Doris Kearns Goodwin creates a behemoth of early twentieth century history in The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. I confess to knowing very little beyond the basics about Roosevelt. Before reading this book, I knew even less about Taft and the specific journalists of the time. Nor did I know anything about the two First Ladies in question. But, thanks to Goodwin I learned a lot.
Both of these former Presidents were men of privilege and ambition. And they both lived up to what they attempted, for the most part. However, I found the stories of the journalists lives more accessible and interesting. For the most part, they were closer to average citizens of the day, with humble beginnings. Still, as a group they traveled more than the average American of the time. Sometimes it was in pursuit of their stories, but they also traveled for rest and relaxation.
This is a comprehensive history, starting with each man’s early family history and even the courtships with their wives. Goodwin discusses every decade and life-altering decision. And she makes each aspect of their lives layer on another.
Taft and Roosevelt were fast friends in their early careers, but as time passed and circumstances changed, they became rivals. This part of the book is intensely political, detailing the machinations within the Republican Party, both state and national. Each President also fought for signature legislation and causes, so Goodwin includes lots of detail here.
The First Ladies
Despite not including Nellie Taft and Edith Roosevelt in her title or subtitle, Goodwin does draw a clear picture of both women’s lives. Nellie is a fascinating woman, but Edith is less so. Adding the information about these women in the context of their husbands’ lives is a necessary overlay to both aspects of the biographies. I’d like to read a biography more focused on Nellie, now that Goodwin has introduced her to me.
Integrating the stories of a group of prominent journalists is a stroke of genius. Of course, Roosevelt was known for his relationships with those journalists. Somehow it seemed fitting that when those relationships went sour, he very nearly called their work “fake news.” And Goodwin explains how Taft struggled to have the same connection to the writers. But more intriguing is the story of how the journalists got their starts in the business and how their careers evolved with the industry. And yes, why we call it muckraking when journalists expose corruption in the mechanisms of power.
The Bully Pulpit is over 900 pages, including the end notes. I chose the audiobook, which weighs in at nearly 37 hours. Despite its size, or perhaps because of it, Bully Pulpit is thoroughly captivating. It’s the way history should be written—with verve and strength. I can’t wait to read more of Goodwin’s work, and now I know why people rate her books so highly.
In 2016 and early 2017, I recall hearing that this period in history had parallels to the rise of Trumpism and the far-right radicalization of the Republican Party. People mentioned this book regularly. And I’m just getting to it now, which gives me the benefit of a longer comparison period. And I do agree. The resemblances and differences are worth exploring.
Given that, as well as today’s political climate, the last 150 pages of the book are especially interesting. In them, Roosevelt loses the Republican Presidential primaries and caucuses. In response, he starts a third party. This splits the Republican votes in the general election and the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, wins. While Goodwin doesn’t address Wilson’s failures—that’s another book entirely—it does make you wonder. If Roosevelt or Taft was President during World War I or the Spanish Flu Epidemic, imagine how different the world might be.
If you want to explore why our country’s situation isn’t as “unprecedented” as the talking heads say, give this book a go. I especially recommend it to political and history buffs.
Pair with anything short because this will take you a while to complete! For example, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chiminanda Ngozi Adichie would be an interesting balance to the women of the early 20th century.