With a few notable exceptions, presidents who served in the 19th century had a rather limited view of the office’s powers and of their ability to reshape the nation.
Then we entered a new century, and along came Theodore Roosevelt.
He not only had a larger-than-life personality but also took it upon himself to energize government and give it an activist role, especially in environmental and regulatory policy. In doing so, he ushered in an era of progressive governance that lasted through the presidencies of William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson.
While the chief executives, especially Roosevelt and Wilson, have been the subject of many individual biographies, they haven’t often been analyzed as a group. University of Notre Dame political scientist Peri E. Arnold has made an important contribution to our understanding of that era with his scholarly but quite readable, book “Remaking the Presidency: Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson, 1901-16.”
Mr. Arnold contends that before Roosevelt, presidents were little more than “managers of unruly factions within decentralized mass parties.” By contrast, Roosevelt “took the presidency to be a platform for his own policy preferences. Taft and Wilson built upon what Roosevelt started.
Although Mr. Arnold doesn’t attempt to do full-scale biographies of the three presidents, he effectively uses their past experiences as a guide to their actions while in the Oval Office.
Roosevelt took a reformist approach to all of his pre-presidential jobs and was intent on shaking up what he perceived as staid and overly passive bureaucratic entities. Mr. Arnold shows how Roosevelt’s willingness to go around the flag officers and talk to lower-level officers while assistant secretary of the Navy helped him succeed in his efforts to strengthen and modernize the Navy and would be his modus operandi as president.
As president, he often intervened in the workings of bureaucracy in a way that undermined the authority of his subordinates. For him, it was all about attaining a progressive outcome, political niceties and chains of command be damned.
His love of dramatic flourishes and willingness to use the presidency as a “bully pulpit” (a phrase he coined) also helped him achieve his goals. To make a point about his vision of the United States’ expanded role in the world, he ordered the Atlantic fleet to sail around the world, via the West Coast and Japan (at a time of strained relations with that nation) a move the author describes as a “gesture of operatic grandeur.”
Taft certainly had a hard act to follow. He shared many of his predecessor’s progressive views and was Roosevelt’s designated successor, but he lacked the political skills, vision and ability to connect with the public to be as successful as Roosevelt. (Mr. Arnold demonstrates that those shortcomings were readily apparent in Taft’s pre-presidential career.) Mr. Arnold discusses how many of Taft’s progressive efforts, including an attempt to reform the tariff system and revamp environmental policy, didn’t come to fruition because he lacked much of Roosevelt’s skill set.
In discussing the Taft administration, Mr. Arnold occasionally gets bogged down in minutia, more so than in the other two sections, and his narrative occasionally drags a bit. Yet readers who persevere will be rewarded by coming away with a better understanding of a man often better remembered for his tenure as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, his role in a major American political dynasty and his girth.
Wilson acted like an imperious prime minister while president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey, with fairly successful results in both cases. When he transferred that methodology to the White House, his results were more mixed. He succeeded in obtaining much of his agenda, including more consumer and anti-trust legislation, by demonstrating a willingness to compromise and forge coalitions with progressives who backed Roosevelt in the dramatic three-way election of 1912, in which Roosevelt’s presence is believed to have cost Taft a second term. The book doesn’t deal with Wilson’s biggest failure, his inability to sell the Treaty of Versailles to Congress.
Mr. Arnold’s analytical methods, which rely on the tools of political science and history, will cause readers to rethink their views of these presidencies. Though aimed at academic readers, “Remaking the Presidency: Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson, 1901-16” deserves a wider audience. Both readers who love early-20th-century history and those who care about the American presidency would do well to add this to their reading lists.
• Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on history and politics.