Book Review: The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin
But as she proved in Team of Rivals, Goodwin always produces first rate history, and she comes through once again in this book. In 750 pages, she is able to tackle all of these complicated lives and stories, and combines meticulous research with the style of an engaging storyteller to make her characters come alive. Goodwin has said in interviews that when she is writing a book, it is as if she is living with its subjects, and she is able to transmit this same sensation to the reader. It is as if Roosevelt, Taft, their spouses, and the interesting array of journalists (like S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, Ray Baker, John Phillips, Lincoln Steffens and William White) are friends, acquaintances or contemporaries of the reader.
Goodwin opens with Roosevelt's triumphant return from safari, one year after he has left the presidency, setting the mood for a political clash of the titans. This epic political battle is set up as we are then given the background of the book's two main characters. Roosevelt emerges from childhood illness and a privileged background to overcome his physical challenges through sheer determination. He becomes a human dynamo, a bundle of energy forever tilting at the windmills of social injustice, whether it be as a civil service commissioner, as a state politician, as New York City police commissioner, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, as a "rough rider" in the Spanish-American War, as Governor of New York or as Vice-President of the United States. Meanwhile, Taft establishes his reputation as an honest, friendly, likeable and exceedingly fair lawyer and judge and later as the beloved and enlightened Governor-General of the Philippines, a man with the foresight to see past the racial and nationalistic prejudices of his time.
When Roosevelt becomes President following the assassination of William McKinley, he calls on Taft to serve as his key cabinet member and advisor. The two men develop a strong friendship and trust and Roosevelt anoints Taft as his successor as President. The two develop what at first appears to be an unassailable friendship. But a year into Taft's presidency, a rift develops between the two men, as Roosevelt perceives Taft as being disloyal to the cause of progressive reform. Goodwin does not offer an opinion of who is to blame, but gives the reader sufficient information to form one's own opinion, although she does concede one obvious factor: Roosevelt's gigantic ego.
In 1912, Roosevelt challenges Taft for the Republican nomination for president, vowing to run as a third party candidate if unsuccessful. For me this was the most interesting part of the book, as Goodwin gives a very entertaining blow-by-blow account of the election campaign: the key events, the strategies, and those inevitable unexpected occurrences that find their way into every election campaign. This was the most engaging part of the book for me.
A select few history writers have the ability to recount historical facts and turn it into a compelling, interesting and enjoyable story, and Doris Kearns Goodwin is one of the foremost among this group. She has the ability to take names from the pages of history books and turn them into fascinating personalities and to make the reader feel like he or she is present as these historically captivating events are unfolding. She has done it again with The Bully Pulpit, a most engaging and entertaining account of two complex presidents and the exciting times in which they lived.