Doris Kearns Goodwin, in addition to being a lauded popular chronicler of American political history, may also be suspected of having oracular powers. How else could she have known, except via crystal ball, that a wide-angle view of the Progressive Era begun seven years ago would finally see print at the exact moment it could not be more relevant? Then again, since her professional focus has long been the pendulum of politics and its swing from right to left, from corruption to reform and back again, she could be confident that such a story has perennial echoes. History, alas, repeats. And repeats. After the excesses of the Gilded Age — from a hundred millionaires in the 1870s, the number of ultra-rich swelled to 4,000 in only twenty years — greedy legislators clearly needed to be put on a diet; understandably, they had little desire to curb their own consumption of the graft upon which they grew fat. The time was ripe for a crusader like Teddy Roosevelt: heroic yet moderate, irrepressible but well-loved, politick and ethical both.
The time is ripe yet again.
Kearns slyly acknowledges the good timing of The Bully Pulpit, her seventh book (and her fourth after snagging a Pulitzer for No Ordinary Time, a study of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt), in her preface. At the time of Theodore Roosevelt’s election to the presidency in 1901, she says, the country was experiencing “a pernicious underlying crisis” — “an immense gulf” between rich and poor. It just so happens that the same wide canyon has opened again, measured by a recent study: income disparity in 2012 reached the widest point in nearly a hundred years, or since the end of the very era that is the subject of this account. Leaving the suggestion of what to make of this similarity hanging decoratively in the air, Goodwin launches into her tale of how three forces embodied change and counterchange at the turn of the last century. Two of them are unrepeatable — the very particular personalities of individuals who became friends, presidents, enemies — while the third, the overseeing eye of the press that enjoyed a shining moment of power in the great age of “muckraking” journalism, is loosely implied as the only hope for a corrective to the inequities that deform our system today. Ida Tarbell, come back!
The conjoining of three simultaneous tales makes this a far richer type of history — prescriptive and illustrative at once—than a unitary or even sequential look at each could ever be (especially when it comes to William Taft, the weakest of her subjects in narrative terms as well as in history’s judgment of his administration). The authorial choice to intercut life stories lends a cinematic dynamism to what might have been a linear plod along a lengthy stretch of American history. And within each scene, opting to focus on the women who would otherwise have receded into the background, static and blurred, becomes a commentary both on an important change beginning to occur in the national character (the Nineteenth Amendment, finally born in 1919, had been an intensifying gleam in the eye of many during this period) and on the way history is normally told: as if it happened only to, and by virtue of, men.
After opening on the rousing welcome home given Roosevelt upon return from a post-presidential year in Africa — a literary sparkler ignited to entrance the reader as well as concisely demonstrate the enormous affection felt for its former leader by the nation, which staged an unprecedented five-mile parade for a million onlookers — Goodwin goes back to a more stately procession of scholarship, beginning with the childhoods and youthful attainments of Taft and Roosevelt. Then she gets to the women. In her short biographies of Nellie Herron Taft, “a voracious reader,” unconventional intellectual, and ambitious political wife, and Edith Carow Roosevelt, poet and saloniste, we find all the colors of life — that is to say, emotion. Without it, a work of history is a timeline with quotes.
Certainly, much does happen, chronologically speaking. After all, Goodwin has set herself the task of covering the lives and times of not one but two U.S. presidents during a substantive span of more than thirty years. Her careful attention to the friendship of two nearly opposed personalities is contextualized within the propulsive ethos of the age. She gives us an impetuous and personable Roosevelt, frenetic and at the ready to absorb novel information; and his counterpart in Taft, thoughtful and second-guessing, so anxious about his oratorical skills it was a foregone conclusion that he could display none. Roosevelt had found a successor he believed he could trust implicitly, but for Taft the presidency was almost an afterthought — his lifelong ambition was an appointment to the Supreme Court — and he treated it that way, to the sore disappointment of his friend. Taft got his wish to sit on the high court’s bench, but only after the breach with Teddy also rent the Republican Party.
Impressive as this depiction is — political and social history mixed adroitly with character study — it is the inclusion of a third panel, to make of Bully Pulpit a triptych, that gives it audacious breadth. (It’s also what makes Goodwin’s books the type of bestseller apt to be optioned by a director like Steven Spielberg, and more than once). This segment pictures the concurrent rise of investigative journalism as a check on governmental malfeasance, here embodied by the peerless monthly, McClure’s.
The passages devoted to its founder, the unpredictable genius Sam McClure, and the writing talents he gathered to make it for a meteoric moment the most important voice of its time, are to me (biased, yes, but then I am a writer) the book’s most fascinating. The sad breakup between editor and staff years later mirrored that of the two men whose legislation the writers both encouraged and censured in the magazine’s pages — the microphone in TR’s “bully pulpit,” as it were. In both cases, too, there were poignant reunions, gracefully captured and offered by the author as if to say: it is not only what happens that matters; it is to whom.
All told, here are 750 pages of events, emotions, and yes, quotes; it is a relief that Goodwin knows how to make them into sails, not ballast. We glide through her words as through a placid sea. The sweeping book has the unparalleled quality of being both deep and easy. In other words, the ideal storyboard for a big movie with a little of everything: romance, political intrigue, oratory, blood in the streets, a charge up San Juan Hill. And, at its heart, two men. Just men.
America’s divisive history: coming soon to a theater near you.