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The TR Show

The talented, introspective Taft succeeded as an administrator, diplomat, and legal thinker. And as he followed Roosevelt into the presidency in 1909, he carried much of TR’s reformist program forward. Indeed, he instituted more antitrust suits than had Roosevelt and expanded the jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce Commission. During his administration, Congress passed a tax on corporations as well as constitutional amendments for an income tax and for the direct election of senators. But Taft’s conservatism gradually revealed itself—in his refusal to break with the Republican Old Guard in Congress as well as in his six Supreme Court appointments that would erect a decades-long roadblock to reform. Taft’s failure to “carry out my work unbroken,” as TR put it, helped to unleash Roosevelt’s radicalism as well as his furious hostility to Taft, climaxing in his kamikaze-like bid for the presidency in 1912.

As for Taft, he “ultimately failed as a public leader,” Goodwin concludes, locating his principal shortcoming not in his conservatism but rather in his failure to seize the bully pulpit and connect with the American people. His relationship with journalists was uneasy from the start. “He was never able,” Goodwin comments, to “harness the press corps to broadcast a coherent narrative concerning his legislative goals.” And that was precisely where Theodore Roosevelt excelled.

To a great extent, Goodwin views Theodore Roosevelt’s career through the lens of his relationships with the press. Much of The Bully Pulpit focuses on the complex, often constructive, and sometimes contentious partnerships that Roosevelt worked out with a generation of investigative journalists. Goodwin credits these partnerships not only with illuminating the corruption and abuses of the industrial age but with clarifying “a progressive vision for the entire nation,” a vision aided by Roosevelt’s astute use of his presidential bully pulpit.

Notwithstanding the tremendous growth of the industrial age—railroads, telegraph wires, steamships, mines, cities—as Henry George argued in his 1879 Progress and Poverty, these vaunted advances made it “no easier for the masses of our people to make a living. On the contrary, it is becoming harder.” Progress had widened the gulf between rich and poor, making the struggle for existence more intense and jeopardizing the stability of a democratic society. “To base a state with glaring social inequalities on political institutions where people are supposed to be equal,” George wrote, “is to stand a pyramid on its head. Eventually, it will fall.”

Millions of Americans hungered for change and reform, and the press was at the forefront. “The Progressive mind was characteristically a journalistic mind,” remarked Hofstadter. “Before there could be action, there must be information and exhortation.” But Hofstadter noted that investigative reporting was not a Progressive invention. What was new in muckraking, he explained, “was neither its ideas nor its existence, but its reach.” The investigative magazines had circulations in the hundreds of thousands.

Goodwin closely examines that golden age of journalism, particularly the influence of reporters on TR and his cultivation of them in maximizing the power and reach of his presidency. He corresponded with them, invited them to the White House, and sought their counsel. At times, he was irritated by their negativity, complaining to Taft in 1906 that their articles contained a “great amount of evil…mixed with a little good [and] a little truth.” Still, working together, they and TR were, in effect, shaping public opinion and mobilizing action on a host of reforms.

In 1893, in the midst of a severe economic crisis when, Goodwin writes, “millions feared that in the wreckage of the Gilded Age, democracy itself would crumble,” the first issue of McClure’s magazine appeared. Its crusading editor, Sam McClure, intended for his magazine to become “a power in the land…a power for good.” McClure hired a gifted staff of hardworking writers—not only the nucleus of Tarbell, Baker, Steffens, and William Allen White, but also Mark Sullivan, Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, and others—and gave them good salaries and generous expense accounts. There was “the sense of vitality, of adventure, of excitement” at McClure’s, said Tarbell. Together the magazine’s team produced hundreds of potent, provocative articles that changed the face not only of American journalism but, ultimately, of American government.

Tarbell’s own target was John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, the octopus that controlled the nation’s petroleum supplies. In a series of groundbreaking exposés launched in 1903, she revealed that the ascendancy of the company was aided by discriminatory railroad rates and illegal tactics to wipe out competitors, including insider deals, bribery, intimidation, and fraud. “And what are we going to do about it?” Tarbell finally demanded, challenging the public to take action. “For it is OUR business,” she insisted, “we, the people of the United States, and nobody else, must cure whatever is wrong in the industrial situation.”

