Winner of the Carnegie Medal.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit is a dynamic history of the first decade of the Progressive era, that tumultuous time when the nation was coming unseamed and reform was in the air.
The story is told through the intense friendship of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft—a close relationship that strengthens both men before it ruptures in 1912, when they engage in a brutal fight for the presidential nomination that divides their wives, their children, and their closest friends, while crippling the progressive wing of the Republican Party, causing Democrat Woodrow Wilson to be elected, and changing the country’s history.
The Bully Pulpit is also the story of the muckraking press, which arouses the spirit of reform that helps Roosevelt push the government to shed its laissez-faire attitude toward robber barons, corrupt politicians, and corporate exploiters of our natural resources. The muckrakers are portrayed through the greatest group of journalists ever assembled at one magazine—Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, and William Allen White—teamed under the mercurial genius of publisher S.S. McClure.
Goodwin’s narrative is founded upon a wealth of primary materials. The correspondence of more than four hundred letters between Roosevelt and Taft begins in their early thirties and ends only months before Roosevelt’s death. Edith Roosevelt and Nellie Taft kept diaries. The muckrakers wrote hundreds of letters to one another, kept journals, and wrote their memoirs. The letters of Captain Archie Butt, who served as a personal aide to both Roosevelt and Taft, provide an intimate view of both men.
The Bully Pulpit, like Goodwin’s brilliant chronicles of the Civil War and World War II, exquisitely demonstrates her distinctive ability to combine scholarly rigor with accessibility. It is a major work of history—an examination of leadership in a rare moment of activism and reform that brought the country closer to its founding ideals.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:January 4, 1943
Place of Birth:Brooklyn, NY
Education:B. A., Colby College; Ph.D., Harvard University
Read an Excerpt
The Bully Pulpit CHAPTER ONE The Hunter ReturnsTheodore Roosevelt receives a hero’s welcome in New York on June 18, 1910, following his expedition to Africa.
ROOSEVELT IS COMING HOME, HOORAY! Exultant headlines in mid-June 1910 trumpeted the daily progress of the Kaiserin, the luxury liner returning the former president, Theodore Roosevelt, to American shores after his year’s safari in Africa.
Despite popularity unrivaled since Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt, true to his word, had declined to run for a third term after completing seven and a half years in office. His tenure had stretched from William McKinley’s assassination in September 1901 to March 4, 1909, when his own elected term came to an end. Flush from his November 1904 election triumph, he had stunned the political world with his announcement that he would not run for president again, citing “the wise custom which limits the President to two terms.” Later, he reportedly told a friend that he would willingly cut off his hand at the wrist if he could take his pledge back.
Roosevelt had loved being president—“the greatest office in the world.” He had relished “every hour” of every day. Indeed, fearing the “dull thud” he would experience upon returning to private life, he had devised the perfect solution to “break his fall.” Within three weeks of the inauguration of his successor, William Howard Taft, he had embarked on his great African adventure, plunging into the most “impenetrable spot on the globe.”
For months Roosevelt’s friends had been preparing an elaborate reception to celebrate his arrival in New York. When “the Colonel,” as Roosevelt preferred to be called, first heard of the extravagant plans devised for his welcome, he was troubled, fearing that the public response would not match such lofty expectations. “Even at this moment I should certainly put an instant stop to all the proceedings if I felt they were being merely ‘worked up’ and there was not a real desire . . . of at least a great many people to greet me,” he wrote one of the organizers in March 1910. “My political career is ended,” he told Lawrence Abbott of The Outlook, who had come to meet him in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, when he first emerged from the jungle. “No man in American public life has ever reached the crest of the wave as I appear to have done without the wave’s breaking and engulfing him.”
Anxiety that his star had dimmed, that the public’s devotion had dwindled, proved wildly off the mark. While he had initially planned to return directly from Khartoum, Roosevelt received so many invitations to visit the reigning European sovereigns that he first embarked on a six-week tour of Italy, Austria, Hungary, France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, and England. Kings and queens greeted him as an equal, universities bestowed upon him their highest degrees, and the German Kaiser treated him as an intimate friend. Every city, town, and village received him with a frenzied enthusiasm that stunned the most sophisticated observers. “People gathered at railway stations, in school-houses, and in the village streets,” one journalist observed. They showered his carriage with flowers, thronged windows of tenement houses, and greeted him with “Viva, viva, viva Roosevelt!” Newspapers in the United States celebrated Roosevelt’s triumphant procession through the Old World, sensing in his unparalleled reception a tribute to America’s newfound position of power. “No foreign ruler or man of eminence could have aroused more universal attention, received a warmer welcome, or achieved greater popularity among every class of society,” the New York Times exulted.
“I don’t suppose there was ever such a reception as that being given Theodore in Europe,” Taft wistfully told his military aide, Captain Archie Butt. “It illustrates how his personality has swept over the world,” such that even “small villages which one would hardly think had ever heard of the United States should seem to know all about the man.” The stories of Roosevelt’s “royal progress” through Europe bolstered the efforts of his friends to ensure, in Taft’s words, “as great a demonstration of welcome from his countrymen as any American ever received.”
In the week preceding his arrival in America, tens of thousands of visitors from all over the country had descended upon New York, lending the city’s hotels and streets “a holiday appearance.” Inbound trains carried a cast of characters “as diversely typical of the American people as Mr. Roosevelt himself . . . conservationists and cowboys, capitalists and socialists, insurgents and regulars, churchmen and sportsmen, native born and aliens.” More than two hundred vessels, including five destroyers, six revenue cutters, and dozens of excursion steamboats, tugs, and ferryboats, all decked with colorful flags and pennants, had sailed into the harbor to take part in an extravagant naval display.
An army of construction workers labored to complete the speaker’s platform and grandstand seating at Battery Park, where Roosevelt would address an overflow crowd of invited guests. Businesses had given their workers a half-holiday so they could join in the festivities. “Flags floated everywhere,” an Ohio newspaper reported; “pictures of Roosevelt were hung in thousands of windows and along the line of march, buildings were draped with bunting.”
The night before the big day, a dragnet was set to arrest known pickpockets. Five thousand police and dozens of surgeons and nurses were called in for special duty. “The United States of America at the present moment simulates quite the attitude of the small boy who can’t go to sleep Christmas Eve for thinking of the next day,” the Atlanta Constitution suggested. “And the colonel, returning as rapidly as a lusty steamship can plow the waves, is the ‘next day.’ It is a remarkable tribute to the man’s personality that virtually every element of citizenship in the country should be more or less on tiptoes in the excitement of anticipation.”
SHORTLY AFTER 7 A.M. ON June 18, as the bright rising sun burned through the mists, Theodore Roosevelt, as jubilant with anticipation as his country, stood on the bridge of the Kaiserin as the vessel headed into New York Harbor. Edith, his handsome forty-eight-year-old wife, stood beside him. She had journeyed halfway around the world to join him in Khartoum at the end of his long African expedition. Edith had found their year-long parting, the longest in their twenty-three years of marriage, almost unbearable. “If it were not for the children here I would not have the nervous strength to live through these endless months of separation from Father,” she wrote her son Kermit after Theodore had been gone only two weeks. “When I am alone & let myself think I am done for.”
Edith was no stranger to the anxiety of being apart from the man for whom she “would do anything in the world.” They had been intimate childhood friends, growing up together in New York’s Union Square neighborhood. She had joined “Teedie,” as he was then called, and his younger sister Corinne, in a private schoolroom arranged at the Roosevelt mansion. Even as children, they missed each other when apart. As Teedie was setting off with his family on a Grand Tour of Europe when he was eleven years old, he broke down in tears at the thought of leaving eight-year-old Edith behind. She proved his most faithful correspondent over the long course of the trip. She had been a regular guest at “Tranquillity,” the Roosevelts’ summer home on Long Island, where they sailed together in the bay, rode horseback along the trails, and shared a growing passion for literature. As adolescents, they were dancing partners at cotillions and constant companions on the social scene. Roosevelt proudly noted that his freshman college classmates at Harvard considered Edith and her friend Annie Murray “the prettiest girls they had met” when they visited him in New York during Christmas vacation.
In the summer of 1878, after his sophomore year, however, the young couple had a mysterious “falling out” at Tranquillity. “One day,” Roosevelt later wrote, “there came a break” during a late afternoon rendezvous at the estate’s summerhouse. The conflict that erupted, Roosevelt admitted, ended “his very intimate relations” with Edith. Though neither one would ever say what had happened, Roosevelt cryptically noted to his sister Anna that “both of us had, and I suppose have, tempers that were far from being of the best.”
The intimacy that Edith had cherished for nearly two decades seemed lost forever the following October, when Roosevelt met Alice Hathaway Lee. The beautiful, enchanting daughter of a wealthy Boston businessman, Alice lived in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, not far from Cambridge. The young Harvard junior fell in love with his “whole heart and soul.” Four months after his graduation in 1880, they were married. Then, in 1884, only two days after giving birth to their only child, Alice died.
A year later, Theodore resumed his friendship with Edith. And the year after that they were married. As time passed, Edith’s meticulous and thoughtful nature made her an exemplary partner for Theodore. “I do not think my eyes are blinded by affection,” the president told a friend, “when I say that she has combined to a degree I have never seen in any other woman the power of being the best of wives and mothers, the wisest manager of the household, and at the same time the ideal great lady and mistress of the White House.”
