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The TR Show

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Ida M. Tarbell Collection/Pelletier Library, Allegheny College
Ida Tarbell at her desk at McClure’s magazine, New York City, 1894

“I’ve had a bully time and a bully fight. I feel as big and strong as a bull moose,” Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt ebulliently told reporters when he returned to New York after the famous charge up San Juan Hill in the summer of 1898. Avid for publicity, Roosevelt had arranged for two photographers to accompany him and his Rough Riders to Cuba and had led favored reporters with him into battle. “Up, up they went in the face of death,” wrote one of them, “men dropping from the ranks at every step…. Roosevelt sat erect on his horse, holding his sword and shouting for his men to follow him.”

On February 15, 1898, an explosion on board the battleship USS Maine, anchored in Havana harbor, had killed 262 Americans and sparked the Spanish-American War. It was “an act of dirty treachery on the part of the Spaniards,” fumed Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt. Though a spontaneous fire in a coal bunker likely caused the blast, the explosion gave Roosevelt the green light for the war he hungered to fight. “Of course I feel that we ought to have interfered in Cuba long ago,” he had written in mid-January. Promptly quitting the Department of the Navy, he led his own regiment to Cuba—and to glory.

If there is one enduring symbol of Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership, it is surely the spectacle of the man on the horse charging up San Juan Hill. When he and his troops, some limping, some on stretchers, returned home and marched down the pier, TR took center stage, incarnating the courageous, righteous lone warrior. His war memoir, The Rough Riders, appeared in 1899. “Tis Th’ Biography iv a Hero,” observed political satirist Finley Peter Dunne’s surrogate Mr. Dooley. “If I was him, I’d call th’ book, ‘Alone in Cubia.’”

As president, too, Roosevelt would view himself as the hero of the people—with the emphasis on the hero, not on the people. “I believe that whatever value my service may have comes even more from what I am than from what I do,” he wrote in 1908, as his presidency drew to a close. The chief service he could render to the “plain people who believe in me is, not to destroy their ideal of me.”

At the onset of World War I, that heroic leader devolved into a demagogue as his hypermasculine, martial values ran amok. In letters to his son and others, he blasted Woodrow Wilson for not throwing the country into the war, excoriating the president for being “at heart an abject coward” whose soul was simply “rotten through and through.” The majority of Americans fared no better. “They have no keen point of honor,” he sneered. “They are horror-struck by the thought of the hideous slaughter and of all that war would bring.” In a series of one hundred shrill, bellicose essays penned for the Kansas City Star, Roosevelt insisted that the study of the German language in public schools be prohibited and that opposition to the war be treated as sedition. Demanding an “overwhelming triumph” over Germany, he maintained that “we are in this war to fight until Germany is beaten to her knees.”

The hero and the demagogue were not the only Roosevelt incarnations. There were two others: the conservative reformer and the radical progressive. During most of his presidency, he was a conservative reformer, committed to serving as a neutral umpire, seeking a balance between capital and labor. He promised “a square deal” for “every man, great or small, rich or poor.” Though faced with a rancorous Republican Party that was divided between progressives and Old Guard conservatives, he sponsored groundbreaking regulation of corporate trusts along with other pioneering progressive measures. And yet hidden behind his belief in evenhandedness and fair play was the old aristocratic fear of an unruly people driven to revolt by egregious inequality and injustice. “Roosevelt represented…the type of Progressive leader whose real impulses were deeply conservative, and who might not perhaps have been a Progressive at all if it were not for the necessity of fending off more radical threats to established ways of doing things,” wrote Richard Hofstadter in his classic study The Age of Reform.

And then came what was perhaps Roosevelt’s most consequential incarnation, the radical, idealistic crusader for social and economic justice who prepared the terrain for the New Deal. In a message to Congress in 1908, TR denounced “the representatives of predatory wealth,” their oppression of wageworkers and their crushing of competition. Finally recognizing that the impartiality of a neutral umpire had only buttressed the status quo, TR started to preach a transformational agenda. “I stand for the square deal,” he exclaimed in 1910. “But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed”—and those new rules would champion working people.

