The More Things Change….

I’ve been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism,” and on page after page, I’ve been confronted not just with how much has changed, but how much hasn’t.

The entire book (and one thing you can say about Doris Kearns Goodwin is that she leaves virtually nothing out–the book is a monster) is a window onto an era of progressive Republicanism.The book details Roosevelt’s fight against powerful corporations and “trusts” (monopolies), his passion to protect the environment, his concern for American workers and his devotion to the common good. It also details the extent to which Taft agreed with him about the need to constrain commercial overreach and protect working Americans, and of course, the personal foibles that led the once exceptionally close friends to part company for so many years.

We have seen progress: Roosevelt was criticized for even inviting a black person to the White House. Now, a black President lives there (although that fact seems to have driven a significant number of contemporary Americans insane.) Thanks primarily to unions, we  have the 8-hour workday Roosevelt supported, although millions of Americans work longer hours than that at more than one job. Teddy’s Democratic cousin Franklin would secure passage of social security and other social safety net legislation for which Teddy advocated. But the theme that runs through the book is an unhappily familiar one: the wide and persistent gulf in resources and political influence between the rich and everyone else.

One thing that has most definitely changed since the Gilded Age and its aftermath is the practice of journalism. The book covers the age of Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, of McClure’s Magazine, of muckraking and genuine investigative reporting. Journalists were given the time and resources to delve deeply and write extensively about what their research uncovered. And it mattered.

Perhaps the most striking change since the era of Roosevelt and Taft is in the philosophy of the Republican party. Reading Roosevelt’s speeches and letters, reviewing the positions taken by Taft, it’s impossible not to be struck by the gap between the party’s priorities then and now. Both Roosevelt and Taft would have immediately recognized today’s plutocrats and oligarchs, but they would have been astonished by the anti-intellectualism, the rejection of science and environmentalism, and the faux religiosity of today’s GOP.

Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft would have been appalled by Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Louie Gohmert, and the other buffoons who have unaccountably found a congenial home in what–despite its faults– used to be one of America’s great political parties.


  1. The Fourth Estate has become just another tool for the oligarchs as they have defanged the tiger by making the news journalism department of broadcasting profit driven. If the sponsors aren’t happy then it is not newsworthy. With the demise of newspapers, possibly due to the same phenomenon, citizens have no real way to understand what is being done by whom in the political realm. The celebrity gossip, non-stop reporting on sports minutiae and self promotion of the entertainment lineup are the stuff of yellow journalism. I used to laugh at the headlines in the Inquirer and other rags at the grocery checkout counter. Now it is what serves as “news” all the time.
    TR and Taft lived at a time when people (read men, as women did not have the vote until 1913) were much more actively engaged in political dialogue and had a chance to get at the facts, even with the likelihood that the source was biased in some way. The bias was declared, not couched in “fair and balanced” nonsense.
    We will all pay for our willing acceptance of the current lack of true journalistic political coverage. Control of the message AND the messenger is one of the cornerstones of totalitarian rule.

  2. I want to read that book but if it’s a monster, it will have to wait until winter is more winter-like. Happy Holidays Sheila. Love your blog. Thanks for keeping it going!

    Everyone else – Merry Christmas and Happy New Year too!

  3. The contrast is in their motives: Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, FDR were motivated by the moral and ethical wrong of allowing wealthy individuals to buy influence and control of the legisaltors; today it’s accepted at all levels of government. I have pointed out before that the advocates of an accounting mentality have crippled government by comparing its operation to for-profit business. These honorable men from our past knew that government was not a business and does not need to operate like one. Since the Reagan presidency, we have witnessed the steady demise of our government, the ethical standards of our elected representatives and our society. How do we rid ourselves of this plague?

  4. Then, life was so much more than accumulating wealth. Now, that’s it. The more one has the more driven they are for more. Then people were rewarded for their accomplishment. Today we are rewarded for our cunning and ruthlessness. Growth, progress, professionalism, academic achievement have all been sacrified at the alter of greed.

    Can we return to sanity?

    I don’t know. I just don’t know.

  5. Thank you Sheila. Sadly the Progressive wing of the Republican party is long gone.

    Patrick, thank you for those “delightful” Ayn Rand Christmas cards. My one happy thought about Ayn Rand is that maybe somewhere she is in Hell (not Hell, MI) being forced to recite Kropotkin’s Mutual AId word for word, over and over again.

  6. It’s an outstanding piece of work DKG has written. As familiar and readable as anything Of it’s kind. The McClure’s story was inspirational. I hope to see it used in some fashion in educational settings as widely as possible.

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