“THE BULLY PULPIT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF JOURNALISM" BY DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN
This was one of the most thought-provoking books which I have read in a long time. In the study of Taft and Roosevelt, the author presents a remarkably clear perspective on leadership qualities, pro and con. It presents numerous illustrations of how the challenges we face today in government corruption and splintering of the country into partisan groups are, by no means, new.
I have chosen to develop some summary thoughts on a few themes* which I think are relevant to my own life and to life in general below:
Theme #1 -- Roosevelt’s Character and Vision
The first point that impressed me was how he had grown up in a life of privilege; as did Taft. No better example of this than when Roosevelt was 14, the family spent an entire winter in Egypt; three weeks in Palestine; two weeks in Lebanon and Syria; three weeks in Athens and Smyrna and Constantinople; and five months in Germany. They had a two-month journey along the Nile in a private vessel with a 13-man crew.
A characteristic of Roosevelt (much like my own) is that he never left anything to the last minute; preparing far ahead “freed his mind” from worry and facilitated fresh, lucid thought. At one point, Taft marveled: “I never knew a man who worked this far in advance of what has to be done. Perhaps I value this virtue more highly because I lack it myself.”
I also came to appreciate Roosevelt’s love of his family. He remarked when he was in college that he doubted if there was anyone “who has a family that loved him as much as you all do (writing to his Father).” And “I am sure there is no one who has a Father who is also his best and most intimate friend, as you are mine.”
It’s hard to know how much future strength Roosevelt drew from as horrible a sequence of blows as one can imagine. At the age of only 22, his wife, whom he had pursued as aggressively as I pursued Francie, died; on that same day, his Mother died. She was only 49.
He went on to marry a childhood friend, Edith Carow. His affection for her was signaled early in their relationship as, in only a period of five weeks of being separated, he sent her 17 letters and she wrote almost as many in return. I can identify with that.
I can identify, too, with the strength he drew from being with his family. One of his friends observed: “His wife and children gave him the kind of spiritual bath that sent him back to the city refreshed and ready for what might come.”
*In many portions, I have redacted phrases directly from DKG’s magnificent book.
It wasn’t a singular picture, however, of “family comes first.” While his wife was very sick, indeed not knowing “whether she would live or die,” Roosevelt “could not forego the opportunity to go to Cuba” to serve with the Rough Riders. “You know what my wife and children mean to me,” he told one of his supporters, “and yet I made up my mind that I would not allow even a death to stand in my way; it was my one chance to do something for my country and for my family…I now know that I would have turned from my wife’s deathbed to have answered the call.”
That, I can assure the reader, would not have been my choice.
The combative nature of Roosevelt comes through loud and clear. He was always ready for a fight. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he insisted that he would “rather welcome a foreign war. The victories of peace are great; but the victories of war are greater…every man who has in him any real power of joy in battle knows that he feels it when the wolf begins to rise in his heart; he does not shrink from blood and sweat, or deem that they mar the fight; he revels in them, in the toil, the pain and the danger, as but setting off the triumph.” He was looking forward to a war with Spain over Cuba.
I can only say that Roosevelt had not tasted the true trauma of war; too young to have experienced the Civil War firsthand; not in office when the horrors of World War I hit. I don’t believe he would have waxed so enthusiastically about war today. One would hope not.
I was especially taken by Roosevelt’s pointed view on the role of corporate responsibility and the importance of the Republican Party adopting a progressive stance. He came down hard on “monopolistic constructions that impeded the consumer interest.” He firmly believed that the Republican Party “should be beaten and badly beaten, if we took the attitude of saying the corporations should not, when they received great benefits and make a great deal of money, pay their share of the public burdens.” Advocating “the adoption of what is reasonable in the demands of reformers” as “the surest way to prevent the adoption of what is unreasonable,” Roosevelt hoped to propel “the party of property” toward a more “enlightened conservatism.”
