A note to the 113th United States Congress: It is actually possible for people of different temperaments and political viewpoints to work together toward some common good—the economic health of the country, say, or, for that matter, the physical health of the citizenry.
Just ask Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose 2005 book Team of Rivals (and Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln, based on Goodwin’s work) chronicles the way in which Abraham Lincoln skillfully united contending political factions to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in this nation once and for all.
Goodwin’s new book, The Bully Pulpit, extends the lesson to a similarly volatile political period at the beginning of the 20th century, when Theodore Roosevelt set out on an ambitious period of progressive reforms to improve the condition of working people in the United States while breaking the economic stranglehold of large corporations and their domination of political life.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’re having the same arguments today. Our discourse today is splintered and rancorous, but Roosevelt, as Republican as they come, was able to marshal a broad spectrum of political supporters to work for his cause, among them his lieutenant, the much more conservative Secretary of War William Howard Taft.
The similarities between our time and Roosevelt’s may be one of the reasons DreamWorks Studios, which produced Lincoln, closed a preemptive deal to acquire the film rights to The Bully Pulpit. “Doris has once again given us the best seats in the house where we can watch two dynamic American personalities in a battle for power and friendship,” Spielberg said in a press release about the deal.
The latter was the dictionary definition of “rock-ribbed Republican,” as Taft’s great-grandson recently reminded readers in a New York Times op-ed, but yet he and the blustering progressive Roosevelt worked together so effectively that Roosevelt anointed Taft to be his successor in the White House. That was a generous gesture, but, as Goodwin reminds us, it was not exactly what Taft—better known today for his massive girth than for his political views—might have wanted. If Roosevelt loved pounding on, yes, the bully pulpit, using the power of the presidency to enlist popular support for his programs, Taft was a quiet, scholarly man who never seemed entirely comfortable in the public eye and who, as history has shown, was much more inclined not to shake up the status quo.
And yet the two worked together, just as Roosevelt worked with so many different kinds of allies, even as the country bumped through a tumultuous period that saw a sharp division of political beliefs and plenty of unkind talk. As Goodwin puts it, “I wish the people in Washington could appreciate those of different viewpoints, if for nothing else than that it was fun for these people to get to know each other.” She pauses for a moment, then adds, “It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of fun going on in Washington right now.”
Most Americans have at least heard of Taft and Roosevelt, even if they might not know much about the ups and downs of their political and personal relations. But other figures play strong roles in The Bully Pulpit, including pioneering investigative reporters Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, most of them nearly forgotten today. “I wanted to write about a cast of characters rather than write just another book about Roosevelt,” Goodwin says. It was through them that Roosevelt managed to push through his ambitious agenda during his time in office, leveraging journalists and social reformers along with politicians, labor leaders and even a few big-business types.
Taft and Roosevelt’s alliance disintegrated during the latter’s presidency, when Roosevelt came to believe that Taft’s administration was part of an “unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics.” Running against his former protégé and friend in 1912, Roosevelt led a dissident movement that split the Republican Party so profoundly that it handed the election to Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat. There’s another lesson to be learned from Goodwin’s account: When cooperation becomes calumny, the law of unintended consequences takes over.
And yet, for all the acrimony, one of the most striking images in The Bully Pulpit comes at its very end, when, by chance, years later, Roosevelt and Taft run into each other in the dining room of a Chicago hotel, embrace, and sit down together to talk, even as their fellow diners throughout the room burst into applause, feeling the significance of the encounter.
It’s hard to imagine that, 20 years from now, Barack Obama and, say, Ted Cruz might do the same. If they did, though, says Goodwin, “one hopes that a reporter would be on hand to spread the news.” And, one hopes, as skilled a student of presidential politics as Goodwin to put that moment into context for time to come.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.