Their boisterous family eventually included six children. Three of the six were standing next to their parents on the bridge of the ocean liner: twenty-year-old Kermit, who had accompanied his father to Africa; eighteen-year-old Ethel; and twenty-six-year-old Alice, the child born to his first wife.
The girls had joined their parents in Europe. Along the rails of the four upper decks, their fellow passengers, some 3,000 in all, formed a colorful pageant as they waved their handkerchiefs and cheered.
Although wireless telegrams on board the ship had alerted Roosevelt to some of the day’s planned activities, he was surprised to learn that President Taft had assigned the massive battleship South Carolina as his official escort. “By George! That’s one of my ships! Doesn’t she look good?” an overwhelmed Roosevelt exclaimed when he saw her gray bulk pulling near. “Flags were broken out from stem to stern in the ceremony of dressing the ship,” reported the Boston Daily Globe, while “a puff from the muzzle of an eight-pounder” signaled the start of a 21-gun salute, the highest ceremonial honor, generally reserved for heads of state. Sailors clad in blue lined the decks of the warship, as the scarlet-uniformed Marine Band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The cannon roar of the South Carolina was followed by the rhythmic volley of salutes and whistles from the dozen or more additional naval ships in the bay. President Taft had clearly gone to great lengths, Captain Butt proudly noted, “to add dignity to the welcome and to extend a warm personal greeting to his predecessor.”
From the deck, Roosevelt spotted the tugboat carrying the reporters whose eyewitness accounts of the spectacular scene would dominate the news the following day. As he leaned over the rail and vigorously waved his top hat back and forth to them, they stood and cheered. To each familiar face, he nodded his head and smiled broadly, displaying his famous teeth, which appeared “just as prominent and just as white and perfect as when he went away.” Then, recognizing the photographers’ need to snap his picture, he stopped his hectic motions and stood perfectly still.
During his presidency, Roosevelt’s physical vigor and mental curiosity had made the White House a hive of activity and interest. His “love of the hurly-burly” that enchanted reporters and their readers was best captured by British viscount John Morley, who claimed that “he had seen two tremendous works of nature in America—the Niagara Falls and Mr. Roosevelt.” One magazine writer marveled at his prodigious stream of guests—“pugilists, college presidents, professional wrestlers, Greek scholars, baseball teams, big-game hunters, sociologists, press agents, authors, actors, Rough Riders, bad men, and gun-fighters from the West, wolf-catchers, photographers, guides, bear-hunters, artists, labor-leaders.” When he left for Africa, the “noise and excitement” vanished; little wonder that the members of the press were thrilled to see him return.
Shortly after the Kaiserin dropped anchor at Quarantine, the revenue cutter Manhattan pulled alongside, carrying the Roosevelts’ youngest sons, sixteen-year-old Archie and twelve-year-old Quentin, both of whom had remained at home. Their oldest son, twenty-two-year-old Theodore Junior, who was set to marry Eleanor Alexander the following Monday, joined the group along with an assortment of family members, including Roosevelt’s sisters, Anna and Corinne; his son-in-law, Congressman Nicholas Longworth; his niece Eleanor Roosevelt; and her husband, Franklin. While Edith anxiously sought a glimpse of the children she had not seen for more than two months, Roosevelt busily shook hands with each of the officers, sailors, and engineers of the ship. “Come here, Theodore, and see your children,” Edith called out. “They are of far greater importance than politics or anything else.”
Roosevelt searched the promenade deck of the Manhattan, reported the Chicago Tribune, until his eyes rested on “the round face of his youngest boy, Quentin, who was dancing up and down on the deck, impatient to be recognized,” telling all who would listen that he would be the one “to kiss pop first.” At the sight of the lively child, “the Colonel spread his arms out as if he would undertake a long-distance embrace” and smiled broadly as he nodded to each of his relatives in turn.
When Roosevelt stepped onto the crimson-covered gangplank for his transfer to the Manhattan, “pandemonium broke loose.” The ship’s band played “America,” the New York Times reported, and “there came from the river craft, yachts, and ships nearby a volley of cheers that lasted for fully five minutes.” Bugles blared, whistles shrieked, and “everywhere flags waved, hats were tossed into the air, and cries of welcome were heard.” Approaching the deck where his children were jumping in anticipation, Roosevelt executed a “flying leap,” and “with the exuberance and spirit of a school boy, he took up Quentin and Archie in his arms and gave them resounding smacks.” He greeted Theodore Junior with a hearty slap on the back, kissed his sisters, and then proceeded to shake hands with every crew member.
Around 9 a.m., the Androscoggin, carrying Cornelius Vanderbilt, the chairman of the reception, and two hundred distinguished guests, came alongside the Manhattan. As Roosevelt made the transfer to the official welcoming vessel, he asked that everyone form a line so that he could greet each individual personally and then went at the task of shaking hands with such high spirits, delivering for each person such “an explosive word of welcome,” that what might have been a duty for another politician became an act of joy. “I’m so glad to see you,” he greeted each person in turn. The New York Times reporter noted that “the ‘so’ went off like a firecracker. The smile backed it up in a radiation of energy, and the hearty grip of the hand that came down upon its respondent with a bang emphasized again the exact meaning of the words.”
When Roosevelt grasped the hand of Joe Murray, the savvy political boss who had first nominated him for the state legislature years before, it must have seemed as if his public life had come full circle. “This takes me back 29 years,” he said, “to the old Twenty-first Assembly district when I was getting a start in politics.” Earlier he had warmly welcomed Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, his closest friend for more than a quarter of a century, and Archie Butt, who had served as his devoted military aide before taking up the same position with President Taft. Jacob Riis, the Danish immigrant whose book, How the Other Half Lives, had greatly influenced Roosevelt when he was police commissioner of New York City, received a fraternal welcome and “the broadest of smiles.” Roosevelt clasped him with both hands, exclaiming, “O, Jake. I’ve got so much to tell you.” His face grew somber as he glimpsed Beverly Robinson, who conjured memories of McKinley’s assassination. “This boy was with me on top of Mount Mary,” he mused, “when the sudden news came that I had become President.” Nothing, however, could dampen his innate joviality for more than a moment. “Why, hello, Stimson, old sugar trust,” he laughed, his eyes twinkling, as he approached Henry Stimson, the government’s special counsel in the famous trust case. “Oh, friend, this is good. I can’t tell you how I feel,” he confided to Frank Tyree, the Secret Serviceman who had protected him loyally for years. On and on he went, his personal greetings for all interspersed with expressions of outright delight: “Fine! Fine! Oh, it’s simply great!” “George, this is bully!”
When Vanderbilt suggested it was time to go up to the bridge to acknowledge the thousands of people massed solidly on both the New Jersey and the Manhattan sides of the river, Roosevelt hesitated. “But here are the reporters,” he said, turning to the members of the press eagerly taking down his words. “I want to shake hands with them.” Indeed, at every stop during the long day, he made sure to deliver a special welcome to the members of the press. “Boys, I am glad (emphasis on the glad) to see you. It does me good to see you, boys. I am glad to be back.” Clearly, that pleasure was reciprocated. “We’re mighty glad to have you back,” shouted one exuberant reporter.
From the time reporters had accompanied the Colonel to Cuba—helping transform him and his intrepid Rough Riders into a national icon—Roosevelt had established a unique relationship with numerous journalists. He debated points with them as fellow writers; regardless of the disparity in political rank, when they argued as authors, they argued as equals. He had read and freely commented upon their stories, as they felt free to criticize his public statements and speeches. Little wonder, then, that these same journalists celebrated Roosevelt’s return from Africa, flocking to lower Manhattan to welcome him home. For the members of the press, the story of Roosevelt’s homecoming was not merely an assignment—it was personal.
Reporters present at the festivities remarked how “hale and hearty” the fifty-one-year-old Roosevelt looked, tanned and extremely fit. “It is true that the mustache, once brown, has grown grayer, but the strong face is not furrowed with deep wrinkles and the crows feet have not changed the expression which is habitual to the man who is in robust health and has a joy in living.” After the long African expedition he displayed a leaner physique, but overall, he seemed “the same bubbling, explosively exuberant American as when he left.” Archie Butt, however, detected “something different,” though at first he could not put his finger on it. After talking with Lodge, the two men speculated that as a citizen of the world, not simply an American, Roosevelt had developed “an enlarged personality,” with a “mental scope more encompassing.”
At Battery Park, where the Androscoggin was due to dock at around 11 a.m., an immense crowd had gathered since early morning, straining for sight of the ship that would bring Roosevelt onto American soil. A reporter captured this mood of anticipation in his story of a stevedore who, in the midst of unloading cargo off another ship, laid aside his hook in hopes of glimpsing Roosevelt. His foreman shouted at him: “You come back here or I’ll dock you an hour.” The stevedore, undaunted, retorted: “Dock me a week. I’m going to have a look at Teddy.”
“There he is!” rose the cry, soon confirmed as a beaming Roosevelt came ashore to a rendition of “Home, Sweet Home” by the Seventy-first Regimental Band. The uplifted cheers that greeted “the man of the hour” as he disembarked were said to exceed the “echoing boom of saluting cannon and the strident blast of steam whistles.”
