CRB: Mucking around

We welcome the publication of the Spring issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here) this week. In keeping with custom our friends at the Claremont Institute have allowed us to preview three pieces I chose for our readers. We began on Monday with CRB senior editor William Voegeli’s essay “The Redskins and Their Offense.” Yesterday we highlighted “Whistleblowers and traitors,” Hudson Institute senior fellow Gabriel Schoenfeld’s review of an important new book on the press and national security. I should have mentioned in my note on the review that Gabe is our go-to man on the intersection of the press and national security. His book Necessary Secrets is the indispensable text on the subject.

Today we offer Jean M. Yarbrough’s review of Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Professor Yarbrough is the Gary M. Pendy, Sr., Professor of Social Sciences at Bowdoin College and the author of the award-winning Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition.

Professor Yarbrough is the perfect reviewer for Goodwin’s new book. She knows whereof she speaks and has little patience for Goodwin’s warmed-over cheerleading for Roosevelt and the progressive cause. “Here then is the major result of Goodwin’s seven years of research,” Yarbrough writes, “she is no longer willing to brand Taft a ‘conservative’ as T.R. did; in every other respect her thinking remains preserved in progressive amber.”

Goodwin writes for a large audience, aiming less at originality than readability, so to criticize her “mid-20th-century progressivism, re-packaged for mass consumption as a series of human-interest stories” is not altogether damning – or wouldn’t be, if that mid-20th century progressive viewpoint weren’t so blinkered and, in many respects, simply mistaken. As Yarbrough shows, Goodwin ignores the wealth of recent scholarship – much of it produced by or directly indebted to the CRB and its related scholars – that exposes the hollowness of so many progressive shibboleths.

So, for example, Goodwin uncritically reproduces Roosevelt’s dismissal of Taft’s “devotion to constitutional forms and formalities” as simply a cover for a temperament uncongenial to executive command. That Taft – Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and author of a scholarly work on presidential powers – might possess a sounder grasp of the requirements of those “forms and formalities” than a law school drop-out (strange though it be today today to suggest that a law school education might actually improve one’s understanding of the Constitution) is nowhere entertained by Goodwin, who is more interested in cheering on Roosevelt’s bullying tactics. Not for her Taft’s fears of the demeaning demagoguery of T.R.’s appeals to the public through a fawning media:

Unable to win the support of more conservative Republican law¬makers, [Roosevelt] conspired with reporters to stoke public demand for his proposals. As president, T.R. repeatedly used the press to go over the heads of Congress and appeal directly to the people. This successful collaboration commenced “the golden age of journalism,” according to Goodwin. By contrast, Taft failed to ally with these firebrands to stir up public opinion, preferring instead to work with party leaders in Congress to advance his agenda. And although he succeeded in enacting significant reforms where the ever more splenetic Roosevelt had failed, Taft fell short by not understanding the historic role journalists could play in educating the public and mobilizing support.

Goodwin tells a riveting tale – but it is not the one she thinks she is telling. Beneath the celebration of Roosevelt’s mastery of “golden age” journalism lies the seamier story of the corruption of our constitutional safeguards by well-placed “impartial” journalists working hand-in-glove with like-minded politicians to transform the country. It is a story, as Professor Yarbrough observes, that continues to this day. “As always for Doris Kearns Goodwin, the bottom line is that the progressive papers loved it—and still do.”

The best reviews are often the most critical. For a fine example, see Professor Yarbrough’s learned and lively “Mucking Around.”