In 1912, after bolting the GOP, he founded the National Progressive Party, whose Bull Moose platform went well beyond the reformism of his presidency. Its demands ranged from women’s suffrage, the prohibition of child labor, and a “living wage” for workers to a system of social insurance designed to protect citizens against sickness, unemployment, and old age. Years later, Franklin Roosevelt came across the handbook of the Socialist Party. “You know, it’s a funny thing,” he said to Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor. “The Socialists have what they call their immediate and long-term programs. The immediate program…sounds almost exactly like the Bull Moose party of Ted’s day.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s exuberant new book, The Bully Pulpit, offers a sprawling panorama centered for the most part on TR, the reformer in the White House, whom she portrays not as Hofstadter’s grudging Progressive, but as an inspired crusader. In addition to her principal focus on his already well-known presidency, Goodwin has found two other fresher and less well-known angles to investigate. First, TR’s relationship with William Howard Taft, the Ohio judge who would serve under him as governor of the Philippines, secretary of war, and then as his hand-picked successor in the White House before becoming, in the election of 1912, the political rival of a deeply embittered and vindictive Roosevelt. And second, Roosevelt’s adroit and enterprising use of what he called “the bully pulpit” of the presidency and the relationships he cultivated with a talented crew of muckraking reporters that included Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker, all writers for McClure’s magazine.

Goodwin fathoms and interweaves the worlds of people and policies, of politics and journalism, of the White House and the halls of Congress and popular opinion, infusing her narrative with sketches and anecdotes of dozens of characters’ public, personal, and family lives, their backgrounds, educations, finances, wives, children, illnesses, golf games, travels—including on the Titanic—friendships, enmities, and daily routines. Goodwin is a superb storyteller, an author of fascinating narratives that are rich in hard-won detail, though The Bully Pulpit offers no distinctive interpretation of Roosevelt and his era. For that, one might turn to the likes of Hofstadter, Bruce Miroff, Sidney Milkis, William Harbaugh, George Mowry, and others.

When New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt was chosen to run as vice-president on the Republican ticket with President William McKinley in 1900, his reaction was disappointment. “These fellows have placed me in an awful position,” he complained, deciding to accept only so that people wouldn’t say that “Roosevelt has a big head and thinks he is too much of a man to be Vice-President.” The job he coveted was that of governor-general of the Philippines, an exciting challenge after the American seizure of the islands from Spain in 1898—but McKinley had already tapped William Howard Taft to head the occupation authority. Unlike TR, who believed that if Americans refused to take tough stands abroad “the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and win for themselves the domination of the world,” Taft had been strongly opposed to the US occupation of the Philippines, but agreed to accept the job. After all, he would sigh, “we are there.”

Arriving in Manila in early June 1900, with a Filipino insurrection still blazing despite the presence of about 70,000 American troops—almost three quarters of the US Army—Taft shrugged off the cold welcome he received. He offered a reassuring and conciliatory message, suggesting the beginning of the end of military rule. He was there to do “justice to the Philippine people, and to secure to them the best government in our power.” How to do that was far from clear, especially when Taft privately believed that Filipinos might need “the training of fifty or a hundred years before they shall even realize what Anglo-Saxon liberty is.” While Taft deplored the American military’s bigotry and cruelty, he himself saw Filipino resistance against American occupation as a “conspiracy of murder and assassination” and, as the historian Stanley Karnow wrote, proposed that enemy troops be executed or exiled.

Atrocities punctuated the conflict. After the ambush and vicious murder in September 1901 of fifty-four American soldiers, Army officials blamed Taft’s “silly talk of benevolence and civilian rule,” and one general gave the directive to “kill and burn.” By 1902, the insurrection had dwindled to harassing actions. But by then, as Karnow underscored in his magisterial study of America’s rule in the Philippines, over 4,200 American troops and 20,000 Filipino soldiers had died in the conflict, with an estimated two hundred thousand Filipino civilians perishing from famine and other causes.

Although Goodwin doesn’t ignore the brutality of America’s occupation of the Philippines, her emphasis is on what she portrays as Taft’s constructive role in nation-building. Taft’s course was to create a base of support for American rule by co-opting Filipino elites into the new colonial administration, which constructed schools and roads, opened medical clinics, made legal reforms, and recovered the Catholic Church’s vast landholdings for redistribution to Filipino farmers. Self-rule remained a distant mirage, but in Goodwin’s account, Taft’s use of carrot and stick, of vigorous Americanization with appeals to national pride, as well as the efficiency of his administration won him loyalty among Filipinos as their “beloved governor” and quieted opposition to the US.

Particularly significant for Taft’s Philippines mission was his deepening relationship with Roosevelt, who had been thrust into the presidency with McKinley’s assassination in September 1901. TR quickly came to think of Taft as his most reliable and sympathetic partner. “Thank Heaven you are to be with me!” Roosevelt exclaimed in 1903 when Taft hesitantly accepted the job of secretary of war. Taft would become the administration’s “pack horse,” as TR heaped assignments on him that went far beyond his War Department brief. He became the president’s intermediary with Capitol Hill, worked as a crucial adviser and surrogate in the 1904 presidential campaign, supervised complex aspects of the Panama Canal project, and facilitated a peace conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that would end the Russo-Japanese War—an achievement for which Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize. “He helps me in every way more than I can say,” TR wrote to a friend.

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