Straightaway, Roosevelt headed from the pier to the speaker’s platform. He was in the midst of shaking hands with cabinet members, senators and congressmen, governors and mayors when his daughter Alice cried, “Turn around, father, and look at the crowd.” Outspread before him was “one vast expanse of human countenances, all upturned to him, all waiting for him.” Beyond the 600 seated guests, 3,500 people stood within the roped enclosure, and beyond them “unnumbered thousands” on the plaza. Still more crammed together on the surrounding streets. It was estimated that at least 100,000 people had come to Battery Park, undeterred by the crushing throngs and the oppressive heat and humidity. From a ninth-floor window of the nearby Washington Building, “a life-size Teddy bear” belted with a green sash was suspended. A large white banner bearing Roosevelt’s favorite word, “Delighted,” was displayed on the Whitehall Building, where “from street level to skyline every window was open and every sill held as many stenographers and office boys and bosses as the sills could accommodate.” Clearly, this was not a day for work!
“Is there a stenographer here?” Roosevelt asked, as he prepared to speak. Assured that one was present, he began, his voice filled with emotion: “No man could receive such a greeting without being made to feel very proud and humble. . . . I have been away a year and a quarter from America and I have seen strange and interesting things alike in the heart of the wilderness and in the capitals of the mightiest and most highly polished civilized nations.” Nonetheless, he assured the crowd, “I am more glad than I can say to get home, back in my own country, back among the people I love. And I am ready and eager to do my part so far as I am able in helping to solve problems which must be solved. . . . This is the duty of every citizen but it is peculiarly my duty, for any man who has ever been honored by being made president of the United States is thereby forever after rendered the debtor of the American people.” For those who wondered whether Roosevelt would remain active in public life, his brief but eloquent remarks were telling.
The address at Battery Park only served to set off the real celebration. A five-mile parade up Broadway to 59th and Fifth followed, with an estimated 1 million spectators lining the streets. “The sidewalks on both sides of Broadway were jammed with people, from curb to building fronts,” the Chicago Tribune noted. “There were people in all the windows, people on the housetops, and people banked up in the side streets.” As Roosevelt took his place in the open carriage leading the procession, an additional surprise lay in store for him: 150 members of his Rough Rider unit, whom he had led so brilliantly in the Spanish-American War, appeared on horseback to serve as his escort of honor. Beyond the Rough Riders, there were 2,000 additional veterans from that same war who had come to participate in the celebration. The demonstration was “incomparably the largest affair of its kind on record,” the Washington, D.C., Evening Star claimed, “characteristic of the man himself, the man of superlatives, and of intense moods.”
Placards with friendly inscriptions, familiar cartoons, and exhortations for Roosevelt to once again run for the presidency in 1912 hung in shop windows all along the way. At 310 Broadway, an immense Teddy bear stared down an enormous stuffed African lion. At Scribner’s, a ten-foot-high portrait of the Colonel in full hunting gear graced the front of the building. Peddlers were everywhere. “You could not move a step,” one reporter observed, “without having shoved in your face a remarkable assortment of Teddy souvenirs. There were jungle hats with ribbons bearing the word De-lighted, there were Roosevelt medals, Teddy’s teeth in celluloid, miniature Teddy bears, gorgeous flags on canes, with a picture of the Rough Rider, buttons, pins and many other reminders of the Colonel’s career.” Even along Wall Street, where it was jokingly predicted black crepe would signal Roosevelt’s return (given his storied fights with “the malefactors of great wealth”), flags waved and colored streamers were tossed from upper windows.
“Teddy! Teddy! Bully for you, Teddy,” the crowd yelled, and he responded with “unconcealed delight” to the gleeful chants. “One could see that he enjoyed every moment of the triumphal progress,” the New York Times reported, and “those who cheered cheered the louder when they saw how their cheers delighted him.” Near the end of the route, a reporter shouted: “Are you tired?” His answer was clear and firm despite the long day, the hot sun, and the perspiration dripping down his face. “Not a bit.”
Around 1 p.m., when the parade finally concluded at the 59th Street Plaza, Roosevelt, with tears in his eyes, flashed his dazzling smile and headed toward a private residence for a family lunch. No sooner had the Colonel reached his destination than a frightening storm began. Lightning, thunder, and ferocious winds accompanied a heavy downpour. Uprooted trees littered the ground with fallen limbs. In all, seventeen lives were lost. It seemed the sky had stayed peaceful and blue only for the sun-splashed hours of the celebration for Roosevelt.
“Everyone began talking about Roosevelt luck,” Captain Butt observed. While the pelting rain continued, Roosevelt relaxed in the Fifth Avenue home belonging to the grandfather of his son’s fiancée and enjoyed a festive meal of chicken in cream sauce with rice while catching up on the news of the day. In the late afternoon, he boarded a special train for his hometown of Oyster Bay, Long Island. Once again, the Roosevelt luck came into play. The severe rainstorm miraculously ceased just as his train pulled in. He was met by “the whole town,” complete with a 500-member children’s choir, a display of devotion that nearly “swept the former President from his feet as he stepped to the ground.” Walking beneath “triumphal arches” constructed by his neighbors, Roosevelt reached a nearby ballpark where grandstands had been raised to seat 3,000 people. There, he spoke movingly of what it meant to be home once more, “to live among you again as I have for the last 40 years.” Reporters who had followed Roosevelt since he began shaking hands on the Kaiserin that morning marveled at the energy with which he continued to grasp the hands of his neighbors, finding something personal to say to one and all, without revealing “the slightest trace of fatigue in voice or manner.”
In their lengthy coverage of the historic day, the press corps brought to light scores of colorful anecdotes. The story they failed to get, however, was the story they wanted above all—Roosevelt’s response to the major political issue of the day: the growing disenchantment of progressive Republicans with the leadership of President Taft.
AS HIS SECOND TERM NEARED its end, Roosevelt had handpicked from his cabinet the trusted friend he desired to succeed him: William Howard Taft. The two men had first met in their early thirties, when Roosevelt headed the Civil Service Commission and Taft was U.S. Solicitor General. “We lived in the same part of Washington,” Taft recalled, “our wives knew each other well, and some of our children were born about the same time.” Over the years, this friendship had deepened, becoming what Taft described as “one of close and sweet intimacy.” During his first presidential term, Roosevelt had invited Taft, then governor general of the newly acquired Philippine Islands, to serve as his secretary of war. Initially reluctant to leave a post to which his talents were ideally suited, Taft had finally been persuaded to join his old friend’s administration as “the foremost member” of his cabinet, his daily “counsellor and adviser in all the great questions” that might confront them.
Roosevelt had thrown all his inexhaustible energy behind the drive to make Taft president. “I am quite as nervous about your campaign as I should be if it were my own,” he had told Taft. He had edited Taft’s speeches, relayed a constant stream of advice, and corralled his own immense bloc of supporters behind Taft’s candidacy. When Taft was elected, Roosevelt reveled in the victory, both delighted for a “beloved” friend and confident that America had chosen the man best suited to execute the progressive goals Roosevelt had championed—to distribute the nation’s wealth more equitably, regulate the giant corporations and railroads, strengthen the rights of labor, and protect the country’s natural resources from private exploitation.
At the start of Roosevelt’s presidency in 1901, big business had been in the driver’s seat. While the country prospered as never before, squalid conditions were rampant in immigrant slums, workers in factories and mines labored without safety regulations, and farmers fought with railroads over freight rates. Voices had been raised to protest the concentration of corporate wealth and the gap between rich and poor, yet the doctrine of laissez-faire precluded collective action to ameliorate social conditions. Under Roosevelt’s Square Deal, the country had awakened to the need for government action to allay problems caused by industrialization—an awakening spurred in part by the dramatic exposés of a talented group of investigative journalists he famously labeled “muckrakers.”
By the end of Roosevelt’s tenure, much had been accomplished. The moribund 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act had been revived, vast acres of lands had been protected from exploitation, and railroads had been prevented from continuing long-standing abuses. Congress had passed workmen’s compensation, a pure food and drug law, and a meat inspection act. Nevertheless, much remained to be done. Roosevelt’s legacy would depend upon the actions of his chosen successor—William Howard Taft. “Taft is as fine a fellow as ever sat in the President’s chair,” Roosevelt told a friend shortly after the election, “and I cannot express the measureless content that comes over me as I think that the work in which I have so much believed will be carried on by him.”
While he was abroad, however, Roosevelt had received numerous disturbing communications from his progressive friends. Word that his closest ally in the conservation movement, Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot, had been removed by Taft, left Roosevelt dumbfounded: “I do not know any man in public life who has rendered quite the service you have rendered,” he wrote to Pinchot, “and it seems to be absolutely impossible that there can be any truth in this statement.” When the news was confirmed, he asked Pinchot to meet him in Europe in order to hear his firsthand account. Pinchot had arrived with a number of letters from fellow progressives, all expressing a belief that Taft had aligned himself with old-line conservatives on Capitol Hill and was gradually compromising Roosevelt’s hard-won advances.
Roosevelt found it difficult to believe he had so misjudged the character and convictions of his old friend. On his final day in Europe, he confided his puzzlement to Sir Edward Grey as the two outdoorsmen tramped through the New Forest in southern England in pursuit of the song or sight of several English birds Roosevelt had only read about. “Roosevelt’s spirit was much troubled by what was happening in his own country since he left office,” Grey recalled. “He spoke of Taft and of their work together with very live affection; he had wished Taft to succeed him, had supported him, made way for him. How could he now break with Taft and attack him?” Yet the concerted voice of his progressive friends was urging him to do precisely that.
