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.