Saturday, April 26, 2014

Goodwin - Bully Pulpit

Double-biography, political history, leadership study, romance and the struggle of progressive journalism and governance all wrapped into one.  Doris Kearns Goodwin hits it out of the ballpark with Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.

As a renowned author and scholar of the American Presidency, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest presidential study is of two presidents who were great friends and colleagues before they served as successive Presidents.  Teddy Roosevelt was fascinating for his courage as an American aristocratic who turned away from his conservative roots and colleagues to champion his “Square Deal.”  This progressivism was spawned by the extreme gap between rich and poor arising from the Industrial Revolution.  Roosevelt had observed the rise of the likes of J.P. Morgan, Nelson Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and others who gobbled up the wealth emerging from America’s innovations and new productivity.  Faced with the conservatism of the dominant Republican machine of the day, one purchased by special interest elites, he fashioned a new kind of presidency – one that relied on going to the people for moral authority by engaging the media, particularly McClure’s Magazine, to “muckrake” the misdeeds of the rich and powerful.  Hearty by comparison to all those who preceded and succeeded him, he was loved by the public for his honesty, decisiveness, willingness to challenge the dominant conservative message, and dedicated to serving the common man.

While I knew more about Roosevelt before starting this book, I grew to respect Taft for many of the positive things he achieved.  He was the first Governor General of the Philippines and was profoundly influential in establishing its government after the Spanish-American War of 1899.  As President, he was also extremely effective as an executive engaging with legislators to pass important legislation.  He was one of the most likable of American Presidents, although his struggle with weight control is more often noted than his affable personality.  His wife, Nellie, much more socially and politically ambitious than Edith Roosevelt, was a great partner, establishing cultural programs in the U.S.A. (founding the Cincinnati Symphony) and the Philippines and creating Potomac Park and the legendary cherry blossoms that remain today.  Unfortunately, she was devastated by multiple strokes that prohibited her from fully engaging during the formative, and more difficult, years of Taft’s Presidency.  Ultimately, Taft’s dream, and most likely his most effective service in leadership, was when he was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during the subsequent Harding Presidential years.

So popular as President that he considered, and the public perhaps wanted him to pursue, a third term, Roosevelt demurred and threw his full support to his close and trusted colleague, William Howard Taft.  Embarking on a year-long safari immediately after leaving the Presidency, Roosevelt returned to an adoring populace who loved the substance and image of Teddy, a man with a ballooning ego that would be his undoing.  Once in office, William Howard Taft attempted to sustain the Roosevelt legacy of progressivism but struggled to advocate a new role for government that would still retain the essential elements of constitutional law.  This tension ultimately resulted in Taft making decisions that his mentor began to question and eventually openly challenged.  In some ways the most illuminating portion of Bully Pulpit was the period when Roosevelt came out against Taft and ultimately ran against him when Taft sought his second term.  As a reader who had grown to like the Roosevelt character very much, I was saddened by seeing an ego grow so big that Roosevelt was literally willing to risk everything – his popularity, legacy, dignity and ultimately one of the best true friends he had ever had – William Howard Taft.  The period of the Roosevelt/Taft story when Roosevelt broke from the Republican Party to form the Bull Moose Party is profoundly sad in its impact on both men.  It’s hard to determine which is sadder – the loss of the progressive movement or the destruction of a deep friendship.

Regardless of the turmoil between these two Presidents, first deep and then divided friends, the progressive politics of Roosevelt and Taft would “continue to influence American politics for years to come,” with passage of the progressive income tax, popular election of senators, and women’s right to vote unfolding as part of their legacy.  In the final pages, I found myself cheering along with the diners at the Blackstone Hotel who witnessed the historic restoration of the Roosevelt/Taft friendship when Taft  crossed the room to a small table by the corner window exclaiming, “Theodore!  I am glad to see you.”  A journalist who witnessed it said, “recognizing the significance of the meeting, the chamber erupted into applause” so raucous that it could be heard in the hotel lobby.