All through the spring of 1910, as the date of his return approached, one question had dominated political discourse and speculation: “What will Mr. Roosevelt do?” Which side would he take in the intensifying struggle that was dividing the Republican Party between the old-line conservatives and a steadily growing number of “insurgents,” as the progressive faction was then known. Aware that anything he said would be construed as hurtful or helpful to one side or the other, Roosevelt determined to remain silent on all political matters until he could more fully absorb and analyze the situation. “There is one thing I want, and that is absolute privacy,” he told reporters as the day’s celebration came to an end. “I want to close up like a native oyster . . . I am glad to have you all here; but . . . I have nothing to say.”
THE WEEKS PRECEDING ROOSEVELT’S HOMECOMING had been especially difficult for President Taft. “He looks haggard and careworn,” Captain Butt told his sister-in-law, Clara. His characteristic ruddy complexion had faded to a sickly pale, his weight had ballooned to 320 pounds, and his jovial temperament had turned mournful. “It is hard on any man to see the eyes of everyone turn to another person as the eyes of the entire country are turning to Roosevelt,” Butt speculated. Nonetheless, Butt acknowledged that Taft’s low spirits had little to do with jealousy. Never once had he heard Taft “murmur against the fate” that kept him, “a man of tremendous personality himself . . . in the shadow” of his predecessor. “He is so broad as to show no resentment” of his “secondary role,” Butt marveled. Rather, Taft’s anxiety stemmed, he thought, from the fact that “he loves Theodore Roosevelt,” and the specter of a potential rupture in their friendship was causing great emotional distress.
No shadow of such troubles was in evidence when Taft’s presidency began. “He is going to be greatly beloved as President,” Roosevelt had predicted. “He has the most lovable personality I have ever come in contact with.” A big man with a big heart, clear blue eyes, and a thoughtful nature, Taft was portrayed as “America incarnate—sham-hating, hardworking, crackling with jokes upon himself, lacking in pomp but never in dignity . . . a great, boyish, wholesome, dauntless, shrewd, sincere, kindly gentleman.”
The time had come, even Roosevelt’s most ardent admirers agreed, for a different kind of leader—a quieter, less controversial figure. Roosevelt, with his fiery temperament, inexhaustible supply of arresting quips, and demagogic appeals, had given powerful voice to the Progressive movement. Now, Roosevelt’s journalist friend William Allen White argued, the country needed a man who could “finish the things” Roosevelt had begun, who could work with Congress to consolidate the imperfect statutes and executive orders generated in the tumultuous previous years. Although Taft would “say little,” White acknowledged, he would “do much.” His mind would not, like Roosevelt’s, move “by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,” another journalist wrote, but rather with steady efficiency, “in straight lines and by long, logical habit.”
Taft agreed with this assessment of the situation he faced. He likened Roosevelt’s administration to “a great crusade” that had aroused the people to the need for greater federal regulation of the economy. Now it was the work of his administration to make these expanded powers “permanent in the form of law.” In contrast to Roosevelt, a career politician whose “intense desire to reach practical results” had led him occasionally to chafe under “the restraint of legal methods,” Taft had trained as a lawyer and a judge, disciplines that had instilled “the necessity for legal method.” Roosevelt had ended his presidency “in an ugly fight” with a Congress he had sought to bypass through a direct appeal to the public. With a very different yet complementary temperament, Taft insisted that he must work “with the tools and the men . . . at hand.” It was his misfortune to take office at a time marked by a bitter rift within the Republican Party, when progressives viewed compromise with conservatives as treachery.
Taft had not openly sought the presidency. Since his appointment as a superior court judge at the age of twenty-nine, he had aspired to one day become chief justice of the United States. He had moved swiftly up the judicial ladder, becoming U.S. Solicitor General at age thirty-two and a federal circuit judge at thirty-four. When President McKinley asked him to go to the Philippines, it was with the implied promise that he would return to a Supreme Court appointment. When Roosevelt became president, he honored his predecessor’s promise, twice offering Taft a position on the Supreme Court. With great reluctance, Taft had declined both opportunities; in the first instance, he felt he could not leave his work in the Philippines unfinished; in the second, his wife and closest adviser, Nellie, persuaded him not to bury himself on the Court at the very moment when, as secretary of war, he was being touted throughout the country as Roosevelt’s most likely successor. Indeed, were it not for his wife’s White House dreams, Taft would likely never have agreed to a presidential run.
Taft had found little joy in campaigning for the presidency in 1908. He had “great misgivings” about every speech he was forced to make. For months, the thought of his acceptance speech loomed over him “like a nightmare.” He feared that his efforts to forge a middle ground on issues would “make many people mad.” Unlike Roosevelt, who regularly perused articles about himself and found pleasure in responding to critics, Taft acknowledged that negative press left him “very, very discouraged.” After a while, despite Nellie’s urgings, he refused to read unfavorable articles altogether. His speeches, Nellie warned, tended to be much too long. “But I am made this way and ‘I can do no other,’ ” he told her. “That is the kind of an old slow coach you married.” In the end, with his “campaign manager” (as he called Nellie) by his side to edit his speeches and offer advice, comfort, and encouragement, he won a magnificent victory over William Jennings Bryan.
Taft took office in 1909 with commingled exhilaration and trepidation. “I pinch myself every little while to make myself realize that it is all true,” he told a friend. “If I were now presiding in the Supreme Court of the United States as Chief Justice, I should feel entirely at home, but with the troubles of selecting a cabinet and the difficulties in respect to the revision of the tariff, I feel just a bit like a fish out of water.” More than a year later, such misgivings had not subsided. When asked if he liked being president, he replied that he “would rather be Chief Justice,” for the “quieter life” on the Court would prove “more in keeping with my temperament.” However, he reflected, “when taken into consideration that I go into history as a President, and my children and my children’s children are the better placed on account of that fact, I am inclined to think that to be President well compensates one for all the trials and criticisms he has to bear and undergo.”
Taft well knew how fortunate he was to have a natural politician in his devoted and intelligent wife, one whose superb judgment and political acumen could help him “overcome the obstacles that just at present seem formidable.” They had been partners from the earliest days of their married life in Cincinnati. Like Edith and Theodore, Nellie and Will had grown up together in the same city. Their sisters had been “schoolmates,” and their fathers, Nellie wrote, had “practiced law at the same bar for more than forty years.” Nellie and Will had been friends for six years when their relationship began to deepen into love.
Young Nellie was an unconventional woman. From early adolescence, she craved a more expansive life. She liked to smoke, drink beer, and play cards for money. She was an avid reader with a passion for classical music, a talented writer, and a dedicated teacher. In her early twenties, she had organized a weekly salon, with Will and his brother Horace among the regular participants. Every Saturday night their circle of six or seven friends presented essays and discussed literature and national politics “with such high feeling and enthusiasm,” Nellie recalled, that the history of the salon “became the history of our lives during that period.” The more time he spent with Nellie, Will told his father, “the deeper grew my respect for her, the warmer my friendship until it unconsciously ripened into a feeling that she was indispensable to my happiness. . . . Her eagerness for knowledge of all kinds puts me to shame. Her capacity for work is wonderful.”
For her part, Nellie found in Will a husband who adored her and highly valued her intelligence. Their union provided a channel for her to pursue her intense ambition to accomplish something vital in life. Will also proved a loving father for their three children, Robert, Helen, and Charlie, who were eighteen, sixteen, and eleven when Taft became president. Throughout their marriage, Taft looked to Nellie as a “merciless but loving critic,” depending on her advice at every crucial juncture. They labored together over his speeches and discussed political strategy in a manner, one observer recalled, much like “two men who are intimate chums.” Their partnership gave Taft confidence that he would learn to navigate the uncharted waters of the presidency.
The New York Times predicted that with Nellie Taft as first lady, “the Taft Administration will be brilliant beyond any similar period in America’s social history.” Over the years, she had established a sterling reputation as a democratic hostess, opening her doors to people from all backgrounds. In the Philippines, she had stunned the conservative military establishment by rejecting their strict segregation of whites and native Filipinos, instead insisting “upon complete racial equality” at the governor’s palace. As first lady, she brought the same egalitarian ethos to her position. She spoke out against the unhealthy working conditions of government employees and embarked upon several civic projects. She helped design a beautiful public park along the Tidal Basin where concerts could be held every week during the summer months, and made arrangements to bring the same flowering cherry trees she had admired in Japan to the nation’s capital.
Nellie Taft was swiftly becoming one of the most respected and powerful first ladies in history. Then, only ten weeks after the inauguration, terrible misfortune shattered these auspicious beginnings. On board the presidential yacht with her husband and some guests, Nellie suffered a devastating stroke that left her temporarily paralyzed and unable to speak. At the sight of his half-conscious wife, only forty-seven years old, Taft turned “deathly pale.” Taft’s “great soul,” Archie Butt empathized, was “wrapped in darkness.” Although Nellie gradually recovered the ability to walk, she would continue to struggle with her speech the rest of her life.
