Monday, January 27, 2014

My Amazon Review of Doris Kearns Goodwin's, "The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism"

Doris Kearns Goodwin has written a big book and a great book. She tells quite a yarn that holds your interest throughout. It is really three books in one where she brings together the lives of President's Roosevelt and Taft who were lifelong friends until their very public break in 1910 along with the great muckrakers of the day (Ida Tarbell, Ray Baker, William Allen White, Lincoln Steffens and Sam McClure). Theodore Roosevelt is larger than life and an ego-maniac to boot. He brings the verve of the West and the intellect of the East into the White House and with his journalist allies he remakes America into his progressive mold .His break with Taft splits the Republican Party and enables the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912. For readers specifically interested in that election, I would recommend James Chace's, "1912 Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs-The Election that Changed the Country."

However it is Robert Taft and his very modern wife Nellie who come off with their reputations enhanced. Taft is a true progressive, but because of his judicial temperament he never won the love of the progressives of the day. Sounds familiar. It was Taft who successfully governs the Philippines and brings peace to the islands. It was his diplomacy that opens the way to the Portsmouth Peace Conference that settles the Russo-Japanese War and brings along a Noble Peace Prize for Roosevelt and it was under his Administration that the progressive reforms of Roosevelt are solidified. He also establishes a postal savings system to protect the savings of Americans from the risk of bank failure and expands the enforcement of the anti-trust laws. Taft was well ahead of his time in promoting a free trade treaty with Canada that ultimately passes the Congress, but is turned down by the Canadians. Moreover Taft never wanted a break with Roosevelt and did his best to avoid it and after the break it was he who opened the way to their reconciliation.

His wife Nellie is leader in the Kindergarten movement, a percussor to what today we would call early childhood education. It was her political acumen that propels Taft from a judicial to a political career and were were it not for a stroke in 1909, she probably would have enabled Taft to hold on to the presidency in 2012. It was she who brings the cherry blossoms to Washington D.C. You can tell that Kearns Goodwin really loves her.

As to the muckrakers they were true investigative journalists who did real reporting. They were not the blowhards of the MSNBC's and the Fox's of today. They did real work. They were also way to close to the White House for our more modern sensibilities by working hand and glove with Roosevelt to move their joint agendas.

Where Kearns Goodwin goes astray is that she buys way to much of the progressive myth. The poor weren't getting poorer. To be sure the rich were getting richer, but the overall economy was booming. Real wages were rising and the farm depression of the late 1880s and early 1890s was over. She also ignores the work of the so called reactionary Republicans in putting together a national monetary commission that would lead to the establishment of the Federal Reserve. There was a rising middle class who could afford to buy the muckraking journals that were made more economical by improved print technology. She leaves out the facts that the automobile, aircraft and motion picture industries were germinating and would flower in the 1920s. And the country was felling proud of its new role on the world stage, surpassing Britain as the leading economic power and showing off its two ocean navy. Doris Kearns Goodwin has written a hopeful book and she reminds us that we as a nation were young once and we once again can be. If only we can summon the will.

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