Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism, reviewed by Ian Oakley

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt was a remarkable figure.

He was a cowboy, a soldier, a policeman, a historian, a naturalist, a big game hunter, an intellectual and much, much else. He is a rebuke to the bland careerist politicians that we see on both sides of the Atlantic.

This book though is not just a biography of Roosevelt, but rather a joint biography of him, William Taft - his successor as President - and a group of remarkable journalists, who helped both Roosevelt and Taft reform the United States in the first decade of the Twentieth Century.

The work is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s first book since her blockbuster work about Lincoln and his cabinet. It is a worthy successor; she is a master of her material and tells the interwoven stories with pace and telling detail.

One of the first things the book does is rescue poor William Taft from the ranks of forgotten Presidents. He achieved much for a one term President and the man of whom he most reminded me was President George Bush Senior.

They were both decent high achievers who made it to the Presidency; who were better at governing than politics, and who paid the price for it in defeat when seeking re-election. Both were overshadowed by charismatic predecessors, and both had tough, ruthless wives who aided their careers.

The other striking fact I took from the book was how much the Progressive Era in American Politics achieved, especially in light of the gridlock of modern day Washington.

It is impossible to imagine the modern Republicans advocating the attacks on trusts, the regulation of food safety, and the proposal for a federal income tax, that both Roosevelt and Taft championed. On the other side you had Democrats calling for restrictions in federal spending, not something you would see today.

The journalists that aided these reforms are another admirable and diverse group that would probably get nowhere today in the era of celebrity gossip and partisan news channels.

The most remarkable of them all was Samuel McClure, who began in grinding poverty in Ulster and followed the American Dream to found his own magazine and help transform America.

All in all this is a tremendous book.

I would recommend it to anyone interested in American History, and to anyone who isn’t but who enjoys a great story, well told.

My last thoughts on finishing the book was that I could not help but note that such was Teddy Roosevelt’s lasting fame that though the work should have been called Roosevelt and Taft, but poor President Taft got elbowed aside, probably on the basis nobody would have heard of him.

Such is the harshness of history and of the publishing industry.

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