A year after Nellie’s stroke, shortly before Roosevelt was due to return to America, Taft sent him a plaintive handwritten letter weighing his accomplishments and failures as president. “I have had a hard time,” he confided. “I do not know that I have had harder luck than other presidents but I do know that thus far I have succeeded far less than have others. I have been conscientiously trying to carry out your policies but my method of doing so has not worked smoothly.” In closing, he told his old friend, “it would give me a great deal of pleasure if after you get settled at Oyster Bay, you could come over to Washington and spend a few days at the White House.”
Taft had been tempted to go to New York and personally welcome Roosevelt home. According to one report in the Indianapolis Star, his advisers had suggested that “this demonstration of amity would be appreciated by Col. Roosevelt and would do more than anything else to drive away the suspicion that seems to have gained ground that the relations between the chief executive and his predecessor are strained.” Upon reflection, however, Taft concluded that it would diminish the status of the presidential office “if he were to ‘race down to the gangplank,’ to be the first to shake hands with the former President.” He explained to his military aide that he was “charged with the dignity of the Executive” and was determined to “say nothing that will put a momentary slight even on that great office.” No matter how much he would rather be Will, welcoming his friend Theodore, he was now President Taft. “I think, moreover, that [Roosevelt] will appreciate this feeling in me,” he concluded, “and would be the first one to resent the slightest subordination of the office of President to any man.”
Instead, he planned a journey of his own that day—a train trip to Villanova, Pennsylvania, to deliver the commencement address at the Catholic university, followed by a visit to the small town of West Chester, and a second commencement address at a celebrated black institution, Lincoln University. “When you are being hammered,” Taft explained, “not only by the press, but by members of your own party in Washington, and one feels there isn’t anything quite right that he can do, the pleasure of going out into the country, of going into a city that hasn’t seen a president for twenty years, and then makes a fuss over him to prove to him that there is somebody that doesn’t know of his defects, is a pleasure I don’t like to forego.”
He boarded the train at Union Station in Washington for a departure to Philadelphia at 7 a.m., the very hour at which Roosevelt’s ocean liner reached New York. Before the train left, it was noted that he “read with deep interest the latest news of the homecoming of Col. Roosevelt.” Arriving at Philadelphia shortly before ten thirty, he was taken by special locomotive to Villanova, where he was met by a delegation of over five hundred professors and students. The college had arranged to bring all “the members of the faculty, the entire student body and all the townspeople that could get to the station in traps, autos and on foot.” As the president stepped from the locomotive, “the Villanova band played ‘Hail to the Chief’ and the college boys let out one concentrated, prolonged and tremendous yell.” Charmed by the rousing welcome, Taft broke into a beaming smile.
The entire visit to Villanova proved a gratifying relief from the besieging trials of the presidency. The commencement exercises took place in the college auditorium, gaily decorated with bunting and flags. Since the auditorium held only 2,500 invited guests, arrangements had been made for Taft to deliver his address outside, so that an overflow crowd of 5,000 people who had been gathering on the grounds since early morning might hear him. “The Roosevelt luck” that graced the former president’s celebration in New York with sunny skies did not hold for Taft, however; the sky blackened with thunderclouds just as he was set to start his address, prompting a reluctant decision to speak indoors.
Despite the sudden change, Taft’s address was received with enthusiasm. He applauded the Augustinians’ missionary work in the Philippines and spoke wistfully of his years as governor general—perhaps the most fulfilling of his political career. An outburst of applause greeted every positive reference to the Catholic Church, and when he finished his speech, the entire audience rose in loud acclamation.
With lifted spirits, Taft boarded a special train to West Chester, home to Republican congressman Thomas S. Butler. Butler had remained loyal to Taft through all the difficult days of his presidency. Now Taft graciously repaid him by making a “flying visit” to the little town to deliver two short speeches extolling his steadfast supporter. “He came to me at the beginning of my administration,” Taft said of Butler, “and declared he was going to stand by me to the end—he probably didn’t know how much that meant.” The townspeople were thrilled to see the president. “Banks, office buildings, residences and the post office were a mass of colors,” one correspondent wrote, “while displayed on a number of buildings were the ten foot high letters T-A-F-T.”
The president continued on to the campus of Lincoln University, arriving just as “a terrific electrical storm raged overhead.” Undeterred, 2,000 people patiently stood on the grounds in the pouring rain without even the protection of umbrellas. “I thank you sincerely for coming out to greet me,” he humbly told the cheering crowd. “I understand that it is to the President of the United States, and I accept it as such.” In his well-received address, Taft referred to Booker T. Washington as “one of the greatest men of the century” and called on the black community to develop its own educated leaders to help solve the nation’s racial problems.
Despite Taft’s heartfelt reception all along his route, the press could not resist drawing comparisons between the outright jubilation that marked Roosevelt’s sunlit homecoming on the seacoast and the decorous approval accorded the president in the rain-drenched interior. Furthermore, while Roosevelt seemed as fresh and buoyant at day’s end as when he disembarked, Taft was “travel-stained” and exhausted when he boarded the train back to Washington. One reporter went so far as to portray the overweight Taft “in a free state of perspiration . . . suffering from so much prickly heat that it pushes his clothes out from him,” making it impossible for him to keep his shirt buxom in place. On his way home, Taft read the afternoon newspaper accounts of Roosevelt’s homecoming reception, doubtless taking note of the Colonel’s remark that he stood “ready and eager” to do his part in solving the country’s ills.
When the president reached the White House shortly before ten o’clock, his weariness abruptly vanished with news that his bill to expand the federal government’s power to prevent arbitrary increases in railroad rates had passed Congress that day and was awaiting his signature. Even in the worst of times, when bombarded by criticism in insurgent newspapers for his willingness to deal with the conservative bloc in the Congress, Taft had retained “an abiding faith” that if he could secure legislation the country needed, “the credit would take care of itself ultimately.” Now, with the passage of his railroad bill, he could allow himself a bit of optimism. In the previous session, he had secured a corporation tax bill, hailed as “the first positive step toward the National supervision of great corporations,” as well as an amendment to the Interstate Commerce Act that gave the commission “for the first time, the power to prevent stock-watering.”
In addition to the railroad bill, two important progressive measures were about to receive his signature: the first confirmed presidential authority to withdraw millions of acres of land for conservation; the second, a postal savings bill “fought at every step by powerful interests,” provided the poor a secure place to deposit their money. That very afternoon, in fact, the lead editorial in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin suggested that Taft “had unquestionably strengthened his position in the public esteem, within the last thirty days,” as the country was “beginning to realize more clearly the essential force that lies behind his quiet, persistent methods. . . . His policy throughout has been that of a resolute defender of the public interest who preferred to work without parade or ostentation.”
As he went to sleep that night, Taft could take heart that Roosevelt, too, would recognize the necessity that led him to deal with the conservatives. He was working in his own, unspectacular way to accomplish the progressive goals that both shared with equal fervor. That morning, he had dispatched Captain Butt to deliver a second handwritten letter to Roosevelt as he landed in New York. He warmly reiterated the invitation tendered to Roosevelt three weeks earlier, to join him at the White House. Once reunited, despite the swirling tensions and innuendo, they might enjoy the camaraderie of the old days, when, as Roosevelt’s sister Corinne recalled, they had so enjoyed one another’s company that “their laughs would mingle and reverberate through the corridors and rooms, and Edith would say, ‘It is always that way when they are together.’ ”
The restoration of their old friendship—a matter more in Roosevelt’s hands than in Taft’s—was not simply a private concern: “No other friendship in our modern politics has meant more to the American people,” William Allen White wrote, “for it has made two most important and devoted public servants wiser, kindlier, more useful men.”
“The whole country waits and wonders,” the Baltimore Sun noted in a prescient editorial. Roosevelt “seems to hold the future of his party in the hollow of his hand. Taft looks to him for succor. The Insurgents know if they can win his support the Regulars will be swept away. Old leaders tremble, new aspirants take hope. His decision is important to the country, and even more important to himself. Many another has risen to the heights of popularity to be dethroned in a day. Has Roosevelt reached the pinnacle of his fame, or is he to move forward to fresh conquests? It rests with him. He is at the height of his mental and physical powers. He possesses a great influence over the masses of his countrymen. Such power is a tremendous weapon for good or evil. How will he wield it?”
To understand the complex contours of this consequential friendship, however, we must go backward in time to analyze the similarities in experience that initially drew Roosevelt and Taft together and the differences in temperament that now threatened to split them apart.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Bully Pulpit includes an introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In this critically acclaimed work, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin turns her attention to the first decade of the Progressive era, the tumultuous time when the nation was coming apart at its seams—the gap between the rich and the poor had never been wider, corporations resisted federal regulation, and political parties could be bought— and reform was in the air.
Goodwin frames her narrative around the intense friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, which strengthens each man before it completely ruptures in 1912, when they engage in a brutal fight against each other for the presidential nomination, crippling the Progressive wing of the Republican Party in the process. It’s also the story of the muckraking press, which Roosevelt credited with changing the nation’s politics.
