Charles Harries

| Books

The Bully Pulpit

by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Published 2013

Listened to this over the course of like two bursts, one just before the pandemic and one at the beginning of this year.

When I started it, I'd just gotten off reading the first two volumes of Edmund Morris's massive biography of Theodore Roosevelt—I was compelled by Roosevelt's rise to power but a little disenchanted by how he clung to it after his tenure as president came to an end, and started The Bully Pulpit as a sort of abridged take on the rest of the Roosevelt story (though come to think of it I'm not sure that I would call this book "abridged" by any means).

I think Roosevelt the Character benefits from reading in context—Morris's characterisation of TR is very complete, but the Roosevelt-centric model of the solar system misses out a little on the prevailing forces in Progressive Era. Goodwin's book, on the other hand, treats Roosevelt as just one character in its cast (although Goodwin threatens to make the larger-than-life Roosevelt the protagonist at times). Putting Roosevelt on a level footing with Taft really brings out both men's humanity that does them a lot of credit. Roosevelt can be a little cantankerous in the last couple of chapters, and Taft is generally a bit more timid than you'd have liked a president to be, but their faults make the final reconciliation between the two all the more satisfying.

I liked that Goodwin added the McClure's team B-plot, though it dragged in a couple of spots. They also drop off the map for much of the third act, but that's probably because the magazine was facing some some rocky terrain like economically after 1907 or so. At any rate, I think it was a good idea to include the media industry that enthusiastically promoted Roosevelt's progressive ideology.

Reading in 2022 (or, well, at any point after like 2017 or so) it's hard not to be reminded of today's populist movements: a charismatic figurehead with an agenda and a legion of pundits publishing their twenty-four/seven support. Theodore Roosevelt is no Donald Trump, but I think that they both rode the same wave to election; Roosevelt, however, was tireless and had moral authority on his side in the waxing years of American global influence.

I don't think that Goodwin saw it coming—at least not quite as much as it has (come, that is)—but I think that the book is a more compelling read now than when it was published in 2013.