May 04, 2014

Teddy Roosevelt - the bully behind 'bully'

I just got done reading The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin's new mix of dual biography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, mixed with looking at muckraking journalism in what was the cornerstone of investigative reporting, as started by S.S. McClure of McClure's magazine, with Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker as its leading lights.

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of JournalismThe Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's not bad overall, for being a Goodwin book. Hey, have to be honest. She's not that great, even with allowance for her being a "popular" and not an academic historian. "Team of Rivals" missed the main points of why Lincoln named all those "rivals" to his cabinet. Anyway, back to this book.

I learned more about Taft than TR in this book. Of course, Roosevelt, arguably  the initiator of the modern presidency, for both better and worse, has been a far, far more covered person.

On Taft?
The main thing is that I didn't realize that he had explicitly pushed for Congress to pass the 16th Amendment to send to states, along with starting the federal corporate income tax, in exchange for accepting the flawed "lowering" of tariff rates in the Payne-Aldrich tariff bill. Willingness to tackle the tariff, let alone get this much out of it, makes him more progressive (and more courageous) than TR in some ways right there.

Second major thing I learned was more about the details behind Taft's sacking of Gifford Pinchot. Taft partially caused this by not keeping John Garfield as holdover Interior Secretary, being dithering in making this decision and not telling Garfield exactly why.

That said, most of the actual precipitating events, from Pinchot's conflicts with Garfield's replacement, Richard Ballinger, indirectly proved part of Taft's reasoning right and also show that Pinchot largely shot himself in the foot. Pinchot's replacement, plus Ballinger, actually eventually and with better legal footing, "reserved" more forest lands from private development than did TR/Pinchot/Garfield.

In essence, forest reserve issues are one of the clearest issues of TR's arbitrary nature as president. We should be glad he didn't run for a second elected term in 1908, let alone get elected in 1912. When WWI started, he probably would have become more dictatorial in waging war than Woodrow Wilson ever was. And I sincerely believe that, and though not any facts involved, Goodwin's book was a trigger for that thought.

I think TR would have done everything he could to have us in the war by 1915. Then, I think he would have tried, with Germa
n-Americans, as his cousin did one war later with Japanese-Americans, doing preventative detention concentration camps. I have no doubt he would have hired a George Creel or worse for pro-war, pro-Allied propaganda.

That said, the book lacks focus. That's in part because Goodwin's trying to do too much and spread herself too thin. Having read a bio of Lincoln Steffens and other books about the muckrakers, I know that she tried to cram in too much about them.

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