Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Powerful Book For Our Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin

The latest book from the pen of Doris Kearns Goodwin is very much a story for the 21st century.

There is so much talk these days of big, important people in America living by one set of rules while the rest of us are forced to live by another, that the history of the early 20th century is truly a timely tale for the modern reader.

This is just the story told by the talented Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her new book with the unwieldy title: The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. How she managed to fill this 750 page book with such important details, got it out so relatively soon after her Lincoln book, and still is able to make all those television appearances, is a question for the ages. (I'm going to guess that like Winston Churchill, she gets some help with her research!)

The heroes here are all people born to privilege (with one exception, which I'll get to in a minute). Both Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were the sons of wealthy families and in the case of both these men, that wealth seemed to free them to be idealists.

The journalists Goodwin features here all wrote for McClure's Magazine, a periodical that flourished between 1893 and 1929 and in those few decades managed to shape the political discourse of the nation. Almost all of the most famous journalists who worked for McClure's--Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, William Allen White, and Ray Baker to name four of the best--were also from affluent backgrounds. All had families who had prospered under the free enterprise system and most had parents who hoped they would follow in the family business. Somehow, for each one of these writers, business was not enough. Their prosperity and their own determination drove all into the business of examining the best and the worst of the American story at just the time that the American frontier was closing and the new nation was becoming an industrial giant.

The only person in Goodwin's book who was born into poverty was Sam McClure himself, and it may have been his own observations of how power, money, and greed corrupted his adopted nation (McClure was born in Ireland) that drove him to send his reporters out in search of these stories. Since irony is almost always part of a good story, it makes the tale even better when we learn that Sam McClure became rich and powerful with his lively and influential magazine.

What is fascinating is that the journalists at McClure's didn't just uncover corruption in big business or in one political party. They found it everywhere they looked! It was in both political parties and in big business and in the emerging big labor movement. They found it in the entrenched leadership of big cities and they uncovered it in small towns. They found it in monopolies, railroads, and brokerage houses as well as in the slums. Wherever there was a crooked deal to be made, there were those who would pervert the system to their own ends.

Taft and Roosevelt were two of the most powerful idealists who had been fighting this very thing in their own political lives and--in an alliance that would be unusual today--they joined forces with the journalists, encouraged their work, dined with them, gave them leads, and followed up on the stories themselves. In fact Roosevelt especially used the stories these journalists produced as evidence for legislation he championed to end the corruption.  

If you'll forgive a personal note here: it made me look back on my own career in journalism and hang my head in shame. All those "live reports" I did, of shootings at convenience stores. All those parades I covered. Certainly I could have done a lot better work with the bully pulpit I was given. 

Doris Kearns Goodwin, at least, has done a magnificent job of journalism here, in a story as big and sprawling as the book's title. It is so full of detail the reader must be prepared: it is not a quick read. But it makes one yearn for a modern Sam McClure who would read this history and start a new magazine designed to rake up some modern muck. I feel certain there is oodles of it out there that could once again galvanize this great nation. 

Greed is always going to be with us. As a counterweight, evil needs to meet its match in powerful idealism that brings its hidden ugliness to the public. It is something sorely lacking in today's twenty-four-hour news cycle.

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