There he is, the third from the left, tucked into a cleft between Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, carved into the granite of Mount Rushmore. No one today doubts his right to be there. His reputation and popularity are undimmed by a century’s passing. He was the youngest man to assume the American presidency. He was a cowboy, a swimmer, an asthmatic. He had a dazzling smile, with teeth like pieces of Chiclets gum. He fought in Cuba, leading a charge up San Juan Hill to give the Spanish a licking. A 50-page wad of speech notes in his pocket once saved him from an assassin’s bullet. He turned the Grand Canyon into a national monument. He built the Panama Canal. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a Republican but a mortal enemy of giant corporations. The teddy bear was named after him.
He also gave Doris Kearns Goodwin the perfect title. In 1909, he declared that the White House was a “bully pulpit”, the finest means of getting his message out to his people – at home, the “square deal” (protecting citizens and curbing plutocracy); abroad, the “big stick” (“Speak softly and carry a big stick”). Goodwin, now accepted as the publicly anointed biographer of great American statesmen, no doubt had more than enough material to load several shelves with the tumultuous story of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th US president. But wisely, over the seven years of her project, she decided to weave into the fabric of this robust, endearing life two further threads, each equally important, making this a vastly more important work, a masterpiece of modern American history.
One thread, noted in the subtitle of the book, concerns the role played by journalism and by a manner of writing that, during Roosevelt’s governance, displayed an excellence that has been seldom matched since. Samuel Sidney McClure’s eponymous monthly magazine, which gave voice to writers such as Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, marked an all too brief period of literary glory. It also enabled Roosevelt, who had a canny and trusting appreciation for the muckraking press, to employ the industry for, as he saw it, the greater public good.
“By sharing the full context of each decision and appointment before it became public,” Goodwin writes of her subject’s time as state governor of New York, “Roosevelt trusted that Steffens would credit and document the complex, pragmatic manoeuvring behind an ethical and effective approach to leadership.”
Cynics might suggest that, as president, he had journalists such as Steffens in the palm of his hand and may ascribe his enduring popularity to his excellent personal PR. Yet more thoughtful analysts (Goodwin among them) would argue otherwise: that in a climate markedly more trusting than today’s, good relations between press and government could be made to work to universal advantage – provided that the muckrakers did indeed rake much muck, as Tarbell and her colleagues consistently did.
The other thread that Goodwin weaves into this story – and that forms an important component of the book’s US subtitle but is puzzlingly overlooked in Viking’s British edition – concerns a most poignant counterpoint to Roosevelt’s generally triumphant life: the melancholy fate of his long-time friend, protégé and successor as president, William Howard Taft.
The sorry tale of Taft deserves to be remembered if only because of its many parallels with what appears to be happening in Washington today. Just like Barack Obama, Taft began his public career as a man suffused with promise and optimism. He was born of a solid Cincinnati family a year before Roosevelt. He went to Yale; Roosevelt went to Harvard. Both became lawyers.
The men first met when they were near neighbours in Washington, as they were beginning their very different climbs to the high ranges of power. Their philosophies were at the time markedly similar, yet quite out of tune with the times, in that both were superficially rock-ribbed Republicans but aflame with progressive principles. They were fiscally conservative, born into fortunes; they were, however, socially liberal and infused with populist beliefs. Each was an unalloyed admirer of the benefits of capital; but each wished for an end to the era’s fondness for cronyism and corruption. Each was a firm believer in American exceptionalism; each saw it as the duty of America to export its benefits to the world.
For a while, however, their paths diverged. Roosevelt went to Albany as governor of New York and then became William McKinley’s running mate in his successful 1900 election. Taft, meanwhile, was far off in Manila as the governor general of the newly colonised Philippines.
In 1901, McKinley was assassinated – an event that gave Roosevelt, quite unexpectedly, the presidency. One of his first acts was to bring his old friend Taft smartly back from the tropics, instal him in Washington as secretary of war and groom him to be an eventual successor, the keeper, as he saw it, of the progressive flame. Roosevelt intended to serve two terms and then hand his torch to Taft.
As Goodwin recounts with flair and sympathy, the torch was soon extinguished. Taft, who generally scorned the press and followed the letter of the law with pedantry and a wholesale lack of imagination, turned out to be something of a dud in the Oval Office (which he built). With one dithering decision after another, he managed to vex and disappoint all of his supporters, much as the beleaguered President Obama appears to be doing today. In the end he fell out with his old friend Roosevelt, who became for many years a political enemy – Roosevelt fought against him in the 1912 election, splitting the Republican vote and giving the White House to Woodrow Wilson.
And yet, politics aside, both were wise and decent men and they eventually buried the hatchet. In one of the more moving passages of this lively and very human book, Goodwin recounts their celebrated meeting in 1918 in the dining room of a Washington hotel. Taft heard that his old friend was alone and “spotted the colonel at a small table by the corner window. ‘Theodore!’ he exclaimed. ‘I am glad to see you.’ Roosevelt rose from his seat and grasped Taft’s shoulders. ‘Well, I am indeed delighted to see you. Won’t you sit down?’ All across the room, customers rose from their dinners and the wait-staff paused . . . Suddenly the chamber erupted into applause.”
Roosevelt died soon afterwards but there was still much life left in Taft, who, after a period at Yale, became chief justice of the Supreme Court – he remains the only man to have held both of these highest offices of the republic. To some extent, Taft recovered from the disappointments of his presidency.
We can only wonder whether Obama will manage to do the same. One thing is certain: neither will receive the Mount Rushmore treatment, even if there were another cleft in the granite.