Bully in the Bully Pulpit
Has this country had a providential history? Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin must be tempted to think so. In recent years she has produced mammoth combinations of biography and multi-biography centering on two presidents thought by many to have been delivered by providence, FDR and Lincoln. After lengthy dalliances with the Kennedys, the Fitzgeralds, and LBJ, she finally did get down to this providential business by casting her chronicler’s eye in the direction of a pair of seemingly unlikely candidates for greatness. First (for her) came a pampered “mamma’s boy” and polio survivor. That, of course, was FDR, or better yet, FDR and Eleanor. On hand at “no ordinary time,” theirs proved to be no ordinary partnership. Together, they dueled with ordinary opponents at home and (with a little help from Winston Churchill) vanquished extraordinary enemies abroad.
Then she turned to the unschooled farm boy and failed shopkeeper, Lincoln. That would be the same Lincoln who, come 1860, out-maneuvered and then defeated his political rivals before putting together a “team” of the same, all in the name of saving the Union and demolishing slavery.
Rather than turn her eyes backward to that earlier team of rivals we know as the Founders, her most recent providential moment heads in the direction of a different sort of founding: the progressive era of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, with a book-ending cameo appearance by Woodrow Wilson, whose victory in the 1912 election was made possible by the bitter Roosevelt-Taft split. This focus is consistent with her apparent preference for historical moments that have coincided with the need for large-scale action on the part of the federal government. Therefore, it’s no wonder that her most recent historical journey has taken her to another such moment and a tandem of allies-turned-rivals.
Along the way, Kearns Goodwin splices in sketches of progressive era “journalists,” each of whom she deems to be representative of the “golden age” of their craft. It is revealing that her “golden age” was a time when investigative journalists were bent on exposing the evils of the “robber barons” and the corruptions of machine politics. Nationalizing reformers were not just beyond reproach, but crucial to the success of their journalism.
This was the perfect arrangement for Theodore Roosevelt. After all, having converted his office into a “bully pulpit,” he sought a friendly press to help him spread the word as he preached it; the press ought to serve as his “praise agents.” (The term is one that TR liked to use, but it is not one that Kearns Goodwin chooses to reference.)
Kearns Goodwin does a fine job of telling the stories of these storytellers, such as Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and William Allen White, and especially the very American rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Sam McClure. An impoverished and fatherless Irish immigrant, he made his magazine into a force to be reckoned with just as the progressive era and the Roosevelt presidency simultaneously dawned. Driven by ambition and given to rages, bedeviled by genius and bewitched by a younger woman, McClure ultimately overreached in more ways than one.
His failings notwithstanding, McClure and his enterprise earn high marks from Kearns Goodwin. After all, this was a time of serious, if selective, investigative reporting, whether by Tarbell on Standard Oil, Steffens on the “shame of our cities,” or White on the plight of his fellow Kansans. Her larger point seems to be that this was a moment in American history when progressive reform was so vitally necessary that it transcended partisanship and party politics, even as it ultimately produced a titanic struggle within both the Republican Party and the progressive movement. More than that, she seems to think that progressive reform was so crucial that it excused politicians and journalists for cozying up to one another. In the end, Kearns Goodwin more than hints that such collaboration explains why this was her “golden age” and why it might serve as a model for new and updated versions of progressive reform today.
Maybe so. If there was a time when journalists helped advance a progressive agenda by exposing largely private mischievousness, today many among them seek to accomplish the same end by failing to expose governmental misdeeds. It’s the same cozy relationship, albeit with a twist.
To be sure, the first Roosevelt was, much to his own chagrin, something less than a Washington or a Lincoln. TR regretted that he held the presidency during “undemanding” (read peaceful) times. But he did enough, and at just the right time, and with just the right help, to climb atop Mount Rushmore, approach at least semi-providential status, and finally make himself worthy of the Kearns Goodwin treatment.
But trouble looms in her telling. Roosevelt was more than mildly enamored of his friend and ally, William Howard Taft, who had performed stellar service as the American proconsul in the Philippines. It was that very service that contributed to a crucial Roosevelt misjudgment. Having barely been elected to his own four-year term in 1904, he made the mistake of immediately renouncing a second elected term, thereby making himself an instant lame duck. Four years later he anointed proconsul Taft as his preferred successor.
An advancing American empire aside, the heart of this story is the American home front and the Roosevelt-Taft stewardship of it. If there is a genuinely sympathetic figure in this story, it is Taft, not Roosevelt. This is true on both the personal and the political level. Taft was a good man who did not care to become a great man. Theodore Roosevelt worked so hard at becoming a great man that he sometimes forgot to be a good man. Being a good man came naturally to Bill Taft; being a good, or at least an effective, president, did not.
