I love a great story and I love history, therefore, I am often drawn to historical fiction works. Better yet, however, is history so well written that it tells the true stories of real people without the feel of a textbook. Doris Kearns Goodwin does the story telling of history very well in her latest, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. I had not read any work of Goodwin until this, but it is easy to see, as noted on the cover of the Bully Pulpit, how she became a Pulitzer Prize winning author. Her work showcases her great skill as a researcher, storyteller, and writer.
One of the best parts in a novel, which is often missing in the telling of history, is to meet the characters, get to know them, and then to watch as their lives come together in such a way as becomes logical in order for the plot to work out as, of course, it must. Goodwin’s telling of the lives and politics of Roosevelt, Taft, and journalists such as Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Baker does just that. It is simply amazing to recognize the amount of discovery that Goodwin has packed in to the Bully Pulpit in the way of background stories, private letters, and journal entries, which have then been pieced and woven together in order to communicate the political temperature, life circumstances, and personalities that created what is now part of the history of the American people, and what a time in history it was!
To give me a book that merely tells about Roosevelt’s progressive Republican decisions and tactics would probably not grab my attention for long, especially if that book, as Goodwin’s does, consists of 750 pages and another 100 pages of footnotes (just to show how in depth it is). However, if that book skillfully tells me the stories behind the lives and decisions and how those decisions play out and effect others, the author will grab and hold my attention and win my affectionate praise. Goodwin accomplishes this in her relating of Roosevelt’s affection-filled childhood, homeschooled education and inexhaustible love of reading contrasted to the cooler family affections (though, in no way lacking in love), public school education, and procrastinating tendencies of Taft, and how these backgrounds contribute to the way they relate to the nation and the politics which they find worth fighting for. Many of the political decisions that Roosevelt and Taft worked to accomplish, however, would not have come to pass as they did without the contributions of the great journalists of the time.
As I read the Bully Pulpit, I could not help but envision some of the scenes of super hero and gangster related movies that depict corruption in the local government and police forces; fearless news reporters digging for the truth, and the heroes whom such reporters come alongside in order to help, as well as in order to get the scoop on the story for themselves. It was truly enlightening to learn of Roosevelt as the NYC police commissioner, pulling some of his favorite reporter friends alongside him in order for both of them to learn the whole story and to bring an end to much of the corruption of the time. Then to see Roosevelt and his trusted group of reporters advance through their careers with reciprocal help and support. But who were these reporters?
With 750 pages, Goodwin has plenty of space to flesh out great figures of history, including the numerous reporters who helped to bring such things as the labor struggles, corporate trusts and monopolies, and other forms of corruption in the early 1900’s in America into clear view. Again, hand me a dry recording of facts on the subject, or even some of the articles of such writers, and (yawn) I will probably set it aside in order to fold more laundry. Goodwin, however, exercises her storytelling skills here and brings back to life many of the great writers who made up the bulk of the popular McClure’s magazine. Writers like Ida Tarbell, a rare woman of the time who was working to support herself through her independent writing when she was discovered by Sam McClure and catapulted into fame as one of the greatest investigative reporters in American history.
As a whole, Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit is a glimpse into a rich time in America’s political development. A whole which is made richer by the great background stories of the people who worked hard to investigate, report, and move to action the politics of the day, reporters and politicians alike. Beyond interesting and entertaining, Bully Pulpit serves also to make one look for those possible writers and politicians of our own time who are more interested in truth and the good of the people of our country than their own personal bank accounts and toys. They must still be out there.
Well done, Goodwin.
Alyssa Katanic is a wife and homeschooling mother of 7 children under 11 years old. She loves reading and collecting great books to share with others and knows that one can never have too many!
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Simon & Schuster. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.