's death in 1919, how Taft in 1921 finally got the position he had always longed for, that of Chief Justice of the United States, and how the members of the original McClure's magazine staff stayed in touch with each other into old age.
Goodwin's narrative is founded upon an abundance of primary materials, like the extensive correspondence between Roosevelt and Taft; the diaries of Edith Roosevelt and Nellie Taft and the journals, memoirs and hundreds of letters the "muckrakers" wrote to one another, to name but a few of the sources she used in writing "The Bully Pulpit".
While the narrative sometimes seems to get bogged down in minutiae, you won't be sorry to read about "Will and Teedie" and the muckrakers, as this account is far more than just a biography of "that damned cowboy president" Roosevelt and of the man nicknamed "Big Bill" in his younger years, William Howard Taft. It is also a detailed portrait of an era as well as a history of the press, all of this combined into one eminently readable book.
For those wishing to read more about Theodore Roosevelt, I recommend the biographical trilogy by Edmund Morris: "The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt," "Theodore Rex" and "Colonel Roosevelt". Or if made curious for the full story on the digging of the Panama Canal, I recommend: "The Path Between the Seas" by David McCullough.
Strangely, there is not much available on William Howard Taft, the only American ever to have been both President and Chief Justice of the United States. Maybe time for an author of the caliber of a Chernow, Isaacson or Morris to write a biography that does justice to the man.