When can a friendship make or break the political course of an entire country? When it is the friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, of course. In The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin deftly paints a detailed, beautiful portrait of the Gilded Age and the main players that led to labor reform, the development of the Progressive Party, and of course the eventual victory of the Democrats with Woodrow Wilson’s election.
I loved learning about this era back in history class, and this book tells of it in vivid detail. Goodwin traces the lives of Roosevelt and Taft, as well as the muckrakers that contributed to bringing corporate corruption to light, from childhood, describing how their experiences led to the beliefs they held and the causes they fought for.
Roosevelt had an indomitable, larger-than-life will that led to his overcoming childhood infirmities and becoming a strong, active man who longed for a fight and drew people to his cause. Taft’s thoughtful, easygoing nature endeared him to people and made him perfect in a subordinate role where diplomacy and discernment were necessary.
Goodwin also shows how their wives helped shape these two men. Edith Roosevelt held a more traditional role, but her support, love, and intelligence helped carry Roosevelt through difficult times. Nellie Taft was much more active, keenly enjoying the political climate and encouraging Taft to reach for greater and greater goals.
The pros and cons of this and the men’s personalities are shown over the course of their lives. Roosevelt’s constantly spoiling for a fight eventually alienated him from the Republican party, his best chance of re-election, while Taft’s diffident nature was hardly suited to the presidency, and worked much better as a justice. (Nellie Taft’s stroke early in the presidency probably contributed to the rough start.) Roosevelt believed Taft did not come down hard enough on the necessary issues, while Taft thought Roosevelt far too heavy-handed during his term. Their increased separation led to an increased separation in the Republican party, eventually leading to the formation of the Progressive, or “Bull Moose” party that effectually divided Republican votes and led to Wilson’s huge victory in the 1912 presidential election.
Goodwin also reveals how McClure’s magazine, and the journalists that wrote for it, not only aided the presidents’ causes by revealing the cold-hearted corruption behind many corporations, but also turned hard-hitting journalism on national events into a worthy and respectable occupation. The deep friendship among this group lasted until their deaths. Long after the magazine had gone out of business, they met for each other’s birthdays every year.
This book is a very long, heavy read, but also an amazing one. It does better than any textbook at revealing both the issues and the influences that led to the ensuing events in the early 20th century. Goodwin gives us a very thorough comprehensive view of the era.