Founded upon a wealth of primary materials, The Bully Pulpit demonstrates Goodwin’s trademark ability to combine scholarly rigor with accessibility. It is a major work of history—an examination of leadership in a rare moment of activism and reform that brought the country closer to its founding ideals.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In describing Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Goodwin writes, “the lively natures displayed by young Taft and Roosevelt remained with them throughout their lives. The aftermath of their anger, however, was handled very differently.” (p. 69) How does each man handle his anger? In what ways does this manifest in their respective political careers? Did you learn anything about the upbringing of either Roosevelt or Taft that surprised you? If so, what?
2. Why do you think Goodwin choose to title her book The Bully Pulpit? What role does the press play in the Roosevelt and Taft presidential administrations? Does the press play a similar role in politics today? Explain your answer.
3. Ida Tarbell “was certain that having a husband and children would thwart her freedom and curtail her nascent ambition” (p. 172) and decides that she will never marry. Nellie Taft, too, is initially opposed to marriage. Why do both women feel that marriage is a hindrance? What opportunities are available to women at the time? Why does Nellie finally agree to marry Taft?
4. Of Nellie Taft and Edith Roosevelt, Goodwin writes “In many ways, the two women complemented and balanced their respective partners.” (p. 132). Describe Roosevelt’s relationship with Edith and Taft’s with Nellie in light of Goodwin’s assertion. Was there anything about the relationships that surprised you? If so, what?
5. Douglas Brinkley said “If Roosevelt had done nothing else as president, his advocacy on behalf of preserving the [Grand] canyon might well have put him in the top ranks of American presidents.” (p. 351) Do you agree? What do you think Roosevelt’s crowning achievement was during his presidency? What was Taft’s and why?
6. Ray Stannard Baker had a close relationship with Roosevelt. How were the two men able to help each other? Baker considered Roosevelt’s ability to “endure criticism ‘one of his finest characteristics.’” (p. 650) Do you agree with Baker’s assessment of Roosevelt? Why or why not? What characteristics do you think are necessary in a president?
7. Roosevelt famously quoted the West African proverb “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” (p. 256) Give examples of how he enacts this philosophy in his presidency. How does Taft’s approach compare to Roosevelt’s? Do you think one approach is more effective? If so, why?
8. The New Yorker praised The Bully Pulpit saying “[Goodwin] is too disciplined to make explicit comparisons to the present in the book, but it’s infused with a sense that the story she tells may hold lessons for us.” Did you see any parallels between the political climate during the Progressive era that Kearns details and today? What are they? Discuss them with your book club.
9. Baker’s articles in McClure’s magazine about Coxey’s Army brought hundreds of additional recruits and revealed to him “the incredible ‘power of the press.’” (p. 185) How do the staff members of McClure’s use their positions to affect political and social change? Describe the ways that the press is able to influence both the Roosevelt and Taft administrations. What role does the press play in today’s political landscape?
10. During Roosevelt’s and Taft’s time in office a sitting president couldn’t “go on the stump and can’t indulge in personalities.” (p. 410). How else have presidential campaigns changed?
11. Do you consider The Bully Pulpit to be entertaining as well as educational? Would you recommend it to a friend?
If you liked The Bully Pulpit, you might also like:
• Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era by Nell Irvin Painter
• Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller by Steve Weinberg
A Conversation with Doris Kearns Goodwin from The Barnes & Noble Review.
The title of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book emerges from a characteristically memorable scene in which Theodore Roosevelt, newly elected President, confers with friends on a draft of an upcoming speech. As one journalist who was with Roosevelt described it, “he suddenly stopped, swung round in his swivel chair, and said ‘I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit.’”
How Theodore Roosevelt used that pulpit to change both the nature of the Presidency and the social fabric of America is at the heart of the new book from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. But with The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, Goodwin takes in far more than even TR's legendary career. She finds its true impact as part of the great wave of reform that moved through American political life at the turn of the 20th century, urged on by muckraking journalists who exposed the excesses and abuses of monopolistic businesses and corrupt government. In the end, two extraordinarily driven men -- Roosevelt and William H. Taft -- used their successive presidential administrations to embody the crest of that wave, though their deep friendship was torn asunder, almost permanently, along the way.
The considerable achievement of The Bully Pulpit is to transform this complex era's many conflicts and personalities into an immersive, colorful and enlightening drama. Goodwin remarks that "stories are nearly everything to me" and as in Team of Rivals, her book on Lincoln's cabinet, Goodwin doesn't render static portraits -- rather, she ushers her many actors onto a well-lighted stage. It's a big cast: the leading performers include not only the combative, quotable Roosevelt and his counterpart in Taft, a genial man more given to mend fences than score political points; but also brilliant Edith Carow Roosevelt, who became her husband’s intellectual partner and emotional refuge; Nellie Herron Taft, whose ambition helped goad Taft to seek office beyond a judge’s chambers in his native Ohio; Ida Tarbell, “The Most Famous Woman in America” and the writer whose work chronicling the predatory rise of Standard Oil would make her the leading light of American journalism; and the manic-depressive genius S.S. McClure, whose founding of McClure’s magazine would give Tarbell and her colleagues a platform for their trailblazing work. Their voices, along with those of many more characters famous and obscure, ring out in a narrative infused with the restless energy of Roosevelt himself.
When I spoke to Doris Kearns Goodwin on October 31st, the author was still reveling in her previous night’s attendance at Game Six of the World Series -- in which her beloved Red Sox defeat the St. Louis Cardinals to take the 2013 title. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. -- Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: I saw from your Twitter feed this morning that you were on hand for some 21st century history last night.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: It was great, it really was. Obviously, never to have seen it at home --- I was neither in St. Louis nor in Colorado. To know that the town itself was celebrating by being there together, and... Even when I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, I hadn’t seen the ‘55 World Series. We’d gone into Brooklyn right after it. So it really felt great. It was my perfect kind of game. It wasn’t 2-to-1. So you could relax most of the game.
BNR: So it had the appropriate celebratory feeling.
BNR: I hope we can come back to that before we're finished. But I want to get right into asking you some questions about The Bully Pulpit. This book brings so many strands together, and at the same time, it’s wonderfully readable. The layers of the onion are peeled back by the shifting focus between the McClure’s journalists and their aims, Roosevelt’s and Taft’s personal lives, the way the party structures worked, to follow each of their careers, so we get a truly layered portrait of this time.
DKG: I am so glad to hear you say that, because that’s really what I’m hoping, that an accumulation of stories creates the texture of the time. It’s always people’s stories, and they are all part of this period of time, coming at it from different angles, whether it’s Teddy or Taft, or Nellie or Edith, or McClure or Ida Tarbell.... Just the idea that one woman, Edith, is more of a traditional wife and mother, and then Nellie trying to get some sort of broader expanse through a husband, and then Ida Tarbell saying, “I’m not going to marry; I’m praying that I’m not going to marry because I want this career.” So I love this story of the people, and the hardest part was trying to figure out how to weave them together. So I’m so grateful for your comment.
BNR: Since you bring it up, maybe we should talk a little bit about Nellie and Edith at the beginning. I am struck especially by Theodore Roosevelt’s marriages, in the way that he has so many of the attitudes of the Victorian Man of the late 19th century—the late 19th century aristocracy’s views of marriage, of honor, and of the way that tradition informs domesticity and the household. But like Taft, he has a marriage, especially his second marriage, really with an intellectual partner.
DKG: Absolutely. When I think about it, obviously, this was his great friend from the time they were young, Edith was, and probably suited for him all along. I mean, they shared a love of books. They shared a certain kind of curiosity about things from the time they were young. Then he falls in that love with Alice. It’s hard to imagine that she would have been the same wife for him. You never know, because he loved her and she was beautiful. But then, when he does have that traditional sense after she dies that he shouldn’t marry again, because it’s betraying the first wife, and thereby tried to keep away from Edith, knowing that old feelings remain, but then, as soon as they see each other, those long-hidden feelings surfaced, and, like, three weeks later they’re engaged. It’s amazing. She loved him all her life, and he very much loved her. She provided a sanctuary for him. Given his ever-present manic energy, he hadn’t that kind of stable force, and she needed the stable force, given her disordered childhood, so she needed to create a home wherever she went, and that’s what she did for him.
BNR: Their complementary natures are really interestingly echoed in William and Nellie Taft’s relationship, which equally has a partnership of not entirely similar sensibilities.
DKG: Yes. I think just as Edith gave the most indispensable support to Roosevelt by providing a sanctuary and a real home for him as an anchor for all of his incredible energy and almost manic activity, so Nellie Taft acted as a spur to her husband to move him toward a broader life than he might have chosen for himself, as he might have remained a judge in Cincinnati, as he himself said, had it not been for Nellie’s willingness to go to the Philippines, her embracing his coming back to the Cabinet, and really wanting a broader world for herself, and for her husband and her family.
BNR: That leads me to ask a little more about Taft, who is an equal partner, in many ways, in the events in the national journey that this book charts. Were you aware when you first conceived of this what a role he and his presidency would be playing in what you would write about?
DKG: No. I think what happened is this: I knew I wanted to write about Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Era -- I taught a seminar on the Progressives a long time ago, when I was first teaching, and it’s always been my favorite period in history -- but I knew that so many good books had been written about Theodore Roosevelt, that I couldn’t just write a biography of him. I never feel comfortable, as I didn’t with Lincoln and FDR, unless I can find my own angle into it. So when I started following him up to 1908, when he leaves the Presidency and actually chooses Taft as his successor, and then, obviously, the rupture in 1912, I just decided I’d better find out more about Taft. And then to discover how close their friendship had been, and 400 letters exchanged between them, and reading Taft’s letters to Nellie, and Roosevelt’s letters to thousands of people, I could replay, in a certain sense, how important that friendship had been in the early days, how heartbreaking it was when it eventually ruptured. So it became much more important than I thought.
