It was president Theodore Roosevelt who, in 1906, famously used the term “muckrakers” to disparage investigative journalists. Referencing John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Roosevelt described a muckraker as a “man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing.”
History softened the epithet as reporters proudly adopted it. And the term retains its association with what Doris Kearns Goodwin calls a “golden age of journalism”—when profits, prestige, and progressive principles, not to mention generous pay and perks, created a singularly influential class of investigative reporters.
One of the achievements of Goodwin’s new history, The Bully Pulpit, is to show just how ironic it was that TR should lambast reporters for digging into the era’s muck. Among her central arguments is that Roosevelt’s accomplishments were due in large part to the transformation in public temper and perceptions fostered by the best of the new investigative journalists. These journalists, in turn, owed some of their success to personal access to a sitting president and an interchange so mutually synergistic that it would surely raise eyebrows today.
The Bully Pulpit interweaves three principal narrative strands: a biographical sketch of Roosevelt, a parallel account of his great friend and later rival William Howard Taft, and an overview of the work of those writers and editors who made McClure’s Magazine the preeminent periodical of its time.
Goodwin is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, as well as books on Lyndon B. Johnson and the Kennedys. She is an assiduous researcher and a lucid writer who dares to tackle seemingly well-worn, subjects—like the big game of presidential history.
As with Lincoln and FDR, there is no shortage of Theodore Roosevelt biographies. Goodwin’s signature talent is to reconfigure the contours of the genre by exploring historically significant relationships, like those of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Lincoln and his secretary of state, William Seward.
In The Bully Pulpit, she trains her eye on the Taft-Roosevelt friendship. Goodwin’s strength is her deep empathy for her subjects. Its flipside is a tendency to sand away hard edges, to endow the past with a gauzily nostalgic glow. The sometimes inept Taft, scorned by history, has never seemed as heroic as he does here.
This latest book is a particularly ambitious project, ricocheting from presidential love stories to arcane legislative battles, from campaign anecdotes to journalistic squabbles. The mix can be unwieldy. At times The Bully Pulpit bogs down in detail, as in its chronicle of the impenetrable internecine battles that split Taft’s Interior Department and fueled his estrangement from Roosevelt. But for the most part, Goodwin has produced a readable testament to the Progressive Era, a unique relationship between two presidents, and a great moment in magazine journalism.
Roosevelt was a charismatic, if pugnacious, figure who exercised presidential power with ferocity and skill. One observer quoted by Goodwin lionized him as “a new kind of man,” and declared that “his high spirits, his enormous capacity for work, his tirelessness, his forthrightness, his many striking qualities, gave a lift of the spirits to millions of average men.” The Republican Roosevelt remains linked in the popular imagination to the bull moose and the Teddy bear, the Square Deal, the big stick, and the bully pulpit. He is credited for a trust-busting agenda that included landmark railroad regulation and passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act.
Taft is, in some ways, a more interesting case. If he is remembered at all, it is as a portly, conservative Republican who lost both his friendship with Roosevelt and the three-way 1912 election before retreating into historical obscurity. (In fact, the post-presidential Taft attained his life’s dream, ably filling the post of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.)