- - Tuesday, January 7, 2014

By Doris Kearns Goodwin
Simon and Schuster, $40, 928 pages

For any historian, humanizing the past is among the most difficult of tasks, and it is much to the credit of Doris Kearns Goodwin that she has succeeded to such a marked degree with her successive assessments of powerful leaders.

From her portrayals of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln, to her current volume exploring the lives and times of former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, she has created a living panorama of the past that captures emotions as well as events, with a roaring account of that bitter 1912 political convention that marked the crumbling of a great friendship as well as of a political party. It is significant that she draws a shrewd and subtle comparison between the currently widening gap between the rich and poor and the chasm that drove the path to reform in the early 20th century.

She also makes a comparison with the challenges faced by today’s leaders when she stresses the importance endowed on the “bully pulpit,” that famous phrase coined by Theodore Roosevelt to summarize the power that a president can wield to mobilize and galvanize the public mind. In the era when “muckraking” was first applied to the Fourth Estate, the influence of the press on the presidency was not only acknowledged, but celebrated by Roosevelt. As he moved into the age of reform, he boldly cemented his alliance with the remarkable Sam McClure, editor of McClure’s Magazine, where there gathered what became a legendary group of journalists: William Allen White, crime reporter Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker and one woman, Ida Tarbell. It was those investigative journalists who dubbed themselves muckrakers as a badge of distinction rather than the derogatory epithet it later became. It was their carefully researched exposes that tore away the film of corruption choking relationships between business and politics.

The masterful research of the author is demonstrated by her use of such vital material as more than 400 letters written between Roosevelt and Taft in their 30s, which made it all the more poignant that their friendship was destroyed by the political rivalry launched by Roosevelt in 1912. She writes with compassion of the failure of Taft as a public leader, seeing his political success impeded by the genuine skills of his judicial career, which left him too convinced of his own rectitude. He was consequently unable to emulate Roosevelt in using the press to carry the legislative message of the president. Taft even conceded after leaving office that he had failed to use the “bully pulpit” to achieve his goals. According to Ms. Kearns Goodwin, Taft was “temperamentally unsuited” to make use of that bully pulpit that contributed so substantially to Roosevelt’s success.

The author underlines her insight into the characters of the two men by framing their family background and their emotional attachments. She writes sensitively of Roosevelt’s devastation at the death of his first wife, Alice, to the point that he could not bring himself to address their daughter by the given name of Alice, calling her instead “Baby Lee.”

Yet when he does remarry, it is a match between equals, with rambunctious children spilling over the White House and his second wife, Edith, who was devoted to her husband despite being more restrained in her links to the world beyond her home. Roosevelt’s character was summed up by a visiting British viscount who spoke of encountering “two tremendous works of nature in America — Mr. Roosevelt and Niagara Falls.”

Ironically, the differences between Roosevelt and his friend Taft were pointed up by their similarities. Taft was an amiable, kindly man who excelled in all high office except one. He was, the author observes, “an excellent number two man,” yet he lacked the savagery of the true political animal, a crucial characteristic in a president. He never accepted Roosevelt’s progressive philosophy that drove his conviction that members of Congress must be driven to pass reform measures.

Nellie Herron Taft, an unconventional creature of her time, gave crucial encouragement to her husband as a judge and as president, relishing the role of first lady. It was she who brought cherry trees to the capital, created parks and lobbied for higher wages for workers.

The author brings her story to a dramatic and tragic climax with her account of the 1912 election when Roosevelt broke his promise not to seek a third term and embarked on a brutal campaign against the man who was once his closest friend and who also lacked the ferocity for a bloody election battle. It was ironic that even in the White House, Taft apparently realized that he was best suited for the bench — and indeed he became chief justice of the Supreme Court after leaving the presidency.

An eloquent epilogue describes the brief reconciliation of Roosevelt and Taft as the result of a casual encounter in Washington when they wound up “talking together like a pair of happy schoolboys,” according to an onlooker who said they were having an “old-home week.” Seven months later, Taft attended Roosevelt’s funeral, and commented, “Had he died in a hostile state of mind toward me, I would have mourned the fact all my life. I loved him always and cherish his memory.”

It was a statement that said a great deal about both men.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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