Mucking around revisited

Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism has just been published in paperback. Our friend Jean Yarbrough took a devastating look at what Goodwin has on offer this time around in the pages of the Claremont Review of Books. In light of next week’s elections, Professor Yarbrough’s account of the book – of the incestuous relationship between progressive politicians and their journalistic acolytes – is more timely than ever. Her CRB review is titled “Mucking Around.”

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. She is the perfect reader/reviewer of Goodwin’s book. Professor Yarbrough 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 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 United States 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 dropout (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.”