Again and again he returns to this theme, struggling as the author notes, “to reconcile Party allegiance with the drive to address social problems, a balancing act that became more difficult as the troubling aspects of industrialization intensified. While he considered himself conservative in relation to the Populists, he believed that his party was in thrall to reactionaries who so ‘dreaded radicalism’ that they ‘distrusted anything that was progressive’.”
As President, he worked hard to take action “on the single economic issue of the day: the trust” and his desire to establish the Department of Commerce “with the power to demand information and determine necessary regulation” was effectively opposed by Republicans.
“I pass my days in the state of exasperation,” Roosevelt told his son, Kermit, “first with the fools who do not want any of the things that ought to be done and, second, with the equally obnoxious fools who insist upon so much that they cannot get anything.” He lamented what we see today, letting legislation “fall between the two stools of the House and the Senate.” He was referring here particularly to antitrust legislation.
He continued to talk about what the Republican Party needed to do in terms that apply today. As DKG writes, the cost to both his party and the country would be immense, he believed, if “the people at large” perceived “that the Republican Party had become unduly subservient to the so-called Wall Street men—to the men of mere wealth, the plutocracy.” It would result in a “dreadful calamity,” Roosevelt told a conservative friend to see the nation “divided into two parties, one containing the bulk of the property owners and conservative people; the other the bulk of the wage workers and the less prosperous people, generally; each party insisting upon demanding much that was wrong, and each party sullen and angered by real unfancied grievances.”
What better summation could there be of the situation we face today?
Running as the Presidential candidate of the Progressive Party in 1912, Roosevelt said this: “We Progressives believe that human rights are supreme over all other rights; that wealth should be the servant, not the master, of the people.” “Unless representative government does absolutely represent the people, it is not representative government at all.” At this point, he was arguing for direct primaries and for federal laws to regulate child labor and women’s working conditions, to establish an income tax and to establish workman’s compensation.
One of his favorite maxims on leadership was this: “Don’t hit until you have to; but, when you do hit, hit hard.” And this: “It is never well to take drastic action if the result can be achieved with equal efficiency in less drastic fashion.” And this, most famous of all: “It is not the critic who counts,” he had famously preached upon his return from his African safari, “not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause.”
Elihu Root, a leading Republican, captured Roosevelt’s essence very well in this observation: “He is essentially a fighter and when he gets into a fight, he is completely dominated by the desire to destroy his adversary.” That was aptly demonstrated as he turned on Taft, a man whom he had said was more qualified to be President than anyone in history during the nomination battle to be the Presidential candidate for the Republican Party in 1912.
In a way, I found nothing more descriptive of Roosevelt’s character than how he reacted to being shot. With the extent of the wound unknown, he demanded that he continue to be taken to where he was speaking and he spoke for an hour and a half, then telling his associate that he was ready to go to the hospital. What they discovered was that the bullet had fractured his ribs, only missing his heart because it had hit the wadded speech which he had put into his pocket.
I believe the best summation of Roosevelt’s commitment to relentlessly pursuing a great cause is contained in this statement: “Perhaps once in a generation there comes a chance for the people of a country to play their part wisely and fearlessly in some great battle of the age-long warfare for human rights. We know that there are in life injustices which we are powerless to remedy, but we know also that there is much injustice which can be remedied.” Referring to the Progressive Party, he pledged that it would harness “the collective power of the people through their governmental agencies. We propose to lift the burdens from the lowly and the weary, from the poor and the oppressed. We propose to stand for the sacred rights of childhood and womanhood. Surely there never was a fight better worth making than this. Win or lose, I am glad beyond measure that I am one of the many who, in this fight, has stood ready to spend and be spent.”
Theme #2 -- How Times Remain the Same
It was striking; indeed it brought a smile to my face to read that William Howard Taft’s mother, Louise, served as the first President of the Cincinnati Free Kindergarten Association. As DKG writes, in the 1880s, Ohio laws had forbidden public funding of education for children younger than six. Public kindergartens would eventually be established but, meanwhile, Louise and a group of her friends helped raise money to open a series of charity kindergartens. “If the little ones who wander neglected in our streets are to be reached,” she proclaimed, “private benevolence must come to the rescue. We, therefore, appeal to the friends of education and humanity to help us in this effort.” The first kindergarten was established in 1880, followed by others, including one in which William Howard Taft’s wife, Nellie, taught. Today, we are seeking to provide quality pre-K for all children.