Kearns Goodwin spends many chapters plowing familiar ground, as she tells the stories of their lives, their friendship, their falling out, and (briefly) their reconciliation. If one more than the other deserves blame for the rupture of their friendship, it is TR. If one more than the other deserves credit for its restoration, it is Taft.
On the private side of life, Taft’s even temper and genial disposition made him a desirable mate. Fortunately (for him), he married the woman of his dreams. Unfortunately (for him), Nellie Taft’s White House dreams did not match his. To make matters far worse, she suffered a debilitating stroke shortly after he attained the office of her dreams. Mrs. Taft survived, as did her husband’s presidency, but both were severely weakened and neither was ever the same again.
Kearns Goodwin is wonderful at the human-interest side of this story. But this only adds to the case against Roosevelt’s decision to challenge Taft, a case that she tries and, in the end, fails to make. At the time of their break each could be accurately defined as a solid, if moderate, progressive reformer. As such, both believed in the efficacy of federal regulation; both accepted women’s suffrage and a federal income tax; both were selective trust-busters; and both were early bird conservationists. If TR was the more aggressive regulator and clearly the more committed conservationist, Taft was a far more determined trust-buster. He also tackled the tariff issue that TR had been reluctant to take on, fearful that this issue could split a Republican party that was home to an East Coast, high-tariff Old Guard and to low-tariff western insurgents.
On this score, TR and Taft were also essentially on the same page. Both the New Yorker and the Ohioan sought to position themselves at some distance from both the eastern Republican Old Guard and the insurgents of the heartland and points west. A progressive President Taft tried to appease western progressives by seeking tariff reform, thereby risking the very party split that had so worried TR. The result was the infamous Payne-Aldrich Tariff, a mish-mash of cuts and hikes that satisfied no one and weakened the Taft presidency.
With that presidency already close to the ropes, a progressive ex-president by the name of Roosevelt returned from his African safari, his considerable ego still very much intact. Soon thereafter he accused his handpicked successor of being insufficiently progressive, provoking the very split he had feared when he was the incumbent progressive president.
Toss in the stroke suffered by his beloved Nellie and Taft becomes an even more sympathetic figure. It’s hard not to conclude that, come 1912, the “bully pulpit” president had become something of a bully himself.
If the differences between the two men were something less than overwhelming at the time of their split, they certainly widened as the campaign unfolded. This became especially apparent when Roosevelt began to attack Taft’s revered judiciary. Frustrated by decisions that impeded progressive reform, TR called for the recall of state judges and hinted that a new Roosevelt administration would work to force federal judges to face the same fate. To Taft, such proposals threatened the rule of law and constituted a form of bullying all its own.
Bully or no, TR’s behavior in 1912 did little to enhance his status as a providential figure who saved the nation. Kearns Goodwin is left with an era of real importance, but no president who comes close to the stature of a Lincoln or an FDR. Still, she wants to hold out for the necessity and importance of progressive reform, as well as for her “golden age” of journalism that aided and abetted it. All of this leads to another unintended irony. Bully Pulpit is her third tribute to what could be taken for the workings of a secular American providence. It has arrived, however, just as the country finds itself on the verge of what might prove to be another providential moment—but one that needs a different sort of providential leader.
Who that leader might be remains in the hands of providence and the American electorate. But for historians of Kearns Goodwin’s stripe, such great leaders would not be in the line of a Coolidge or a Hoover or those who might seek to return to that first providential moment of the founding, with its emphasis on ordered liberty and limited government. At this late point in her chronicler’s career Kearns Goodwin has dwelt exclusively on those historical moments that have enhanced and expanded the powers of government, whether temporarily or permanently. But who says that providence only works in one way and in one direction? Surely providence can take strange turns—and even returns. Who knows what might happen if our trajectory continues in its current direction at its current breakneck speed? Maybe even the Doris Kearns Goodwin will be persuaded that a very different moment is at hand.
If that sounds harsh, consider this: Some day another historian will tell the story of the successor to the combination of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan who currently occupies the White House and whose audacious dream of transforming America has become a major obstacle to the American renewal that may yet burst forth. What a story that will be, assuming of course that providence and the American people turn out to have any say in the matter.
John C. Chalberg writes from Minnesota and performs a one-man show as Theodore Roosevelt.
Posted: May 4, 2014
Books in Little: The Effort of Mystery