Following Tarbell’s sensational investigation, Roosevelt successfully proposed an antitrust program in 1903 aimed at curbing corporate power, which inevitably would result in the empowerment of the government. Some people might fear that it was “a step toward socialism,” wrote Roosevelt’s friend William Allen White, adding that “if so, well and good; the step will not be retracted.”

Ray Baker took aim at corruption in the government and labor movement and in the practices of monopolies like J.P. Morgan’s Northern Securities. Morgan, whose annual income and spending were almost as great as that of Imperial Germany, controlled the two largest corporations on earth, United States Steel, which produced more than a quarter of the world’s steel, and Northern Securities, which, with its tens of thousands of miles of railroad track and hundreds of ships, possessed, wrote Baker, “monarchical powers in all matters relating to transportation.” To tackle Northern Securities, Roosevelt revived the Sherman Antitrust Act, and in 1904, after a Supreme Court decision upheld his action, the corporation was dissolved. But Roosevelt’s preference was to regulate rather than break up such firms; he believed that megacorporations were a natural outcome of industrialization and that they made lower prices and efficient service possible.

In 1905, Baker embarked on a six-part series for McClure’s, “The Railroads on Trial,” showing that a handful of corporations had a stranglehold on the country’s transportation network. He asked TR if he would like to read his first installment before it was published. “Yes,” the president replied. “I have learned to look to your articles for real help.” A few weeks later TR returned the favor, sending Baker pages from the draft of his State of the Union message. Disappointed to find “too much of the President’s favorite balancing of good and evil,” Baker successfully urged Roosevelt to go further in regulating the rates railroads charged shippers. The next year, Congress passed the Hepburn Act, a compromise bill that at least brought the railroads under federal control. “Congress might ignore a president,” editorialized an Indiana newspaper, “but could not ignore a president and the people.”

So too with Upton Sinclair’s revelations in The Jungle about hideous sanitation and brutal work conditions in the meatpacking industry—they led to legislation mandating federal meat inspection; and in 1906, Mark Sullivan’s reports on scores of useless and even dangerous patent medicines resulted in the Pure Food and Drug Act. So powerful had periodicals like McClure’s become that William Allen White quipped that it was as if Americans had “Government by Magazine.”

Ultimately more transformative than Theodore Roosevelt’s reforms were his personality, his energy, and, as Goodwin shows, his seizing of the bully pulpit that prepared the political landscape for expansive new concepts of government, rights, and community. When White and Roosevelt first met in 1897, TR’s progressive ideas came as a revelation to the conservative Kansas newspaper editor. “He sounded in my heart the first trumpet call of the new time that was to be,” a call that signaled “the passing of the old into the new.”

Roosevelt created a new standard for the presidency as a source of engaged, forward-looking leadership. In his post-presidential life, that youthful spirit remained intact. Feverish and unhinged as his demands for war against Germany may have appeared, TR retained his strong sense of the injustices of industrial capitalism and his faith in government’s power to ameliorate them. In his speeches and writings of 1917 and 1918, he repudiated “our present industrial and social system, or rather no-system of every man for himself,” and called for such measures as a steeply graduated tax on excess profits, a bill of rights for returning soldiers, higher education for all men and women who desired it, the rights of workers to share in profits and in management, permanency of employment, day nurseries for the children of working mothers, and a right to “reasonable leisure.” A century later, most of those proposals remain a dream.

Theodore Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919; across his strenuous life, he had contained multitudes—the indomitable hero, cautious pragmatist, groundbreaking progressive, intolerant demagogue, and political visionary. In all of those roles, he conceived politics as a battle culminating in the fireworks of his own personality, courage, intellect, and heroic deeds. Yet unremitting intensity on the public stage rarely wears well. As Franklin D. Roosevelt would caution Ray Stannard Baker in a 1935 letter in which he took a critical look at his distant cousin Theodore’s leadership, the public psychology cannot “be attuned for long periods of time to a constant repetition of the highest note in the scale.”

TR instinctively reached for that higher note, which may explain his failures as well as his successes. Yet his presidency awoke Americans to the demands and possibilities of the twentieth century. His death, a decade after he left the White House, would leave many of his friends and admirers in American politics and journalism facing a gray void. Tarbell, Baker, and White were all in France covering the Versailles peace conference when they received the jolting news of TR’s death. “Again and again I looked at the headlines to be sure that I was reading them correctly,” White recalled. Later that morning, Baker and Tarbell joined him, and the three old friends “sat down to talk it all over, and get used to a world without Roosevelt in it.”

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