And if you’re going to take the Progressive wing of the Republican Party up to 1912, then following what happened during Taft’s Presidency is critical to understand that division in the party and really the diminishment thereafter for a while of that Progressive wing.
BNR: Yes, it becomes clear, the relationships that held that Progressive wing together are tested both politically and personally, as that presidency went along.
DKG: That’s correct. I came away believing that it wasn’t so much that Taft had betrayed Teddy’s legacy. Taft may have had some more conservative tendencies. But basically, when he is in the Cabinet, he believes in the need for conservation, for regulation of the corporations, for antitrust. But then the country moved further even more in the Progressive movement, and Teddy moved with the country, and Taft doesn’t know how to really mobilize the public leader part of the Presidency, and so even the compromises he makes at a time when the Party is becoming more ruptured look like betrayals. Trying to deal with [House Speaker Joseph] Cannon and [conservative Republican Senator Nelson] Aldrich. By then, people say, “You deal with them, and that means you’re on the bad side.” So it was more complicated. But then, Teddy, of course, when he runs against them, needs to dramatize it for himself, like, “I’m running against him because he’s betrayed me,” and then Taft eventually will say, “Well, if he’s going to be dangerous to the Republic because of his judicial propositions, then...” It made me really sad, and I was so glad that they finally did reconcile. You get to care so much about these people. Thank God, there was a reporter in the Blackstone hotel, who reported the extraordinary meeting when they finally come together at last.
BNR: It’s a really powerful moment. They come together, and it’s a moment in which they’re also on stage, in a sense. Everyone knows, not just who they are... everyone in that place is aware of the great rupture that had come between them.
DKG: You’re absolutely right. Even the wait-staff are clapping, and the other diners. So you’re right. They’ve followed this human drama, and they’re happy not just politically, it seems like they’re happy in the human terms, these two people. Because a lot of articles were written, more than I would have realized at the time, talking about this intense friendship, so that it was more public than I knew before it ruptured. So people would have been aware, and they would have been aware at those awkward attempts to get them together, and obviously were aware of the terrible things they said about each other in 1912.
BNR: You reproduce a famous political cartoon in which Roosevelt, in that election, is swinging as a boxer, training at a punching bag in the form of Taft, kind of really knocking the stuff out of it. It really takes on a really poignant aura in this retelling, because you realize how much the idea of Roosevelt punching Taft as he dangles there means in terms of how close they had been.
DKG: For me, too. I think many people know about the rupture, but not the emotional impact that it would have on both men. That’s why, thank God, [White House military aide] Archie Butt was there. Again, that was a window into it. Because he was loyal to both men, having been the military aide to Teddy, and then staying on with Taft, feeling that sense, and writing so well. One of the great joys of the book was, by dealing with the journalists and with Teddy and with Archie Butt, you’re dealing with really good writers. If you’re telling a story, you want their voices in as much as possible, so that you really can create the way they speak and their cadence of living, so they can become true human beings. Just having Archie Butt there to talk about how sad Taft was, and how sad he was, because he couldn’t go for either one of them... Then, of course, he goes on this vacation and comes back on the Titanic. I can imagine what Taft felt. He said he couldn’t walk into a room witout thinking of Archie. I myself couldn’t bear the idea when I knew the Titanic thing was coming, and kept saying, “Why don’t you just cancel; you did cancel your reservation—don’t go, don’t go.”
BNR: I would like to turn, since we’re talking about those voices, then... As you point out, there are so many wonderful writers who, once you begin to look back into this period, you get this absolutely riveting sense of the dramas that were really transfixing the nation. I wanted to talk about McClure’s and Ida Tarbell, and your choice to find that complementary narrative to the more familiar story of Presidents and Presidential administrations, and political battles within the political parties. You focus not only on the great issues and scandals that the McClure’s team reported on, but their own stories, as fascinating...a completely different point of view for the reader into how these issues were central to everything that America was becoming.
DKG: I think what happened is, early on Roosevelt began to realize that in order to be the public leader he needed to be, he had to have a remarkable set of relationships with the press. So I started just more generally with the access he gave the press. They come in on the barber’s hour. He has lunches and dinners with them. A reciprocal relationship where they can criticize him and he can criticize them.
BNR: He started early with that.
DKG: Very early. From the time he was in Albany and he’s going against that corrupt judge, he knows he can’t do it on his own. He needs the press to mobilize sentiment if he’s going to get anything done inside. Because there’s always that inner ring that was resisting reform everywhere he went, whether it’s state legislature or the governor or, finally, the Congress.
I’m trying to remember how it all happened, but I started reading about the press, and I came to focus on how important McClure’s was during this period of time as the most important progressive magazine. I’d heard of Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, but I didn’t know much about Sam McClure, who is just an extraordinary figure, and again, a genius, a manic depressive perhaps, but the person who tells each of them, “The way to deal with these policy issues is to tell a story.” So Ida tells the story of the Trusts through J.D. Rockefeller and how he unfairly managed to get his monopoly. Ray Baker tells the story of why these people decided not to strike, the 10,000 of them in the coal strike, by telling the stories of why these union workers did finally go against the strike. Lincoln Steffens tells these stories of corruption in the cities that eventually topples some of these old bosses.
I guess stories are nearly everything to me. That was their strength, that they were able to not just talk abstractly about the problem of the trusts or the railroads, but to tell stories that then made people willing to read 20,000- or 30,000-word pieces that they had researched for two years, in long series, and then start talking to their neighbors about it and demanding action, which gave Roosevelt this enormous tool that helped push the Congress forward.
BNR: You suggest Ida Tarbell worked with the abilities of a novelist.
DKG: Oh, without a question. I knew her also from when she wrote about Lincoln, because when I was writing the Lincoln book....She had this great comment. Somebody asked her, even then, “Why do so many people write about Lincoln?” and she said, “Because he is so companionable.” I often thought about that, when people would say, “Why are you writing another book about Lincoln?” and I said, “Ida Tarbell said, ‘he’s so companionable.’”
She understood how to make the people that she was writing about come to life, and time and again... To me, she’s the most famous woman, almost, of her era, as an historian, almost as a novelist.
BNR: You really bring that companionability about the entire McClure’s group into focus. There’s a term in business that is used in this period, and it comes up often in The Bully Pulpit, which is “combination.” --a synonym for a trust or a mega-corporation, the amalgamation of smaller companies into monopolistic entities. So much of the story here is about these combinations of people who were working with friendship as a vital part of how they did this historic work. The friendship between Taft and Roosevelt allowed both men, in a sense, to carry on work that otherwise might have been too difficult to handle. The same is true for the McClure’s group.
DKG: I think that’s exactly right. McClure understood from the beginning that he wanted the magazine to be something different. He wanted it to be a unity where their projects would inform one another, and they would send each other’s works to each other, and what somebody learned about the railroads could be used in the city corruption or vice-versa. What an irony it is that we worry about the big combinations. Now, these were obviously voluntary associations between people, but it shows that sometimes, when people come together, they are all the stronger because of their combination. That’s what even the trust people might have argued, that we can do better by swarming these associations together. Roosevelt would probably say, as he did, it’s not the size of it that got to him as much as they used unfair methods to make those combinations happen, which prevented other people from a fair business, or raised prices, rather than aiming for the benefit of combination. I hadn’t even thought about that until you said it.
BNR: I want to talk just a little bit about Taft again. One of the other things that comes up really as a throughline in his career is his affinity for the bench...
BNR: ...and for his desire to be a judge, and his satisfaction in that work. Not that he didn’t take satisfaction in his other roles. He took great satisfaction as Governor in the Philippines and he took great satisfaction clearly in even some of the aspects of the Presidency, which was a role that he was not nearly as naturally fit for as some have been. But it was really as a judge that his ambition all sort of came together. And in fact, Roosevelt in 1906 wanted to put Taft on the Supreme Court. There was an opening for an Associate Justice. Taft was in Roosevelt’s Cabinet at that point. Correct?
DKG: Correct. He had already asked him while he was in the Philippines those couple of times, but then he turned down the Court Justiceship because he felt it was his duty to stay there, and also the people in the Philippines didn’t want him to leave. But you’re right. The third time he asks him is when he’s back in the Cabinet, and it is 1906—absolutely right.
BNR: You make the case that Roosevelt understood that for the Progressive cause and the things that he had worked to fight for to flourish, the Supreme Court would need to be a place where those ideals were defended and enshrined into a final level of law and effectiveness. The fallout of the Industrial Age was eventually going to arrive in various cases in front of the Court, and he wanted someone like Taft there to lead the Court in its next phase.
DKG: Absolutely. I think from the time that some of that state legislation that he had sponsored was viewed unconstitutionally in the states for violating the due process or a whole set of property rights -- so that you couldn't force property owners to change certain things about working hours or women’s working. He had always recognized that the court had that power to undo the progressive legislation that was being passed at the state and national level, and especially by the time of 1906. The Standard Oil Antitrust suit has not yet come down—and that’s key to him still, to establish the power of the government as equal or more as the guys who are the captains of industry. So there’s that choice.