There is also the continuing effort of each party to profit from holding office. Theodore Roosevelt focused heavily on civil service reform. As Roosevelt said, “Each party profited by the offices when in power, and when in opposition each party insincerely denounced its opponents for doing exactly what itself had done and intended again to do.”
Roosevelt had long been aware of the corruption that was endemic in the country’s political and judicial systems, but he was sustained by what DKG says was his “sometime overweening belief in the right of his cause and the prospect of arousing struggle.” “For the last few years, politics with me has been largely a balancing of evils and I am delighted to go in on a side where I have no doubt whatever and feel absolutely certain that my efforts are wholly for the good; and you can guarantee I intend to hew to the line and let the chips fly where they will.”
So, too, the split in the nation which we lament today is not new, though I doubt if it’s been more exaggerated than it is now. Going back to the mid-1890s, the candidate who opposed Roosevelt in running for the mayor position in New York, Henry George, observed: “We girdle the land with iron roads and lace the air with telegraph wires; we add knowledge to knowledge and utilize invention after invention.” (Yet, despite such progress) he declared, “It becomes no easier for the masses of our people to make a living. On the contrary, it is becoming harder.”
DKG notes that a mood of rebellion began to spread among the laboring classes with an unprecedented number of violent strikes. The combination of meager wages for 12-hour working days in unsafe, unsanitary conditions has spurred millions of workers to join unions. In the year 1886 alone, more than 600,000 workers walked out on strike.
Citing the mindset of Walter White, a fabled correspondent, “he (White) began to understand the profound inequities that had produced the Populist uprising; how the growth of colossal corporations strangled competition in one field after another; how these corporations blatantly wielded their power through venal politicians, widening the gap between the rich and the poor. Belatedly, but surely, he (White) came to recognize that (William Jennings) Bryan’s platform in 1896 ‘was the beginning of the long fight for distributive justice, the opening of a campaign to bring to common man…a larger and more equitable share in the commonwealth of our country’.”
DKG also shines a sharp light on the fact that corruption about which we complain so much today in other countries was alive and well in the United States. Lincoln Steffens, one of the leading so-called “muckraker” journalists committed to social reform, conducted a series of interviews to determine why, when gambling enterprises and houses of prostitution were illegal, did the police officers of law allow them to exist? Why were some saloons permitted to stay open beyond the designated hours while others were not? “With astonishment,” Steffens learned that pervasive, systematic bribery allowed these businesses willing to pay Tammany Hall’s substantial monthly charge to operate unmolested, while those who refused to furnish protection money were closed down. That’s the way it was.
The practice extended all the way to the Senate, this in a day when senators were not elected through open elections but through backroom deals. A scathing editorial from The New York Times said it well, suggesting that a millionaire could buy a senate seat “just as he would buy an opera box, or a yacht, or any other luxury in which he could afford to indulge himself.” In some instances, The Times reported: “The sale takes the form of open bribery of the legislators”; more often, the senate seat was “simply the satisfaction of a ‘claim’ acknowledged by the leaders of the party and created by large contributions to the party treasury.”
Who could fail to hear an echo today from these words in a New York Times editorial on October 2, 1904 in the midst of the presidential campaign: “The steady advance and the influence of money in our public life (works) as a poison on the minds and hearts of men.” The editorial was launching out against Theodore Roosevelt, lamenting that “when a man of Mr. Roosevelt’s native scorn for corruption can be the willing, the eager, beneficiary of funds paid into his campaign chest through his former secretary and former cabinet officer with the undisguised hope that it will be repaid in favors to the subscribers.”
