President Taft undoubtedly made some missteps, alienating conservationists and other Progressives enough to incite the ambitious Roosevelt’s 1912 intraparty bid and then (after a disputatious convention) an epochal third-party challenge. By then, the outmaneuvered Taft had moved to the right, impelled (says Goodwin) by the need to retain establishment and business support. Roosevelt veered left, taking on the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson.
Goodwin is at pains to show that Taft, for much of his political life, was, like Roosevelt, a moderate reformer—committed to capitalism but aware of the perils of monopoly power and sympathetic to the plight of labor. By the time of his first presidential campaign, Taft actually had positioned himself as more progressive than TR on at least one key issue, the fight to lower protective tariffs.
In Goodwin’s estimation, where Taft fell short, compared to Roosevelt, was in his failure to engage and manipulate the press. From his days as police commissioner of New York, Roosevelt had sought to make friends of the press corps, allowing reporters such as Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens to help shape his agenda. As New York’s governor, he enlisted Riis to take him on a tour of tenement sweatshops, an excursion that led to improved regulation.
This pattern of mutually beneficial cooperation continued with a select group of reporters. Many were in the employ of Samuel S. McClure, the brilliant and (according to Goodwin’s description) probably bipolar founder of McClure’s. In its heyday, McClure’s gave its stars—including Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker—months to dig through documents, conduct interviews, and polish lengthy drafts.
Steffens’ series on municipal corruption, collected in The Shame of the Cities, and Tarbell’s exposé of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, are among McClure’s legacies. The publisher even funded novels, notably Frank Norris’ The Octopus, based on a revolt against the predatory practices of a California railroad.
Goodwin’s analysis of Progressive Era media raises fascinating questions, the implications of which she never fully explores. This particular golden age turns out to have been rife with apparent conflicts of interest. It was not simply that the work of McClure’s writers, and of their counterparts at magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, was inspired by a political agenda. This investigative tradition continues in publications such as Mother Jones and The Nation, and is embodied by advocacy journalists such as Glenn Greenwald.
Greenwald has risen to prominence by propounding a view of the federal government as an Orwellian invader of privacy. By contrast, the investigative reporters of The Bully Pulpit saw federal power as a brake on corporate and municipal corruption. Some worked intimately with the president to arouse public opinion and fashion reforms. Roosevelt invited his favorite reporters to dinner, showed them drafts of his speeches, and facilitated their research. In return, he often received advance copies of their articles, to which he appended comments.
Ray Baker’s railroad investigation for McClure’s exemplifies how the process worked. After Roosevelt learned of Baker’s research, Goodwin tells us, he invited the reporter to join him for a “family lunch” and private conversation. Baker in turn “shared with the president a detailed outline of his planned series,” arguing that “railroads were public highways that must be accessible to all on fair and equal terms.” Roosevelt confided that his biggest legislative hurdle in securing such legislation was the Senate, and advised the reporter “to be fair.”
He gave Baker a government desk and stenographer, as well as easy access to documents, while embarking on his own campaign for railroad regulation. “Mindful” of a presidential request, Baker submitted a pre-publication draft of his first article in “The Railroads on Trial” series to the president. “I haven’t a criticism to suggest,” the president wrote back, adding that the story had “given me two or three thoughts for my own message.”
Roosevelt reciprocated by sending Baker a partial draft of a railroad speech for comment. Baker offered legislative advice, spurring a heated correspondence. In the end, the president adopted some of Baker’s suggestions, and the reporter’s series “heightened public demand for regulation.” A win-win, one might say, but in a manner that not even the most ideological journalist would sanction today.
Given all this cooperation, how is it that Roosevelt came to dismiss investigative journalists as “muckrakers?” According to Goodwin, the epithet was Roosevelt’s response to an attack on the Senate in a magazine published by his enemy, William Randolph Hearst. Contrary to popular belief, she writes, the attack played little role in the subsequent breakup of McClure’s and the consequent muting of American investigative journalism. Those events she attributes in large part to the erratic McClure, with his wild business schemes and extramarital dalliances.