It’s one of the most remarkable letters, I think, that Roosevelt writes to Taft, when Taft is not certain what to do, laying out to him: “These are your choices. This is the most important time perhaps for the Court, and I know this is something you’ve wanted. On the other hand, they’re talking about you for possible higher office, and that doesn’t come around more than once. Only you...” That was the thing. He already by then had been established as the acting President when Teddy’s away, and he had done such a good job in the Philippines, and here he was, and his wife and his brothers are saying, “Oh my God, you have this chance to bat...” You have the feeling that if he had chosen just by himself, if he were in the cabin and nobody else were around, you’d think he probably would have gone to the Court, and then might have, in fact, been happier if he had been there that entire time, because he was so happy the last decade of his life.
But nonetheless, one can see how he’d already tasted some of the pleasures. You’re right. It wasn’t all un-pleasure as Secretary of War, and certainly the Philippines thing, even though it was more laying down laws, so it’s more attuned to the judicial temperament. He always needed, it seemed, that settled authority on top of him. Here is this perfect number-two man. As long as he had somebody that he was working for... He was loyal, he didn’t hog credit, he worked hard, there was camaraderie. But then, once he was on his own, it was hard. That may have been true all his life. Also, he was just a mediator as a child in that family. He was fair. He was meant to be a judge. So that it’s one of those huge turning points in life—which is exactly what Roosevelt said to him.
BNR: He got, in a sense, the best of both worlds, at least personally, in that he later was appointed by President Harding to be Chief Justice.
BNR: Did you wonder how history would have been different had Taft accepted that appointment in 1906?
DKG: Oh, it’s huge. I think if Taft had accepted that, then it’s interesting to wonder what would have happened in 1908. I mean, Roosevelt really wanted to be President again, and he loved being President, he was so popular... Given that Taft won in 1908, I think there’s no question that Roosevelt would have won in 1908.
BNR: So you think he would have won without Taft as a successor.
DKG: I think so. There are two questions about what difference it would have made. Whether he would have won in 1908. Because he still had that problem of the second term—his pledge not to have a third term—to deal with. But you could tell that, even after he had hand-picked Taft, in a way, when Taft’s campaign wasn’t going well for a little while, and people are coming to him, saying, “You really should do that,” he took a long time before he finally reiterated that pledge, “No, I’m not going to do it again.” So I think if he hadn’t already chosen this friend of his and made it clear that that was his choice, he might have been more tempted to do it in 1908. But certainly, I think, whoever would have won in ‘08 -- I don’t know. Suppose it was Charles Evans Hughes. Whoever would have won in ‘08, he still would have faced the need, if he wanted to come back in ‘12, of running against a Republican.
It really could have changed history, because if 1912 hadn’t happened, or if Roosevelt didn’t have a President to run against who had been his friend, then I think he clearly would have possibly got the Republican Party nomination, and then the party wouldn’t have split, and maybe Woodrow Wilson wouldn’t have won, then he’s there for World War One... But clearly, if Roosevelt hadn’t chosen to run in 1912, I think he would have won the Presidency in 1916. I mean, Charles Evans Hughes almost did, and he would have been so much more popular than Hughes, I think. So if he had just waited, things would have been different on his side, too, just as if Taft had decided to take the Supreme Court earlier.
BNR: One thing that kept striking me over and over again as I read this book was the uncanny timeliness of so many of the issues. There are echoes of what these people are grappling with that seem to emerge in the headlines over the last couple of administrations. We have income disparities at record levels; an extraordinary partisanship that’s bitterly dividing political life; a wave of foreign conflicts, like what Taft kind of had to come in and handle in the Philippines, the aftermath of a conflict taking place that leaves us with power in a very distant place with a population that’s not itself completely on the same page about where it’s going next. Did you see correspondences, or is that sort of comparison just an inevitable bias of the reader, seeing the present in the past?
DKG: I’m not sure that I did when I started. But there’s no question that the more I got into it, and the more our recent history took its own course, the more it did seem like these echoes from the past. I suppose the parallel in some ways is the industrial revolution is what sparked these gigantic trusts swallowing up their competitors, and the gulf between the rich and the poor, and even that idea of what was the role of government supposed to be during this changed period. Then you think about the technological revolution today, having spurred these gigantic multinational corporations, and people feeling that gap between the rich and the poor more than they have in previous decades, and the middle class being squeezed out, and ordinary life becoming harder for people... All of those things they were dealing with then. And still today, the major question, what should the role of government be in all of this.
Roosevelt’s answer at the time was that the President was the steward of the people, and that government had a responsibility in the economic and social worlds, which most of the Presidents from the Civil War to him had not really agreed with. That was the whole laissez-faire philosophy...
BNR: It’s a revolutionary change in perspective.
DKG: It was a revolutionary change, that’s right. And he still had to deal with that old-guard… He starts out a conservative, and argues, I think rightly, that the best way to maintain conservatism is to move preventively to deal with these conditions, or else you’re going to get socialism. So he’s a progressive conservative or a conservative progressive, whatever you want to call him. But that old guard that’s in charge is really almost reactionary at the time he’s there, and he has to move them, and the only way he can do that is through the press and these people who mobilize the country from the outside-in, and then you get eventually this civil war in the Republican Party which we’re seeing again now. It’s from the different perspective, obviously; the Tea Party is very different from the Progressive. But a party that cannot seemingly sustain the big divisions that have now formed within it, and a party in control that is not willing to move forward, in some ways, on what needs to be done, unless the public pushes it to do so.
BNR: In the current context, do we have an S.S. McClure? Do we have an Ida Tarbell? Or do we have enough of their spirit?
DKG: That’s my hope, that in reading this book, journalists will feel a sense of what enormous fulfillment there must have been to have that kind of mission and call. The difficult, I suppose, is just the pace of life today. When you think about the fact that the McClure's journalists had, as I say, those two years to work on their projects, and that they had each other as comrades, and that people are willing to read these long pieces. In our fragmented world today, journalists are responsible for not only the print, but what goes on in the Internet. Lots of them are on television. Are people reading long pieces in the same way any more as they used to? Or are they reading on the internet, where things are boiled down into a few paragraphs? I’m sure that there are journalists for whom this would still be their dream. That’s why they go into journalism in the first place, not just to entertain but rather to inform and educate people (that’s what journalism’s role is about) with the hope that you’re making things better by doing so. But I suspect that in this frenetic world, it’s harder to do that than it was back then.
BNR: It doesn’t seem like it makes it easier. I notice that you’re on Twitter now.
DKG: I know! What happened is, I was on Meet the Press once, maybe a year ago, and Mark Halperin was on from Time magazine, and he made a bet with somebody that he could get me on Twitter. So I actually went on it that day. I mean, he put me on it there. I haven’t done it very often. I couldn’t do it while I was finishing the book, because I couldn’t even think about anything else, because I was behind deadline on finishing the book. But now that...especially yesterday, with the combination of the Red Sox and the movie coming out... I’m generally not going to be Tweeting about what I’m doing during the day.
BNR: We didn’t talk about that. That was another piece of news that you did highlight on Twitter yesterday. The option for movie rights has been picked up on The Bully Pulpit from DreamWorks.
DKG: It is DreamWorks again. The experience of working with them, and with Spielberg, and the people making the Lincoln movie was such a rich experience, much more than I would have known it would have been. Sometimes you can just have your book taken, and then they go away. But I thought... I know them all well, and went down to the filming. I took Daniel Day Lewis to Springfield for a couple of days when he was researching the role, and spent time going around to various forums with Daniel and Steven and Tony. It was really fun.
And Spielberg had heard about what I was doing with this book. We became friends, so he’s known that I’ve been working on Teddy and Taft for a while, so we’ve talked about it. So I’m really glad it all came together. I have no idea what will happen with it yet. It’s in such an infant stage. The other one took a long time, so I suspect this could, too. But it’s exciting to know it’s in such great hands.
BNR: You’ve said this book was seven years in the making.
BNR: But at a certain point, Spielberg’s Lincoln project was being filmed. So I am presuming that some of the writing of this took place after you had had involvement on that. Is that true?
DKG: Oh, without question. I literally finished this book in early September. They were great. The Lincoln movie probably took me away from some of that focus for a period of time, as pleasant as it was. So I promised them that I’d have it out for Christmas this year. It meant these last six months I just could do nothing else. After the movie was done and I was back home, I stopped doing television, stopped giving lectures essentially. There was something weirdly special about that kind of focus, where my husband went to Cape Cod and I didn’t even go there on vacation. Working 20 hours a day. I had to finish the last couple of chapters, and the epilogue, and the preface. I was so nervous, just to be honest-- I didn’t want to screw that up after seven years. But I have a feeling that if I had said to them, “No, I won’t publish it now; I’ll wait until the spring,” it wouldn’t have been as fulfilling as it was to just have to think about it all so intensely for that time. I couldn’t do it for much longer than those months, but it was an exciting period.
BNR: Shades of William Howard Taft putting his head down to get some of his work completed.
DKG: That’s right, whereas Teddy did it all way ahead of time. If it had been Teddy, I would have been done with the book a year ago!
BNR: He would have been Tweeting the whole time as well, I would think.
DKG: [Laughs] You are so right.
--October 31, 2013