The Bully Pulpit
This dual biography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft offers fresh proof of Doris Kearns Goodwin's ability to 'bring dead presidents back to life.'
Archie Butt served Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and died on the Titanic in 1912. Now his story, and many others from the fascinating Progressive Era (which echoes our own times, in many ways), surface anew in The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s well-crafted look at the presidents and journalists who ushered in a brief but significant era of reform.Skip to next paragraph
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Before his death, Butt watched with sadness and anxiety as Roosevelt and Taft lost faith and trust in each other. The rift between the longtime political allies weakened the progressive wing of the Republican Party and ushered Woodrow Wilson into the White House in 1912.
“They are now apart and how they will keep from wrecking the country between them I scarcely see,” Butt said as the two men drifted from allies to enemies – and, soon enough, presidential rivalry. Roosevelt’s decision to run as a third-party candidate against Taft, his self-appointed successor, handed the presidency to Wilson.
Their parting and former partnership, along with the role played by muckraking journalists at McClure’s magazine, occupy center stage in Goodwin’s latest presidential biography. As fellow historian Sean Wilentz told the Associated Press in a recent interview, Goodwin has a knack for finding fresh angles to bring her beloved dead presidents back to life.
Her 1995 Pulitzer prize-winning book, “No Ordinary Time,” examined the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt through the lens of his relationship with his wife, Eleanor, and others in his inner circle.
Then came an unexpected obstacle, followed by a triumphant return. Not for FDR, but for Goodwin herself.
Questions raised in 2002 and 2003 about “borrowed material” in two of her books left Goodwin on the defensive regarding the use of passages from other works in what Bo Crader of The Weekly Standard and Slate’s Timothy Noah made clear was more than a one-time, inadvertent mistake. Much of the furor focused on Goodwin's 1987 best-seller "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys."
In addition, while she credited earlier works in "No Ordinary Time," Noah demonstrated, with authority, the lack of quotation marks for extensive passages in the book nearly identical to the referenced sources. In other words, Goodwin had plagiarized.
All of which made her highly scrutinized return in 2005 all the more remarkable. “Team of Rivals,” Goodwin’s account of President Lincoln and his fractious cabinet, not only put a fresh spin on assessing the most-analyzed president in American history, but was judged to be both rigorous and accurate.
“Team of Rivals” enjoyed an extended run that benefited from rave reviews, an endorsement by a young Illinois senator embarking on a long-shot presidential bid in 2007 (you may now know him simply as 44), and finally, last year, the Steven Spielberg movie "Lincoln." Day-Lewis went on to win an Oscar for his portrayal of the 16th president.
Now comes "The Bully Pulpit," a dual biography of the familiar 26th president (Roosevelt) and the unremarkable 27th (Taft). Goodwin, a familiar face and voice on historical and contemporary politics, has joked in interviews that few Americans know Taft for much more than his 350-pound girth and his custom-made tub at the White House.
Taft loved the law and the courts but fell into politics through his own good character and the constant prodding of his ambitious wife. He and Roosevelt started their friendship in Washington in 1890. Benjamin Harrison named Taft solicitor general soon after appointing TR to the Civil Service Commission. Taft and Roosevelt were neighbors and shared political sensibilities.