Bully Pulpit should be read by any serious student of leadership.  It captures courage, bravado, conviction, folly, loyalty, sacrifice, steadiness, disgrace, forgiveness and much more.  Goodwin provides wonderful illustrations of the best and worst of leadership and all of it is portrayed with the compassion of an author who fully grasps the crucible of leadership.  After drawing so much insight from this wonderful book, I am left with only one question – the question of timing.  When I reflect on Goodwin’s choice to publish Bully Pulpit now, I can’t help but wonder if her intent was to shed light on America’s recent plunge and slow recovery from economic chaos borne of exploitive economic practices that are so similar to the conditions of the early 20th century.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Dyja - The Third Coast

Chicago has an amazing history, one justifying the term used by Thomas Dyja for the title of his book The Third Coast. Chicago is equally important to any of the other big and notable cities of America’s east or west coasts. Among its many distinctions are its architecture, cultural neighborhoods, arts institutions, music (blues, soul, and classical), and institutions created by iconic personalities (Kroc, Oprah, Hefner, Alinsky, Disney).

The more I read the more I see relationships among the things I read and other experiences I’ve had in life. In the case of The Third Coast, I was amazed to find references to the significant role John Dewey played when he and Robert Maynard Hutchins were battling over educational purposes/philosophy at the University of Chicago. Dewey’s early academic career was spent as the founder of its philosophy department, although he moved on to Columbia University for his more formative years. With his focus on pragmatism and direct experience, Dewey’s views quickly took hold in Chicago and influenced other disciplines, including architecture. However, it was Hutchins’ vision for the University, one advocated by the industrial era giant John D. Rockefeller, which had probably the greatest immediate impact. The University of Chicago, with its imposing Gothic architecture, was classically disconnected from its surrounding community from its early days. This “standing apart” would come to exemplify the Ivory Tower metaphor so often used in relation to broader higher education.

I was further amazed by reference to Walter Gropius who, along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, so heavily influenced Chicago architecture in mid-20th century. Gropius was a German architect and head of the Harvard University architecture program and credited with founding modern architecture, a style unique at the time for its simplicity, integration of multiple artistic perspectives, and reliance on studio team work. Many of the buildings in Chicago reflect the sensibility of modernism that now distinguishes its skyline. One missed opportunity was Walter Gropius’ 1922 proposed design for the Chicago Tribune building. Had this design been accepted rather than the neo-Gothic design proposed by Raymond Hood (designer of Rockefeller Center in NYC), Chicago might have looked quite different. Hood’s design was subsequently heavily criticized for its departure from the emerging Chicago-School that characterizes much of Chicago’s current skyline. A fascinating sidebar about Gropius was that he married Alma Mahler after Gustav Mahler’s death in 1911.

One of Chicago’s greatest contributions resulted from its being a haven for Blacks fleeing the oppression of racism in the South. Chicago had its own Black Renaissance (mirroring Harlem of NYC) of literary and musical figures. The music of Tommy Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, and Muddy Waters profoundly influenced popular music in mid-20th century. Unfortunate that Chicago didn’t protect “Bronzeville,” home of the Mecca apartments that were replaced during the urban regeneration advocated by the city’s elites.

Of course Richard J. Daley is referenced throughout many sections of The Third Coast; credited with both building Chicago during critical years of growth as well as for the machine politics that would serve special interests, and result in Chicago’s other popular name - the “Windy City.” Other personalities had an impact on media through the Chicago TV method, shows like Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, the Dave Garroway Show, Studs Terkel, and Ebony Magazine.

I’m only beginning to know Chicago and The Third Coast is perhaps not the most positive way to get acquainted. However, the book provides incredible thick history that will help me be a more informed citizen. Dyja’s pride in his work and Chicago as a city is reflected in the closing pages.  "The city survived, and in many ways it thrives - today it stands as one of the world's most powerful markets, competing with London, Paris, and Hong Kong, and its theater and architecture are the nation's finest, its tech business growing, its chefs renowned.  Neighborhoods have been reclaimed and gentrified by the grandchildren of those who abandoned them."