In happy contrast to this, DKG describes the demise of the Cox machine in Cincinnati and the “Young Republicans in Cincinnati” who formed a new club with a progressive agenda. It was led by Howard Hollister (a founding member of the current law firm carrying that name). At Hollister’s request, both Taft and Roosevelt accepted honorary memberships in the “Roosevelt Republican Club.” Only such clear disassociation from corrupt and self-serving elements in the Republican Party, Hollister argued, could “disabuse the public mind of the growing feeling of domination of the party by the corporations and money-making commercial politicians.”
Theme #3 – The Character and Accomplishments of William Howard Taft
The most illuminating part of this book for me was the light it cast on the character and accomplishments of William Howard Taft. I had known really little about him, and I came away from the book feeling that he was underrated both as President and as a human being. His accomplishments were remarkable in many ways: as the Governor of the Philippines; as President; as a judge throughout his life; and, finally, in what for him was the best job of all, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. There are certain aspects of his character, at least as viewed from outside, that are akin to my own. And some that were very different, particularly, at least as described in this book, his tendency to delay doing things.
Taft’s affection for his wife is embodied in words much like I would use. Describing her to a friend, he said: “You know what a constant source of comfort and strength she is to everyone who seeks it from her. She has already made me a better man--my ideals of life are higher and I believe my purpose to attain them is stronger. Certainly there could not be given to a man a stronger motive for upright, consistent, hard-working and kindly living than the approval and intelligent sympathy of such a wife.” And this which he wrote in a letter to his young wife: “We can be happy as long as we live, if we only love each other and the children that come to us.”
One of the characteristics attributed to WHT that has much in common with my own character and even more perhaps what is described as my character, was his conciliatory nature and, sometimes, too great a need for approval. Doris Kearns Goodwin describes this in many different dimensions. One was the way in which he sought approval from his father: (DKG) “Years later, Taft would credit his father’s indomitable will and lofty aspirations in prompting his own achievements.” Or, as his father was dying, he described this spirit to his wife, Nellie, “I have a kind of presentiment that Father has been a kind of guardian angel to me and that his wishes for my success have been so strong and intense as to bring it, and that as his life ebbs away and ends, I shall cease to have the luck which has followed me thus far.”
A telling comment came from Taft’s mother, Louise, as she described her son’s level of needing approval as a “besetting fault.”
In contrast to Roosevelt, Goodwin describes Taft as a “conciliator by nature; Taft was never comfortable when called upon to deliver ‘partisan diatribes and political rallies.’ He was reluctant to stir controversy or give avoidable defense.” I can identify with that description.
At the same time, and I’d put myself in the same camp, Taft was not ready to “compromise his principles for approval or expediency.” Goodwin describes Taft’s “quiet courage in his fight” against his political opponent “and his refusal to fire conscientious workers simply because of their political preferences.” As Goodwin writes, “Taft had been willing to resign his post as revenue collector rather than bow to demands that he fire the best men in his department due to their political affiliations.” (This brought me back to my admiration for my son John’s decision at Boloco.)
As President, Taft brought on a great deal of controversy in a debate over who should be leading the Department of the Interior. Unwilling to let a controversial figure (Ballinger) go, the President said: “Life is not worth living and the office is not worth having if, for the purpose of acquiring popular support, we have to do a cruel injustice or acquiesce in it.” He generally believed that the press was “unjustly persecuting” a good man.
Taft’s sense of honor also emerged when Roosevelt asked him to assume a position on the Supreme Court. “All his life,” his wife, Nellie, recalled, “his first ambition had been to attain the Supreme Bench.” However, because the invitation came in the midst of great “religious excitement, monetary crises” and cholera in the Philippines, where he was serving as Governor, his response was, “Great honor; deeply appreciated; but must decline.”
There were those who felt Taft’s personality was ill-suited to the commanding role of President. I suppose a few people felt that way about me, too, as the CEO. Reporters described Will Taft as “the kindest man they (had) ever known in public life.” Goodwin states that: “The politics of personal destruction held no relish for a man ‘born with an instinct to be personally agreeable.’”
