[Review] - The Bully Pulpit, By Doris Kearns Goodwin


Theodore Roosevelt is largely regarded as one of the best Presidents America ever had. William Taft is largely regarded as one of the largest. One is popularly remembered as a fist shaking, ride-into-battle cowboy; the other for being quite large. And these boiled down descriptions are in their own way true (Taft was a sizable individual), but the actual men, and their actual lives are far more complicated then that (as you would hope, otherwise they'd be too dull to account for a turtle-crusher of a book like this).

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Presidential historian, proves herself adept at relating history. Unlike others who might inscribe their words with a political agenda, Goodwin's works feel more like historical description, relating events as they happened, and as they were reacted to rather than trying to derive a specific narrative out of the lives of great men. And at nearly a 1000 pages, she has left nearly no stone undescribed in the lives not only of Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, but of their wives, their friends, and of the reporters who supported them. However, because the book covers such a long gulf of time, with so many characters, and with so many events transpiring between them, it lacks a primary focus to make it exemplary. It's simply exhaustive.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that have had a tub made special for them, that can fit four skilled workers, or six Irishmen.

Goodwin presents this tale with three potential focuses, and sadly she never hones in on any one in particular. Instead, all three are shared throughout. So, while chapter to chapters the book is inexplicable in it's detail, emotional, and fascinating, the whole is cumbersome and daunting. As I was reading it, a time that can be measured in weeks despite my keen interest in the subjects, I referred to it as a dense slog, a wading through of the molasses of history, in need perhaps of a good attenuation. Her three focuses are thus: the building up and eventual dissolution of the friendship between Roosevelt and Taft; the rise of the Progressive movement in the Republican party at the turn of the twentieth century; and the rise and influence of investigative journalism.

Each of these could have served as the lone narrative, and provided more than enough material. But, because they are intertwined with each other to such an extent, she included it all. And not just those, but more. It seems at times that a simple idea grew in the telling, and that as Goodwin continued to research the men and the era, she turned up more and more material that she thought simply could not be omitted. The first third of the book is mostly a series of brief biographies for all parties involved. Roosevelt, Taft, S.S. McClure, his reporters, the future First Ladies and their families. And throughout the book, each time a new major player is introduced she would pause the story and recount their lives that had brought them to that point. This style can get a bit distracting at ties, and for several of her characters it would have been enough to simply engage them in the action of the time, rather than fill in the societal, political and educational gaps in their history.

The book is exhaustive, and in some moments the level of detail serves Goodwin, and the men she is recounting quite well. The opening chapter,set during Roosevelt's return to America after a year in Africa after Taft's election in 1909, is vivid and rich. She is able to convey personality and gravitas easily, and it helps that her descriptions are augmented with the words of the times. There is barely a sentence in the entire work that isn't qualified by a quote or passage from correspondence. It provides a contemporary commentary on events, while at the same time keeping the work from drifting into editorial. While events may drag on a big, the characters never simmer, and from reading her depictions of these Presidents, you gain a clearer understanding and picture of them then I've ever been privy to.


However, because of the extreme wide lens Goodwin has taken, there is detail, and there is attention lost in detail. Despite the friendship between Taft and Roosevelt being front and centre, the actual building of their friendship is left somewhat ill defined. Both men are aware of each other before meeting, and then suddenly take each other into their confidences without notice. So too do the characters have a tendency to drop out of focus for long chapters at a time. Early in the book Taft is mentioned infrequently while Roosevelt takes the stage. Later, nothing is said of the Colonel's year in Africa, except that he left, was there, and came back. The writers of McClure's get it the worst, roused only occasionally after such extensive set up. I understand that in these moments, these individuals were no contributing to the cause, but because everything is set up so extensively to start, these absences are all the more noticeable. Somewhat bizarrely, despite the fact that the narrative is building specifically towards it, the 1912 election, which saw the creation of the "Bull Moose" Progressive Party is the least detailed election of the book.

The corollary to that are the times when the characters are at their most alive, their most vivid. Taft's tenure as Governor General of the Philippines, for instance, seems a remarkable time and one I'd venture is not known to most. Taft in general comes out the better for this work. Eclipsed by his own size, and Roosevelt's presence in the public consciousness (not to mention his presence on that bloody big rock in South Dakota), Taft is revealed to be one of the most interesting figures of the time. Immensely intelligent, kind, generous, and fair, he was a reluctant President who came into his own and was the rare politician that never seemed to let the politics of governing get the better of him (a lesson that should be learned by most in the public arena today). And he was immensely successful, partly because of the lack of animosity he showed towards others. His single term as President was an incredibly productive one, one of the most productive congresses to that point. That is in sharp contrast to Roosevelt's last term, which saw one of several congresses considered a "Do Nothing" meeting.

I was struck by how many comparisons could be drawn between the political environment Roosevelt faced, and the modern one, and how many comparisons could be made between the Colonel and Obama themselves. And how Goodwin never even hints at making such comparisons. Both men were voted into office based on overwhelming popularity and celebrity. Both promised massive overhauls of an entrenched system dominated by an older, unrelenting Republican party that was unwilling to compromise their positions despite massive public appeal to do so. Both were able to produce results, heavily watered down, based on their promises, and have been met with underwhelming support, public opinion and controversy in their second terms (it's yet to be seen if Obama will have a swell of nostalgia-driven popularity after he leaves office). But beyond that, the world of the early twentieth century is remarkable similar. New technologies are enticing the public, but lack regulation for their abuses. The banks and corporations exude extreme influence over law makers, and sit apparently untouchable in their urban strongholds. And an extreme appeal to the base has caused huge derision between not only the two major parties, but also threatens to cause a break within the party structure themselves.

The most interesting discovery of the book was S.S. McClure, the unstable but remarkable newsman that kicked started the rise of investigative journalism, and really established the printed word of the fifth estate as having a swaying influence over public opinion. McClure's genius and debilitation, being largely unknown (certainly completely unknown to me) made for the most entertaining and enlightening portions of the book, as well as those of his various writers. Hilariously, when I showed the book to someone, they noticed the portraits of McClure's staff on the back cover, and immediately said of lone woman Ida Tarbell that she "must be somebody's secretary." I then enlightened them as to her position as possibly the most influential editorial writer of her time, and the stereotype that women of the time were seen and not heard was something that Tarbell was actively dissuading. None of the women of this story show any signs of the traditional weak woman, least of all Helen Taft, who is as clear a Lady Macbeth (though, without the murder) the White House has ever been home to; or the rebellious Roosevelt daughter Alice, whom not even the Rough Rider could contain.

Despite rough parts, and the tale dragging in places, it is a rich character study that builds as best a picture of these people as I've ever read. The epilogue, which again prances through the years with a frustrating lack of detail as Roosevelt fell to illness, and Taft achieves his life long dream, does manage to be extremely emotional. The long overdue making up of the two men in the most stoic way possible was heart rendering and brought their relationship full circle. So too was the long passage which recounted both a Roosevelt and Taft personal aid's death on board the Titanic. Both of these passages were light, not because of a lack of emotionality in the book, but because of Goodwin's reliance on sources, and sources for these events were nonexistent. This allows the reader to fill in more of the emotional effect in absence of cold hard fact. Which, to be honest, the book might have been better off if that occurred more regularly.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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