Book review: The Bully Pulpit

The Republic National Convention begins today in Ohio. Rather than ignore the elephant in the state (ha!), I thought this would be a good time to review a book that I read as part of the Book Riot 2016 Read Harder Challenge — The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

I chose The Bully Pulpit for Read Harder task #21: read a book about politics in your country or another (fiction or nonfiction) but this 928-page tome could also fulfill tasks #7 and #10: read a biography and read a book over 500 pages, respectively. I purposely chose the audio edition since Edward Hermann’s performance won the 2015 Audie Award for History/Biography (Read Harder task #9: listen to an audiobook that won an Audie Award).

I’ll admit that I hadn’t realized how long the book was when I placed a hold on it. I knew I would never finish all thirty discs before they were due. The test would be whether I would want to renew the book or not. By the time I got the two-day warning notice from the library, I was hooked.

Roosevelt and Taft were close friends. So how was it that, after Roosevelt helps Taft become his successor, he ends up running for president against him in 1912? To explain the rift, Goodwin compares and contrasts the upbringing and education of the two men. She quotes from their many letters of correspondence. She examines the political career of each and shows how their families and wives influenced them.

Goodwin sets this relationship within the context of the Progressive Era. Both Roosevelt and Taft were reformists but only the former learned to take full advantage of “the bully pulpit” of his public office by enlisting journalists to forward his agenda. He formed close ties with Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, William Allen White, and Sam McClure. These muckrakers exposed corruption and injustices giving political reformers the public support they needed to make changes.

We learn that Taft’s great ambition was to serve on the Supreme Court. He excelled at taking the facts of a case, considering all sides and then writing a decision. He was far less comfortable making speeches and never established the same rapport with the press that Roosevelt did. As a result, Taft appeared to side with the business interests that Roosevelt had battled. That’s why in 1912 Roosevelt broke his promise not to run for a third term. When Roosevelt delegates weren’t recognized during the Republican convention, he formed the Progressive Party to continue campaigning. The divide between the former friends helped get Democrat Woodrow Wilson elected.

For me, starting this book just as the 2016 presidential primaries were getting under way was great timing. I thought the bickering between candidates IN THE SAME PARTY was further evidence that our modern society is going to hell in a handbasket. I almost think these conflicts are tame when compared to the shenanigans of early 20th-century American politics.

Even if this wasn’t an election year, I could still appreciate the parallels between the past as chronicled by Goodwin and our lives today. There is still a gap between rich and poor. People are still calling for election reform. Money still buys influence. Decisions that affect many are still made by a few behind closed doors. Investigative journalists still have the power to reveal corruption and injustice or just feed the public’s hunger for sensationalism.

For those of you hesitating to take on such a lengthy book, look at it this way: you are getting two biographies for the price of one. Actually, the profiles of Tarbell, Steffens, White and McClure are substantive enough to qualify as biographies, too. Learning about all of these fascinating characters and how they each influenced our history is well worth the investment of your reading time.


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