Wait for the Movie Version of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit”

Two titans, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, strode across America’s Progressive era, but alas Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book doesn’t capture the drama and excitement of these men and their times.

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It is a truly extraordinary tale, one that, had Shakespeare lived another half millennium, might have furnished him material for at least one, if not two or three, more history plays.

Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, born and bred members of the Republican Party, former comrades in political battle, are pulled apart by forces beyond their capacity to comprehend or control. One militantly ambitious for power, the other more judiciously so, they had as young men been called upon to serve their party and their nation, and done so admirably. Taft who was terrified of public speaking and never at ease campaigning for himself served serially as judge on the Ohio Superior Court, solicitor general of the United States, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, governor-general of the Philippines, and secretary of war, all appointed positions.

Roosevelt meanwhile “rose as a rocket,” as he later characterized his political career, careening back and forth from New York to Washington, with lengthy stays at his ranch in North Dakota. A year out of college he ran for and was elected to the New York State Assembly. After an unsuccessful run for mayor in New York City, he moved to Washington to serve as a member of the Civil Service Commission, back to New York City as police commissioner, then to Washington as assistant secretary of the Navy.

Both men profited personally by events set in motion by the American invasions of Cuba and the Philippines. Roosevelt, covered in self-promoted glory from his brief stint in his Brooks Brothers tailored uniform in Cuba, ran for and was elected governor of New York. He scored some headlines and achieved a few meaningful reforms in Albany, but, in doing so, alienated the Republican party bosses who had made him governor. When, after his first term, they cautioned him not to run for a second, he agreed. He was offered, as consolation prize, what muckraker Lincoln Steffens referred to as “the most dignified and harmless position in the gift of his country” –the Vice Presidency. The position he coveted, governor-general of the Philippines, went to Judge William Howard Taft.

When President McKinley was assassinated at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt was, in an instant, rescued from political exile and catapulted into the White House. Two and a half years into his presidency, on the resignation of his most trusted adviser, Elihu Root, Roosevelt recalled Taft from the Philippines and named him his new secretary of war. After publicly (and mistakenly) pledging that he would not run for another term as president, Roosevelt handpicked Taft to succeed him. Following Taft’s election in 1908, the former president sailed away to Africa for an extended round of killing large mammals, many of whose carcasses would be returned to the United States, stuffed, and put on exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Unsuited by temperament and training for either peace or solitude and content with retirement only so long as he was shooting animals, the former president, on returning to the United States, listened with growing satisfaction to complaints about his successor’s failures as a president and progressive reformer. After a brief hesitation, he threw his hat back into the ring and declared that he would be a candidate for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1912, a position that by right and custom, should have gone to his successor and the sitting president, William Howard Taft.

The story of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, their partnership and their rivalry has been told often—and often told well. There are dozens of Roosevelt biographies, short, long, partial, and multi-volumed, a few of Taft, several accounts of the election of 1912, and shelves of books and articles on the progressive era. Why then has Doris Kearns Goodwin chosen to take up the story again? She has unearthed no new sources, offers us no new historical interpretations or insights into the characters of the protagonists or the nature of the progressive movement each man claimed to embody in his politics and policies.

Goodwin declares, in her introduction, that she is going to enlarge the tale of the two presidents by introducing a third element: the bully pulpit and the “powerfully reciprocal relationships” Roosevelt developed (and Taft failed to) with those journalists he later derogated as “muckrakers.” Her discussion of the ways in which the more moderate Roosevelt and the more radical muckrakers used one another to promote their often incongruent progressive agendas is instructive. Unfortunately, Goodwin is so wedded to her “team of rivals” collective biography format that she can’t restrain herself from cluttering up her central narrative with canned biographies of Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, William Allen White, and Samuel McClure. She pulls us away from her major story again in lengthy chapters about Edith Carow Roosevelt and Nellie Herron Taft.

Goodwin’s strong suit is her capacity to glide above the battles and write fairly about the protagonists. She forgives Roosevelt for his overweening ambitions, his lust for power, his betrayal of friends, attacks on the judiciary, and his role in tearing the Republican party in two. She portrays Taft as a good and talented jurist who is simply not up to the responsibilities and expectations thrust upon him when he succeeds Roosevelt in the White House. She is even-handed in detailing the internecine battles between Insurgents and Regulars for control of the party. She even excuses the rhetorical excesses of the muckrakers and Taft and Roosevelt during the campaigns of 1912 as they throw caution—and precision—to the wind and lash out against their opponents as corrupt, mendacious, and dangerous.

As history and literature, The Bully Pulpit reads too often as if it was produced on an assembly line, with teams of researchers searching out anecdotes, citations, quotations culled from personal letters, campaign speeches, interviews, newspaper articles, and magazine profiles which Goodwin then arranges into sentences. Goodwin’s own voice is lost in the avalanche of material encased between quotation marks. There is no excitement, no vitality, no forward-moving thrust to the narrative. And far too little drama.

Biographical accounts can go only so far in explaining or describing historical change. We need context to understand what happened and why. We require a longer view of the ups and downs of American reform movements and a deeper understanding of the myriad, sometimes contradictory ways in which a witch’s brew of accelerating industrialization, urbanization, working-class radicalism, and the growing power and wealth of the banks, the financial houses, the corporate sector, and a generation of American-born moguls both energized and stifled the emergence of a new politics.

As we come to the end of Goodwin’s book, we realize that we still don’t understand much about progressivism or early 20th century politics and society. We are also no closer to forming a judgment on Roosevelt’s grander or lesser motives in contesting Taft’s re-nomination at the Republican convention, then running for the presidency on a third-party line, thereby splitting his party in two and guaranteeing the election of a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, in 1912.

Hopefully, Goodwin’s broken narratives will be straightened out by Steven Spielberg who, as he did with Team of Rivals, purchased the film rights to The Bully Pulpit before it was published. With a little help from Daniel Day-Lewis, who Goodwin told USA TODAY would make a fine Theodore Roosevelt, Spielberg may succeed in providing us with the drama, the excitement, and the historical context so lacking in the print version of his forthcoming film.