March 2019Volume 10Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Book review: The Bully Pulpit

If someone today were to read the following:

“The gap between rich and poor has never been wider…legislative stalemate paralyzes the country…corporations resist federal regulations…spectacular mergers produce giant companies…the influence of money in politics deepens…bombs explode in crowded streets…small wars proliferate far from our shores…a dizzying array of inventions speeds the pace of daily life.”

That person would more than likely and reasonably assume that the years 2014 and 2015 were being aptly described.

However, the above paragraph is taken from the first paragraph of the book jacket description of the 2013 book entitled “The Bully Pulpit” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This description was also meant to summarize some United States history during the period of 1890 to 1912.

This book is available in hardcover, paperback and electronically. While it is a lengthy book (some 750 hardback pages), it is an interesting and fast read, whether one is a history buff or not. It, in my opinion, expresses some of the good and the bad of negotiating or attempting to negotiate and compromise among opposing political views and positions, and some of the consequences when compromise is not or cannot be accomplished.

For those who viewed the Public Television series last fall entitled “The Roosevelts,” you might recall that Doris Kearns Goodwin was one of the commentators in that series.

The book not only gives a detailed history and description of the personality of Theodore Roosevelt, but it presents a parallel biography of William Howard Taft. As an added bonus, it gives accounts of the wives of Roosevelt and Taft, and their influence on these two men and their presidencies.

It also describes the so-called “Golden Age Of Journalism,” and the rise of Samuel McClure, the founder of McClure’s Magazine, which had on its staff some of the world’s best journalists and one of the best, if not the best, monthly circulation in the country in its time.

Actually, Samuel McClure, as described by Goodwin in this book, presents a very interesting story in and of itself, particularly from his rise out of poverty in Northern Ireland to his talking and charming his way into Knox College in Galesburg, to his organizing a successful and influential national/international magazine. McClure and his writers assisted Roosevelt enormously by generating tremendous public support for his governing and reform minded agendas during his early years in politics.

Roosevelt’s and Taft’s paths first crossed when they both served under President Benjamin Harrison, with Roosevelt as a civil service commissioner and Taft as solicitor general. They were equally interested in civil service reform, and they and their wives became very good friends during their early years in Washington.

While Roosevelt used the press to build public support for his programs and reforms (both social and labor), as well as a means of by passing Congress, Taft attempted to work with Congress within the system itself during his administration without assistance from the press. Thus, unlike Taft, Roosevelt, instead of continued attempts at compromise with his opponents (mostly other Republicans and a reluctant Republican Congress), would go public with his concerns, frustrations and difficulties with Congress and other conservatives. This almost mimics certain present day problems between our Illinois’ governor and the democrats in our General Assembly.

At the beginning of their relationship, these personality differences seemed to complement each other, and, according to the author, they both enlarged economic opportunities and social justice. They were both progressive Republicans, and they viewed compromise with conservatives, including other Republicans, as treacherous.

Roosevelt rose through the ranks of the Republican Party, starting as the youngest member of the New York General Assembly, then as a United States Civil Service Commissioner, New York City Police Commissioner, and Governor of the State of New York. Because of his reform methods, many New York politicians and business magnets wanted him out of New York politics. This ultimately led to his being nominated as the Vice Presidential candidate with William McKinley in the 1900 national election, which McKinley-Roosevelt won.

The thinking at that time was to put Roosevelt into a mostly ceremonial position in McKinley’s second administration for at least four years so that the political bosses and industrial giants in New York would again have free hands to do what they usually did pre-Roosevelt.

However, this maneuver lent truth to the old saying that the best laid plans many times go astray, because McKinley was shot on September 6, 1901, which was a little more than six months after his inauguration, and he died on September 14th. Roosevelt, at age 42, then became President of the United States. He was and is the youngest person to become President. Actually, the author entitled the tenth chapter of this book as “That Damned Cowboy Is President,” which expressed the sentiment and presumed frustration of many Republican Conservatives at the time.

Once Roosevelt assumed the Presidency, reforms started throughout the country from breaking up business trusts and monopolies to preserving forests and natural resources. As stated earlier, he had a knack for working the press to accomplish these reforms. He would give them detailed information and descriptions for stories to be published in newspapers and magazines—both weekly and monthly—about the economic inequities in this country, as well as the endangerments to its natural resources and environment.

When Roosevelt was elected President in his own right in 1904, he stated that he would not seek re-election in 1908. It was later rumored that Roosevelt said that this statement was the biggest mistake he ever made. While he easily could have been elected again in 1908, he stuck to his word and declined to run.

A good reason for declining the 1908 nomination was the fact that Roosevelt had been grooming Taft to take over and continue his agenda. Unfortunately, their ideas of accomplishing these agenda items varied considerably. While Roosevelt was like the TV bunny that never stops, Taft was more laid back and a thinker.

While Roosevelt had a very sickly childhood, he made himself develop into not only into an athlete, hunter and war hero, but he also wrote numerous books in his spare time.

Taft, on the other hand, had a very loving and devoted family and a very good childhood in Ohio, but he had weight and diet problems that seemed to plague him most of his adult life. His ambition was not to lead the nation as President, but to serve in the Judiciary, preferably in the United States Supreme Court.

When he was appointed as Governor General of the Philippines, President McKinley promised him a Supreme Court appointment when his term ended as Governor General. While Roosevelt offered this Supreme Court appointment after McKinley’s assassination, Taft chose to remain as Governor General.

Ultimately, Taft achieved his judicial goal when he was appointed as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court in October of 1921 by President Warren Harding, where he remained until he resigned for health reasons in early 1930 and shortly before his death in March of 1930 at age 72. Among his accomplishments while on the Supreme Court, Taft streamlined Court procedures, and he obtained from Congress the money to construct a separate Supreme Court building, which is still used today (previously the Court sat in the old Senate Chamber).

As stated earlier, both Taft and Roosevelt wanted to achieve the same social and business changes in the country, but their means to this end were extremely different and frustrating for Roosevelt. It also led Roosevelt to seek the Republican Presidential nomination in 1912 against Taft, the sitting President.

When he failed to get the Republican nomination against Taft, Roosevelt formed a third party known as the Bull Moose Party. While Roosevelt received more votes than Taft in the 1912 election, they both lost to Woodrow Wilson, and as they say: “The rest is history.”   

Roosevelt and Taft did patch up their differences more by coincidence than by design, and they again became close friends before Roosevelt’s death in January 1919, at age 60.

One final story about Roosevelt, which, in my opinion, makes him bigger than life, took place during his 1912 campaign against Taft and Wilson. While he was going to make a campaign speech, a would-be assassin shot him in the chest. Roosevelt then put a handkerchief inside his shirt and coat and proceeded to go to the assembly hall and gave a one and a half hour speech before going to the hospital.

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Author’s Note: The above book review was written and an edited version was previously published in 2015 in an Alternate Dispute Resolution Section Council Newsletter. Therefore, the reference to the differences existing between Democratically controlled Illinois General Assembly and the Governor was during Governor Rauner’s Administration.

Gary T. Rafool


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