Swiftly moving account of a friendship that turned sour, broke a political party in two and involved an insistent, omnipresent press corps. Cantor and Boehner? No: Teddy and Taft.
Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Goodwin (Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, 2005, etc.) may focus on the great men (and occasionally women) of history, but she is the foremost exponent of a historiographic school that focuses on the armies of aides and enactors that stand behind them. In this instance, one of the principal great men would revel in the title: Theodore Roosevelt wanted nothing more than to be world-renowned, change the world and occasionally shoot a mountain lion. His handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, was something else entirely: He wished to fade into legal scholarship and was very happy in later life to be named to the Supreme Court. The two began as friends of what Taft called “close and sweet intimacy,” and the friendship ended—Goodwin evokes this exquisitely well in her closing pages—with a guarded chance encounter in a hotel that slowly thawed but too late. A considerable contributor to the split was TR’s progressivism, his trust-busting and efforts to improve the lot of America’s working people, which Taft was disinclined to emulate. Moreover, Taft did not warm to TR’s great talent, which was to enlist journalists to his cause; problems of objectivity aside, they provided him with the “bully pulpit” of Goodwin’s title. She populates her pages with sometimes-forgotten heroes of investigative reporting—Ida Tarbell, Ray Blake, Lincoln Steffens—just as much as Roosevelt and Taft and their aides. The result is an affecting portrait of how networks based on genuine liking contribute to the effective functioning of government without requiring reporters to be sycophants or politicians to give up too many secrets.
It’s no small achievement to have something new to say on Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, but Goodwin succeeds admirably. A notable, psychologically charged study in leadership.