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‘The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism’

by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Simon & Schuster, 928 pp., $40

Theodore Roosevelt became president in September 1901, with the assassination of his predecessor. It was, to be sure, hardly what the Republican conservative wing had in mind.

Angered by his progressive politics as the governor of New York, they hoped to bury him in the most useless of offices: U.S. vice president. Less than one year later, he was the president. Oops. For eight years he dominated the landscape, promoting conservation and progressive causes with relish. He was re-elected in a landslide in 1904 but refused to run for a third term. He left office at 50.

Roosevelt had a complicated relationship with his successor, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt relied heavily on Taft’s judgment and helped install Taft as his successor, only to be sorely disappointed by Taft’s backsliding on Roosevelt’s progressive agenda. Ultimately, Roosevelt challenged Taft in his 1912 re-election bid and, after losing the Republican nomination in a tumultuous convention, bolted, formed the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party and aggressively ran against Taft in the general election, all but ensuring the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Roosevelt pushed for a variety of progressive causes: limiting working hours, breaking up monopolies and trusts, and expanding government power over rail, energy, telecommunications, food and medicine. All this as a Republican.

He was helped immeasurably by the rise of “muckraking” journalists Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and William Allen White, led by editor Sam McClure, who published groundbreaking investigative stories in McClure’s Magazine (and later in the newly created American Magazine) detailing sordid working conditions, filthy meatpacking plants and abusive monopolistic trusts. The journalists helped to mold public opinion, forcing the hand of Roosevelt’s opponents.

Author Doris Kearns Goodwin has profiled several American presidents, including Franklin Roosevelt in “No Ordinary Time” (which won the Pulitzer Price in 1995) and Abraham Lincoln in “Team of Rivals.” Here, she focuses on the Progressive Era. “There are but a handful of times in the history of our country when there occurs a transformation so remarkable that a molt seems to take place, and an altered country begins to emerge,” she writes.

Goodwin writes beautifully, but it’s difficult to imagine what she was thinking here. Roosevelt’s life has been the subject of numerous biographies, including most notably Edmund Morris’ definitive three-volume biography, the last volume of which (“Colonel Roosevelt”) was published just three years ago. Roosevelt’s complicated relationship with Taft is certainly fascinating but was dealt with far more comprehensively in the Morris biography. Goodwin’s effort to combine a short-form biography of Taft and Roosevelt in one volume (with short profiles of muckraking journalists tossed in for good measure) is interesting but ultimately falls short of its objective.

For starters, Taft is rather decidedly given the short shrift here, in favor of his more colorful predecessor. Taft in fact had an astonishing career — as U.S. Solicitor General, 6th Circuit judge, secretary of war, president, and then as chief justice of the Supreme Court. (Goodwin repeatedly identifies Taft as serving on the “Sixth District Court of Appeals,” not the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, an unfortunately glaring error). But here, Taft is left little more than an overweight foil, good-natured, but no Theodore Roosevelt. That’s unfair to a remarkably talented man trying to fill impossibly large shoes.

Ironically, Roosevelt suffers the same treatment. His life and ascent to the presidency are covered in rushed detail. Goodwin omits any significant discussion of Roosevelt’s extended post-presidential trip to Africa, his later nearly fatal trip to South America, and his relationship with Woodrow Wilson.

In fairness, Goodwin likely never intended a comprehensive biography of either man, seeking instead to focus simply on their relationship. But without the larger context, it is difficult to understand either, much less the relationship between the two. That is, unfortunately, a rare miss from a talented author.

Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.