Review of “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” by Doris Kearns Goodwin

At the end of the 19th century, the United States government was much smaller than it is today. The industrial revolution was in full swing, and many very large businesses had been created, largely through mergers, acquisitions, and other combinations usually referred to in those days as “trusts.” Workers had no statutory right to unionize, and many people felt victimized by the “robber barons” who had become fabulously rich in railroads, the tobacco trust, the steel trust, the oil trust, and the sugar trust, among other large businesses. Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about this era, sometimes called “the gilded age,” and several of the men (and one woman) who made their careers battling for what they perceived to be economic justice.

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Many historians and economists believed that powerful governmental regulation was needed to rationalize the structure of the economy in order to make it more just and equal. But the plutocrats who benefited from that economy would surely oppose such regulation–hence the need for a “Bully Pulpit” from which reformers were able to rouse public opinion to compel the government to adopt “progressive” policies. The bully pulpit’s principal practitioners were President Theodore Roosevelt, who coined the term, and the staff of McClure’s Magazine. Goodwin’s book focuses on them and on William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s immediate successor as president, who continued most of Roosevelt’s policies.

It is somewhat hard for the modern reader to appreciate the influence of investigative print journalism in the days before television and radio. Great orators could reach at most a few hundred people at time, but newspaper accounts and magazine articles could reach millions. Goodwin points out that “Investigative journalism…had assumed the proportions of a movement, exerting an influence on the American consciousness hardly less important than that of Theodore Roosevelt himself.” Magazines like McClure’s had become so politically significant that William Allen White quipped it was as if we had “Government by Magazine.” The staff of McClure’s became known as the “muckrakers” for all the dirt they turned up about American business and politics. [Parenthetically, muckraker originally was meant to be a term of abuse, but it became one of approbation because of the high quality and importance of the reporting at McClure’s.]

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McClure’s ran serialized featured articles on many industries, frequently uncovering bribery, conflicts of interest, and unfair business practices rife therein. But of all their features, Ida Tarbell’s series on the Standard Oil Trust of John D. Rockefeller stands out as the most influential. Tarbell argued that the oil trust was built by “predatory” price cutting, intimidation of competition, and unfair practices such negotiating discriminatory railroad rates. Tarbell’s father was a small oil producer who ultimately “sold out” to Rockefeller. Goodwin seems to have accepted Tarbell’s view of the industry. Goodwin writes that Tarbell proved that Standard Oil would never have obtained its monopoly without “special transportation privileges.” And once it obtained market domination, “Rather than use this domination and the efficiencies of scale to reduce costs, Standard Oil sought to maximize profits.” The author seems completely unaware of John S. McGee’s 1958 study, Predatory Price Cutting: The Standard Oil (N.J.) Case that appeared in the Journal of Law and Economics (1 J.L. & Econ. 137, 1958). McGee showed convincingly that Standard Oil grew not so much by driving out the competition but rather by outright purchases of the competition, leaving the former competitors quite wealthy and Rockefeller with a virtual monopoly.

standard oil trust

Goodwin sympathizes with Roosevelt, who believed the way to curb the power of the trusts was through detailed regulation. TR focused on behavior like “unscrupulous promotion, overcapitalization, unfair completion, resulting in the crushing out of competition…” He sought to enhance the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission, even to set railroad rates directly. She gives only passing reference to the Sherman Antitrust Act, which was already on the books before TR and the muckrakers and which prohibited “contracts and conspiracies in restraint of trade.” Later developments were to show that the Interstate Commerce Commission (since dissolved) became the least effective governmental agency for promoting economic efficiency, while the Sherman Act became the government’s most powerful weapon against monopoly.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt depicted as the infant Hercules grappling with Standard Oil in a 1906 Puck magazine cartoon

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt depicted as the infant Hercules grappling with Standard Oil in a 1906 Puck magazine cartoon

Quibbles about her version of economics aside, the author writes well about the politics of the era. In writing the book she found that Taft “was a far more sympathetic, if flawed, figure than I had realized.” He had been a highly respected federal judge, and the author of an important antitrust, antimonopoly opinion, Addyston Pipe and Steel v. U.S. (175 U.S. 211, 1899). He had also served with considerable distinction as Governor General of the Philippines and as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War. But even though Roosevelt himself designated Taft as his successor, Taft was emotionally more disposed to be a judge than an executive. His presidency was only partially successful. He attempted to follow Roosevelt’s progressive policies, but he was stymied by the conservative wing of his own (Republican) party.

Roosevelt and Taft, sometime BFFs

Roosevelt and Taft, sometime BFFs

The author goes well beyond the story of public edification and subsequent enactment and enforcement of progressive regulation, and in a sense, this volume is two books in one: one part political and economic history; and a second part personal biography. Goodwin includes a great deal of minutiae about the childhoods, early lives, and later familial relationships of her protagonists. I found myself more interested in the history than the personalities, but Goodwin has sold a lot of books by detailing the personal lives of historical figures. [Cf. Team of Rivals.]

In addition, most of the focus of the story is on domestic politics, and even there, you find practically nothing about Roosevelt’s conviction that whites were the superior race, and that they should try to outbreed other races lest they commit “race suicide.” Goodwin loves her subjects, and mostly endeavors to show them in the best light.

Evaluation: In terms of my personal taste, I think I would have liked this book more if it had less biographical tidbits and if it had been subject to the scrutiny of a good antitrust lawyer or economist. Nonetheless, it is worth reading, and most readers will probably appreciate and enjoy all the personal details about Roosevelt and Taft, and about the importance of their relationship with one another.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2013

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