“The Bully Pulpit” – Doris Kearns Goodwin

Recently I’ve become interested in the history of the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century because I’d like to understand better how progressive ideas overcame the power of monopolies and laissez-faire philosophy. In many ways those days are similar to present day, with increasing inequality between the rich and the poor, and the rising power of large corporations – or “trusts” as they were known back then.

In “The Bully Pulpit” Doris K. Goodwin tells part of this story through a biography of two champions of the progressive cause: Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft.

Teddy Roosevelt got into politics when he was in his twenties. As a young man he was elected to New York state assembly, then served as New York City police commissioner, and eventually was elected a governor of New York. Teddy was a fighter and he worked hard to weed out political corruption. He said about the political parties:

“Each party profited by the offices when in power,” Roosevelt explained, “and when in opposition each party insincerely denounced its opponents for doing exactly what it itself had done and intended again to do.”

The result was that the Republican party nominated him to become the Vice Presidential for William McKinley in 1900, in order to prevent him from running for the second term as Governor of New York.  But six months into his second term McKinley was assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt, unexpectedly,  became the President.

William Taft was a lawyer from Cincinnati. He was widely admired for being a nice, friendly and likable guy. His initial career was moving towards becoming a judge, but his wife encouraged his more political ambitions.  As a result William Taft served in Washington, DC in the Justice Department during the Harrison administration.  While there he met Theodore Roosevelt and the two men formed a friendship that lasted for the remainder of their lives (with some bumps along the way).

At the end of the 19th century a progressive sentiment has been rising in the country. As today there were attempts for disrupt the power of the two major parties. In 1890 the Farmer’s Alliance fielded radical candidates in midterm elections and  Mary Lease, a proponent of reforms, expressed the feeling of many citizens at the time:

“Wall Street owns the country,” she charged. “It is no longer a government of the people by the people for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street.”

At the same time number of progressive magazines that pioneered investigative journalism came into being. Perhaps the most influential of these was McClure’s, which under direction of Sam McClure published works by it’s staff writers, including Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Baker and William White. They wrote extended investigative pieces on railroad and oil trusts.  For example Ida Tarbell’s series on History of Standard Oil eventually led to forced brake up of Standard Oil.

The articles in these magazines moved public opinion to  support of progressive reforms. The popular backing allowed, then President, Theodore Roosevelt to push a number of important legislative reforms such as establishing a Bureau of Corporations, to regulate the behavior of trust. Similarly what we now know as the Food and Drug Administration was first established during Theodore Roosevelt’s term – largely in response to “The Jungle” – a novel, written by Upton Sinclair,  about the conditions in Chicago stockyards.

After Roosevelt served his two terms in office, he helped Taft to get elected to continue the progressive agenda. However, Taft’s disposition was that of a peace maker, not a fighter and Roosevelt along with progressives of the day became unhappy with Taft’s approach. This was despite the fact that Taft managed to get number of policies enacted, for example reforms of tariffs or his aggressive prosecution of monopolies. Still country’s dissatisfaction with Taft was expressed in the 1910 mid-term elections, when the Republican party suffered a humiliating loss.

“It was not only a landslide, ” he acknowledged, “but a tidal wave and holocaust all rolled into one general cataclysm.”

All this led Roosevelt to attempt a presidential run for a third term in 1912.  He attempted to secure the Republican nomination for President, but after  a nasty fight Taft still won the nomination.  In response Roosevelt decided to start a third party, the National Progressive Party, which nominated him as candidate for President.

In the 1912 election  Theodore Roosevelt received more votes that William Taft, but because he split the Republican vote the election was won by  Woodrow Wilson.

After the ill fated 1912 elections, Taft and Roosevelt became estranged and did not speak at all for several years. They did however reconciled, before Roosevelt’s death.

I greatly enjoyed reading “The Bully Pulpit”, and only that very end it occurred to me that the book could have been called “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”.