History, as we all know, is framed by events. But it also grows from relationships, both personal and political, and is framed by how the actions of particular players in specific circumstances set the course for the future.
In her sweeping new history, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism,” Doris Kearns Goodwin focuses on the relationships among Roosevelt, Taft and those pesky muckraking journalists and how their individual behaviors influenced not only one another but also the nation.
It’s a long book, 750 pages before you hit the notes and index, and that’s because this really is three overlapping books stitched together. There’s a bio of Roosevelt (president from 1901-09), a bio of Taft (president, 1909-13), and a history of the muckraker era, with shorter bios of such seminal figures as Samuel L. McClure and the stable of writers (including Ida M. Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens) he brought together at his eponymous magazine.
The strength and the weakness of Goodwin’s work here rest in the details. Roosevelt and Taft have been the subjects of many biographies, and for good reason. Both are outsized figures (for Taft, in the literal sense), and each was touched by personal tragedy (Roosevelt’s first wife died shortly after giving birth; Taft’s wife suffered a debilitating stroke two months after he became president). Roosevelt became president with the assassination of William McKinley and survived an assassination attempt himself during the 1912 presidential campaign. Taft went on to serve as chief justice of the United States, the only president to have done so.
While each is a fascinating figure in his own right, there’s too much space devoted to their formative years here — they don’t meet until Page 135. Similarly, there is too much minutiae about legislative battles that might have been significant in the moment but are not so significant against the historical backdrop. This is where the work, for all of Goodwin’s strength as a writer, bogs down.
It’s not a fatal weakness, but it slows some compelling narratives: the rise and fall of two presidents; the muscling-up of journalists whose work rallied Americans to demand change; the warmth and then icy rancor between Roosevelt and Taft as each perceived the other as a betrayer, leading to a breach that cost their political party the presidency.
That relationship is the real and deeply compelling narrative arc of the book. As they were making their way as newcomers to Washington (Roosevelt as a civil service commissioner, Taft as solicitor general), they became close friends, although their wives were not particularly fond of each other. Taft became one of President Roosevelt’s closest advisors, and Roosevelt handpicked Taft as his Republican successor and then was the main catalyst in Taft’s electoral win.
They were politically aligned, but their personalities were strikingly different. Roosevelt was as much a celebrity as a political personage with a legendary robustness that was infectious. But he was also shrewd and liked a good fight. A writer, he enjoyed give-and-take with the journalists of the day and gave them remarkable access. He understood the power that could be gained by having the ear of sympathetic reporters and editors, and he tapped major journalists as personal scouts on a wide range of issues, from Upton Sinclair on the meatpacking industry to Tarbell on Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller.
Taft, on the other hand, did not take to the spotlight. He was by nature a reserved and contemplative man and instinctively shrank from battle. Friendly and empathetic in person, he harbored self-doubts about his oratorical skills and was reticent to step out onto the stage and say, “look at me.” Where Roosevelt took journalists into his confidence, Taft kept them at arms length. He was much happier with law books than with crafting policy, and his detour from the courthouse to the White House was largely at his wife’s urging.
As a lawyer and then a judge, Taft put great emphasis on arbitrating differences and seeking compromise. Once he became president, he turned away from some of Roosevelt’s pet progressive projects, dismissed his predecessor’s Cabinet members and brought aboard a number of men with tight corporate connections — the very institutions Roosevelt was fighting (though Taft’s administration wielded anti-trust laws much more often than did Roosevelt’s).
Taft also was perceived to be moving away from Roosevelt’s conservation policies that set aside wide swaths of public land for parks and reserves, keeping them out of the hands of miners and timber lords. The political differences became personal between the men, setting in motion the 1912 presidential showdown with Taft running as the incumbent Republican, Roosevelt heading his own Progressive ticket, and former Princeton President and then-New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson as the Democratic nominee. The Republican schism gave the White House to the Democrats.
Those were riveting times, and Goodwin brings them to life in splendid if overly detailed fashion. It’s the story of a nation dealing with the growing domination of trusts and corporations as it developed a modern economy (a struggle that continues). But it is also the story of deep personal friendships and the strains that can make them stronger but also break them.
And in this case, influence the trajectory of history.
Irvine-based author Martelle’s book, “The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man’s Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones,” will be published in the spring.
The Bully Pulpit
Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Simon & Schuster: 928 pp., $40