Imagine a country where children and women work long hours in gruesome factories for pennies a day, where food and drugs are produced in unsanitary facilities and marketed unscrupulously, where railroads control state legislatures, tyrannical party bosses dominate elections, and corrupt political machines run nearly every large city. That was America in September of 1901 when an assassin’s bullet killed William McKinley and made Theodore Roosevelt president. That was the America that Roosevelt and the Progressives of the era sought to reform.
Readers of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit soon come to realize that this was no small task. The wealthiest and most powerful forces in the country were staunch defenders of the status quo. The reformers had few weapons and fewer precedents for success. And yet, remarkably, they managed to turn the instruments of government to their own purposes and to begin the long process of protecting vulnerable Americans from the excesses of both politics and capitalism.
The first decade of the 20th century was a pivot point in American history, and in this richly researched and beautifully written book Goodwin brings it to life. Teddy Roosevelt—hyperkinetic, polymath, elevated to ever-greater ambitions by victory, undaunted by defeat—dominated the era.
But Roosevelt, we learn, was not the only player on this large stage. We get to know William Howard Taft, a much more complex character than conventional histories have portrayed. No match for Roosevelt in personality but very much his equal in intelligence, judgment, and character, Taft is the indispensable man, the competent yin to TR’s very loud yang. Their friendship guides and informs Roosevelt’s presidency; their falling-out undermines Taft’s and, in its extremity, leads to the end of both political careers in 1912.
Reform requires substantive purpose, not merely political energy, and much of the agenda for this era of Progressive reform was set in the offices of McClure’s Magazine in New York. Sam McClure led one of the greatest teams of journalistic talent ever collected in one publication. Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and Jacob Riis dug deeply into the ills and excesses of the time. Their investigative reporting forced the public and its politicians to confront the monopolistic practices of rapacious corporations, the extent of big-city corruption, the miserable living conditions of immigrants, and a long list of profound dangers to public health. So vivid and accurate was their reporting that no respectable society could turn its back on these problems. And America did not.
This is a rich and complex tale peopled by large extended families as well as politicians, businessmen, and journalists. But Goodwin tells it so well that it reads like a thriller.
This is a rich and complex tale peopled by large extended families as well as politicians, businessmen, and journalists. But Goodwin tells it so well that it reads like a thriller. The research is so seamlessly integrated into the narrative that one feels like an eavesdropper on the conversations of the main characters. We hear the words of TR and Taft and Tarbell. It seems like we’re right there, in real time, not simply poking through century-old curiosities. The issues compel us because they speak powerfully to many of the problems we face right now.
Goodwin’s earlier books have earned her a reputation as our leading tour guide through the complexities of the American presidency. Bully Pulpit embellishes that reputation. This is history at its best, weaving the times and the people who risked, ruled, failed, and tried again into an opulent tapestry that elucidates the past and informs the present.
—G. Calvin Mackenzie is the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government at Colby.