Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

This is a book that came out I think a little over a year ago and I had heard overall very positive things about it. Being, of course, a Roosevelt fanboy I was rather interested in more information about Roosevelt and his presidency, and the promise of comparing Taft with his predecessor, especially in their handling of press relations, was very promising. Personally, I think I had very different expectations of this book than what other people had because I was a little disappointed with Goodwin's approach. This book is very heavily biographical, rather than a large-picture view of history (which I am unabashedly in favor of), and there's a lot of focus in comparing and contrasting Taft and Roosevelt's personalities and lives, which definitely shaped public perception of both those gentlemen as president. Roosevelt seems to dominate the work, but this is not terribly surprising considering Roosevelt had an incessant need to be center stage in almost everything that he did. It does make me wish for more information about Taft, though, because he's simply no match personality-wise with Roosevelt. Despite my disappointments I did find this book informative and hope to expand my personal readings about both Taft and Roosevelt in the future.

The book begins by focusing on Taft and Roosevelt biographically, comparing and contrasting their childhoods, education, family lives, and personal ambitions, all which served to shape Roosevelt into the quintessential politician and Taft into the epitome of judicial wisdom. Both Edith Carow and Nellie Herron receive their own chapters to show how these women complimented their husbands and had their own differences in personality as well. Along the way, the book brings in the biography of S.S. McClure, eventual founder of McClure's magazine, a prominent progressive publication in the early years of the twentieth century, as well as briefly talking about the lives of staff members such as Ida Tarbell, Ray Baker, Lincoln Steffens, and William White. In a way, McClure's gets its own biography in the story as well when Goodwin chronicles its inception, zenith, and eventual decline. The result is the personal life stories of several unique individuals that get weaved together and influence each other for a number of very critical years, resulting in landmark legislation like the Pure Food and Drug Act.

I think my biggest disappointment was the fact that McClure's (and then the work of the most prominent staff members of McClure's) was the central focus of Goodwin's analysis of the early twentieth century press. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw a tremendous growth in print culture, expanding access to literature and information to a level simply unheard of before. McClure's was one of many, many publications, and definitely not the only muck-raking publication on the market either. Although incredibly prominent, McClure's represents only one part of the entire market of print media. Obviously a complete analysis of the entire printing industry in the early 1900's would be extremely difficult to say the least, but I had hoped for a more in-depth comparison.

What I really appreciated was more information on Roosevelt and his more progressive policies. In Theodore Rex, TR's conservation and water management policies are talked about, but very little to no attention was given to landmark regulations passed under Roosevelt's administration. The Bully Pulpit does do an excellent job in showing how publications like McClure's were influential in shaping public opinion on subjects such as trusts, patent medicines, and railroad regulation, creating political pressure for the largely business-friendly Republican congress to pass such regulatory legislation. In addition, this book shows how Roosevelt is able to capitalize on this public opinion to force through his legislation, although I felt like it didn't do as great a job showing Taft's inability (or unwillingness) to utilize the press for political purposes. From my readings in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, Roosevelt definitely has a strong rapport with the members of the press, realizing its political potential, and you see that in The Bully Pulpit as well. Taft, as Goodwin illuminates, seems to be used to delivering judicial opinions rather than making press conferences and does not have Roosevelt's charisma when it comes to media relations. However, in this book it doesn't feel sufficiently expanded upon, especially because that's the central theme of the book.

I think much of my disappointment stems from this book is more a collection of intertwining biographies rather than a unified historical narrative. It definitely sheds some much-appreciated light on print culture in the early twentieth century as well as the Taft and Roosevelt administrations, but there's much that's left to be desired as well. I'd definitely recommend it as a supplemental book, but I feel it requires a lot of extra knowledge to fill in gaps that are otherwise left from this text.

- Kalpar  

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