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

Teddy Roosevelt didn’t make peace with a gridlocked Washington, D.C.—he worked in tandem with William Howard Taft to make it over.

(Simon & Schuster, $40)

“From the vantage point of today’s horribly gridlocked Washington, D.C., it is enough to make your mouth water,” said Edward Luce in the Financial Times. Teddy Roosevelt faced many of the challenges America confronts today—public-sector corruption, vast inequality, and deep partisan divisions. The difference was that our 26th president didn’t make peace with the system; he made it over. Few elected leaders deserve to be called giants, but in the case of Roosevelt—particularly as he’s painted by the popular historian Doris Kearns Goodwin—that honorific “comes close to being justified.”

T.R. doesn’t stand alone in the spotlight here, said Bill Keller in The New York Times. After setting out to write a straight Roosevelt bio, Goodwin decided that Roosevelt’s war secretary, William Howard Taft, deserved equal attention. The combative Roosevelt and diffident Taft “could hardly have been more different” in temperament. But when both were newcomers to Washington in the 1890s, they became fast friends, and when T.R. became president in 1901, he and Taft worked in tandem to project U.S. power abroad and win reforms at home. Unfortunately, Taft’s methods worked less well when he succeeded his boss as president, said Heather Cox Richardson in The Washington Post. Whereas Roosevelt courted the press, forging a close alliance with the era’s great muckraking journalists, Taft failed to manage his own narrative. Even though he accomplished more of the goals of the progressive movement than Roosevelt, he was painted as a failure.

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The story bears the outlines of grand tragedy, said Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker. But Taft isn’t “anywhere near as interesting a character” as his counterpart, so even when Roosevelt stages a ruinous third-party run in 1912, the sitting president comes across not as a brother betrayed, but simply as a second-stringer. Goodwin also glosses over the fact that the progressive era’s figureheads, her principals included, were mainly old-money elites who felt as threatened by unchecked capitalism as the little people they claimed to speak for. Goodwin has done well to stitch together a strong narrative. But she “leaves out the heart of the story”—the way the movement exhausted its energies because it never truly focused on the common good.

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