Monday, June 22, 2015

"The Bully Pulpit" by Doris Kearns Goodwin - The Triple Story of Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism

I always learn a great deal when I read one of Doris Kearns Goodwin's books.  I had been looking forward for quite some time to reading "The Bully Pulpit," in part because I felt a small personal stake in monitoring the book's development.  Several years ago, I found myself at Harvard's Kennedy School attending a lecture by General David Petraeus.  He referred on several occasions to insights he had gleaned from Ms. Goodwin's Abe Lincoln book, "Team of Rivals."  The author happened to be sitting just in front of me, so when there was a break in the proceedings, I asked her what she was currently working on.  When she replied that she had just finished the research portion of a study of Teddy Roosevelt, I was intrigued.

The book she eventually completed has a broader scope than merely the story of Theodore Roosevelt. As she compiled her research and examined the implications, it became clear to her that this book needed to tell a triple story of three entities that were so closely intertwined with each other that they could not easily be teased apart.  So, "The Bully Pulpit" examines the friendship and rivalry of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and the journalists who covered them and who ushered in the Golden Age of journalism.

The book reads like a suspense novel, with intrigue, complex stratagems, shady deals, political double crosses, statesmanship, personal ambition, resentments and investigative journalism all having their day in the sun.  Roosevelt and Taft shared a deep friendship that deteriorated when Taft assumed his place in the White House and Roosevelt felt that his protege was not carrying the flag for issues that he had believed he and Taft had agreed upon, including the question of how the federal government should control monopolies.  They became bitter rivals, running against one another for the presidency in 1912 - a three-way election won by Woodrow Wilson.  Taft and Roosevelt eventually reconciled, but it was a stormy path.

Along the way, their stories and those of their presidencies were told by a cadre of gifted investigative reporters, principally comprised of publisher S.S. McClure's team of Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens and William Allen White.  The individual and collective stories of these writers would be enough to fill its own volume, but with clear insight, the author has chosen to tell of these careers in the light of how their work impacted the careers of Roosevelt and Taft, and how their popular journalism helped to shape public opinion.

This is a brilliantly conceived and realized work that gave me a whole new layer of understanding about the political landscape at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.  The book has been optioned by Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks Studios for a potential cinematic treatment.  I can't wait.



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