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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Bully Pulpit

Today I finished The Bully Pulpit. Next up are Invisible Man, Children of Dune, and Contre Saint-Beuve.

The full title of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book is The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. I generally really enjoyed the book, although I feel like it took me forever to get through. It’s very accessible and easy to read through. The author conveys a large amount of detail, but in a conversational way and almost always makes clear why the details are relevant to the larger narrative. There are a few places where she goes a bit further into details about someone’s parents or grandparents than seems necessary or meaningful, but it’s not something that happens often.

As the title indicates, there are three main subjects of the book, the two presidents and journalists. More specifically she focuses on the magazine McClure’s and the advent of investigative journalism and muckraking. I like that she takes this broader perspective. Just as it would be impossible to fully understand the far reaching impact of Martin Luther’s reformation efforts without acknowledging the impact of Gutenberg’s printing press, it would seem to be missing a big part of the picture to look at Teddy Roosevelt without looking at the large changes the press underwent that helped him redirect the course of the Republican Party and the nation.

The rest of this post isn’t so much about the book as the points I found most interesting about the two presidents as someone who definitely does not count history generally or American history specifically amongst his strong suits. There isn’t as much about Teddy because the major facets of his presidency didn’t surprise me, I had a basic grasp of who he was and what he’d done, whereas I knew virtually nothing about Taft.

The manner in which Theodore Roosevelt rose to the presidency is certainly interesting. The leaders of the party could not abide him having another term as governor of New York. The only way they could see to prevent that without compromising their hold on the state was to promote him to that most “powerless” position, vice president of the United States. He was meant to wallow in that position in obscurity and be forgotten by the time he could seek office again. But following McKinley’s assassination, he cemented his position as a champion of common Americans and became the first person to ascend to the presidency by virtue of a vacancy and retain the post for another term. During his term, he fundamentally reshaped the Republican Party and passed large regulatory reforms. He probably would have done much more had he not pledged, immediately after being elected, to not seek another term. He came to bitterly regret that decision, but tried to make the best of it by supporting the election of his good friend and trusted ally, William Howard Taft.

Reading about Taft mainly made me feel bad for him. Taft’s presidency is not viewed as remarkable. In pretty much every ranking of presidents, he hovers around the middle or a little lower. To the extent the average American is aware of Taft, they generally only know him as the fat president that got stuck in, broke, or had to get someone to specially make a bathtub. For the record, it seems doubtful that he did get stuck in a bathtub, precisely because he had a large one specially made. There never was much evidence it happened in the first place. There was a crack in the tub, but that happened when it was being removed during renovations. There’s also a legend that a crack appeared in the Italian marble tub aboard the Mayflower during Taft’s presidency, when he would have used it, but there’s little to substantiate that either.

Now on to what Taft actually did. There was a reason Roosevelt had so much confidence in him. He had proven himself as an effective executive, statesman, and administrator. Taft took volatile or outright violent situations in the Phillipines, Panama, and Cuba, and effectively deescalated them in a peaceful manner. Given the fact that he seems to have been all but forgotten by the general public, one might think that nothing significant happened during his time in the White House. Taft was the first president to fight against tariffs that corporations essentially dictated and made essentials unaffordable by the middle and lower classes. He was politically damaged by signing a compromise bill that angered people on both sides of the tariff issue. Taft prosecuted nearly a hundred trusts for anti-competitive practices. While the president has no official role in amending the Consitution, he was largely responsible for the 16th Amendment (allowing income taxes) and the 17th Amendment (direct election of Senators) was ratified a couple of months after he left office.

Taft wasn’t an amazing president. He definitely made mistakes, and he lacked the independent disposition that one expects from a holder of that office. Throughout his adult life, he had relied on the guidance and help from two people: Theodore Roosevelt and his wife. Roosevelt left the country immediately after Taft’s inauguration and, through a series of bizarre and petty actions by a host of different people, Roosevelt came to be Taft’s enemy and when that feeling combined with his ego and nostalgia for being president, he seems to have lost all sense of propriety and proportion. Taft’s wife was probably the first first lady to take an active hand in political movements. During her first ten weeks in the White House she accomplished an amazing amount, including creating Potomac Park and bringing in the trees that now make up D.C.’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. But ten weeks into Taft’s term, she suffered a major stroke, that largely removed her ability to speak. Taft not only lost his two major driving forces, one became a bitter antagonist and the other a large drain on his time and energy as he worked to personally nurse her back to health.

Despite all of this, he was still relatively successful in accomplishing his legislative agenda and delivering on campaign promises (even if many thought he didn’t go far enough). He was (to his campaign manager’s chagrin) generally unwilling to attack his opponents and was viewed as one of the most likable men of the time. The went on to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court which, until he got Congress to cough up some money, still met in a basement of the Senate. Taft and Roosevelt’s story is a sad one, but well worth the read.

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