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.