As I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit this summer, I was awestruck - awestruck by her work and awestruck by the leadership of Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft, and Samuel S. McClure. While Goodwin tells us about these three leaders and others, she also teaches us about the American political and social landscape of 1900.
Here are three very significant forces:
- Wealthy industrialists were creating business “trusts” that virtually eliminated competition.
- These same wealthy men had figured-out how to use money to buy political clout. This was easily done in the U.S. Senate because Senators were not elected then, they were appointed by each state’s legislature. Local legislative leaders were easily paid off to assure the “right” U.S. senators got appointed. Thus, very few laws could be passed to hurt these wealthy industrialists.
- The primary method for Americans to get their information was from print media – no radio, no television, no internet. Newspapers and magazines were important methods of communication and most of them were controlled by very wealthy men.
So, it is at that moment that our central leader, Teddy Roosevelt, enters the picture. And he figures-out how to use the talents of others to deal with these forces and change the structure of the United States forever.
Five Lessons. While I learned hundreds of things from Goodwin’s book, here are five of my takeaways.
1. Power Brokers Never Thought Roosevelt Would Become President. As New York Police Commissioner and Governor of New York, Roosevelt was making life difficult for the powerful New York politicians. He exposed their corrupt behavior and citizens loved him for it. So, to get him out of the way, the political leaders brokered his selection as the Vice-Presidential candidate for President William McKinley when he ran for re-election in 1900. They thought this would get Roosevelt out of New York and everyone knew that a Vice-President has no power and really has no voice. But just months after McKinley was re-elected, he was assassinated and Roosevelt became our youngest President at age 43. He would be the last man the power brokers would have wanted to be President.
2. Presidential Personality Fits. Teddy Roosevelt had a charismatic personality that was very well-suited to the communication demands of the presidency. He loved debate and was energized by human interaction. He loved being President and he enjoyed making things happen. He LOVED fighting with powerful interests who exhibited unethical behavior. He had a thick skin and didn’t care if he hurt anyone’s feelings.
William Howard Taft, who Roosevelt hand-picked to be his Presidential successor in 1908, was a kind, gentle, and thoughtful man. Likely better suited to be Chief Justice, which he was later appointed to by President Harding, he didn’t enjoy spontaneous debate. He preferred to think things through in detail before taking action.
3. Teddy Roosevelt Liked Using the Executive Order. On topics Roosevelt felt were in the best interest of citizens, he would famously issue “Executive Orders,” unless there were laws already on the books prohibiting his action. For example, Roosevelt created 150 new national forests, increased the amount of protected land from 42 million acres to 172 million acres, created five national parks, 18 national monuments, and 51 wildlife refuges – all with the Executive Order. One reason he wanted Taft to follow him into the White House was because he knew Taft had the legal and political skills to convert his Executive Orders into law, which Taft later did.
4. Emergence of Populist Muckraker Reporters and McClure’s Magazine. In the late 1800’s the print media landscape changed forever when a leader named Samuel McClure launched a new populist magazine, McClures. McClure recruited the most gifted reporters and writers of time – Ida Tarbell, Ray Baker, Lincoln Steffens, William White – to research and publish stories of corruption and greed. They were really hitting their stride at the same time Teddy Roosevelt was gaining recognition.
5. Roosevelt Used Print Media to Help Bust Trusts. From his early days in politics, Roosevelt knew how to make reporters his friends and use them to advance his agenda. He regularly held private interviews with select reporters, like William White, who he knew would accurately explain his position. Roosevelt would carefully articulate why the Trusts were bad for America. While the Sherman Anti-Trust law had been in effect since the 1890s, no one had the political will to take on the monopolies. Roosevelt did and using his rapport with the media to help, he sued and broke-up railroad monopolies, the Standard Oil monopoly, and several others. The corporate landscape changed forever.
Goodwin also describes the details of the relationship between Roosevelt and Taft, which had its ups and downs after Roosevelt left office. I guess there really was no place like the Presidency for a man with his ego.
After I finished the book, I felt like I knew both men – Roosevelt inspired me and Taft, I liked and admired. I hope you will enjoy the same experience.