His mother Louise Taft understood the strengths and weaknesses of Taft. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” she warned him when he declared his candidacy, knowing that Roosevelt would also throw his hat in the ring. “Roosevelt is a good fighter and enjoys it, but the malice of the politicians would make you miserable.” A reporter said it this way: “The country respects and trusts his ability and integrity, but his attitude is that of passive recognition and approval, not the headlong affection that brings power to a political leader of the first rank.” But, from my perspective, that was overcome by the sense of responsibility and opportunity he brought to the task once in office. No matter what it was.
There is no doubt that, at some points, Taft was too deferring; and perhaps, on occasion, so was I. An example, shortly after his election, and with his administration still being formed, he told an audience that Elihu Root “ought to be President-elect and I ought to be a prospective member of his cabinet because I know how to serve under him.”* (That I can never imagine saying having been appointed to a senior position.)
Goodwin asserts that “such sentiments cannot be simply construed as extravagant humility or a nod, self-disparaging honor. Rather, like his chronic procrastination, they connote tentativeness, a want of confidence arising from underlying insecurity.”
There were points along the way when I probably deferred too much to some of the pronouncements and decisions of Durk Jager. I finally came to grips with this, but in hindsight I took too long on some issues. And the reason I did, I think, traces to some of the points that are made about Taft’s temperament, ones I share.
*Elihu Root served as Secretary of War and Secretary of State.
Perhaps the most striking blow to Taft’s leadership image was the deferential approach he took to the Speaker of the House, Joseph Cannon. His original intent (and the desire of many) was to oust him. But he backed away from doing that. This dispirited the reformers a great deal and caused them to lose confidence in his leadership. Goodwin goes on to say that: “Perhaps it was inevitable that Taft’s temperament – his aversion to dissension and preference for personal persuasion – would ultimately lead him to work within the system rather than mobilize external pressure from his bully pulpit. But his conciliatory approach left his administration and the American people at the mercy of Joseph Cannon ‘the most sophisticated’ politician in the country and ‘the most familiar with every subterranean channel of politics, the most cunning in its devious ways, the most artful in the tricks of the craft.’”
I greatly admire Taft’s attitude toward the Filipinos when he was the Governor. There was a great deal of discrimination shown against them at the time. His wife shared Taft’s dismay: “It is a great mistake to treat them as if they were inferiors and it really surprised me that the powers that be do not insist upon a different policy.” Taft’s view was very contrary to Arthur McArthur’s* who “considered Taft’s desire to provide education and involve the populace in government as both wrong-headed and ultimately hazardous.” This was influenced by the strong abolitionist beliefs of his father.
One aspect of Taft’s character which is unlike me (and may be over-characterized by Goodwin) was his unwillingness “to accept honest criticism.” He had what is described as a “defensive, even paranoid stance toward the press.” Rather than accept that “criticism may spring from an honest difference in principles,” Taft, per Goodwin, sought to discredit the publications, implying that their critiques sprang from self-interest or malice. How sad.
In many ways, I believe that Roosevelt “failed Taft.” He did not support him in the end. He looked for opportunities to disagree with him. How ironical this was given the incredible praise and support Roosevelt had given to Taft. At one point he said this: “You are of all the men in this country the one best fitted to give the nation the highest possible service as President.” His confidence was expressed again and again. He brought him back from the Philippines to be his Secretary of War and regarded him as by far the most important man he could turn to, in the Cabinet. He, per DKG, “admired Taft above any other figure in public life.” And no wonder, based on what he had done.
Yet, after returning from Africa, and as the battle for the 1912 nomination unfolded, Roosevelt could not have been more negative. His (Taft’s) problem, Roosevelt said, was not that he had “gone wrong,” but that he had stayed put while the country was moving ahead. “He never thinks at all of the things that interest us most; he does not appreciate or understand them. As for my ever having any enthusiasm for Taft again, it is utterly impossible.”
*Military Governor of the Philippines; father of General Douglas McArthur.
Then, there was this assault in the final moments of the 1912 campaign: “Taft has not only been disloyal to our past friendship, but he has been disloyal to every cause of decency and fair play.” He only discovered I was dangerous to the people when I discovered he was useless to the people.”
Happily, they reconciled before they died. Roosevelt first in January 1919; age only 61.