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Historian recounts politicians’ complicated friendship

Richard Harris

By A Contributor

This fascinating historical study by renowned Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin examines the parallel rise of early 20th century U.S. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) and William Howard Taft (1909-13) and the critical investigative journalism sometimes pejoratively called “muckraking.” 

Born within a year of each other, Roosevelt in New York and Taft in Ohio, both grew up in lives of privilege but eventually became strong mutual admirers and political allies. Roosevelt carefully groomed Taft as his successor for the 1908 campaign, and then, after a bitter and tragic falling out, challenged him for the Republican nomination in 1912. Losing the nomination to Taft, Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate, thus assuring victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

The third story in this volume is the exceptional investigative reporting of the time, particularly Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, and Kansas’ own William Allen White. For many years these writers toiled for “McClure’s Magazine” and its owner S.S. McClure, a genius who gave these brilliant minds wide freedom to investigate their stories, until his (apparently) bipolar disorder increased his instability and caused the group of writers to reluctantly leave the magazine.

The carefully researched and documented pieces by these writers formed the intellectual basis of the social “safety net” and antitrust legislation of the progressive era. Without Tarbell’s documentation of Rockefeller’s abuses with Standard Oil or Baker’s epic “Railroads on Trial” series, popular support for progressive legislation might never have developed.

Although they were longstanding staunch political allies and friends, Roosevelt and Taft could not have been more different in temperament. Roosevelt was a charismatic but mercurial extrovert who enjoyed using his political power to twist others’ arms to advance his aims, whereas Taft was a hardworking fellow and decent man but a reluctant politician who was never comfortable in the rough-and-tumble political world.

He did not fare well as President, when his well-intentioned but sometimes politically naive attempts to continue Roosevelt’s progressive agenda were derailed by the powerful Senators and Speaker of the House. Trained in law, Taft’s lifelong aspiration was to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a goal he belatedly achieved in 1921, long after leaving the Presidency in 1913.

The times of this book were in some ways strikingly similar to our own. The Republican Party of the early 20th century was bitterly divided into two factions, traditional and progressive, which hated and mistrusted each other almost as much as they despised the Democrats. Powerful corporate interests manipulated politicians to maintain their privileged status.

One aspect very different from today was the high quality of deep investigative reporting from Tarbell, Baker, and others, who were supported by “McClure’s” to do months of investigative reporting before writing their detailed comprehensive articles. There is precious little such journalism today in the world of sound bytes and expectations of being entertained.

Roosevelt had a reputation as a progressive even before his selection as William McKinley’s Vice-President in 1900, a position typically used as political exile for someone the machine powers wanted to isolate. Those same machine pols were horrified when Roosevelt unexpectedly became president after McKinley was assassinated a few months into his second term.

The presidency was ideally suited to Roosevelt’s temperament, and he used this influence to curb the power of the machine politicians, who in conjunction with the huge wealthy trusts of the time, pretty much controlled public life.

Roosevelt is generally widely heralded as one of the most successful Presidents, due to his achievement in beginning to reign in the excesses of the industrial age, with the first passage of child labor, food and drug inspection, health and safety standards, as well as successful anti-trust litigation, which eventually led to the breakup of Standard Oil and other massive corporate conglomerates. His crusading fervor, however, was balanced by a keen awareness of what was politically possible.

In fact, it was his eventual drifting away from pragmatism that probably led to his defeat in the 1912 election. In that contest, all three candidates (Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson) were basically progressives but Roosevelt by then had carved out a niche clearly to the left of the other two, for example, espousing legislation allowing the electorate to vote to overturn any court decision they chose to review.

This book is not for the faint-hearted, with 750 pages of text and more than 100 pages of footnotes. It is daunting but nonetheless surprisingly readable. Goodwin has long since proven herself a highly respected historian but also a compelling interpreter of presidential history, having written previous books on F.D.R., J.F.K., L.B.J., and Lincoln, the latter of which became the partial basis for last year’s acclaimed film “Lincoln.”

Richard Harris is a professor of psychology at Kansas State University.

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