The West Wing scripted by Henry James

Cover of The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns GoodwinThe Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism
By Doris Kearns Goodwin
Published by Viking (Buy at Amazon)

A widening gulf between rich and poor, corporate malfeasance at every turn and the corrupting influence of money on politics. Despite the obvious parallels, it’s not a description of our times, but of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, when growing public anger brought about the period of wide-ranging reforms known as the Progressive Era. In The Bully Pulpit, acclaimed biographer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin reviews this tumultuous spell through the story of the friendship-turned-enmity between reformist president Theodore Roosevelt and his less-acclaimed successor William Howard Taft.

The book is an “ambitious undertaking”, says Bill Keller in The New York Times. Besides the two presidents, there is “a colourful cast of industrialists, labour leaders, political rivals, cabinet members and, especially, fired-up journalists”. But the author captures “her characters with precision and affection”, while “the story comes together like a well-wrought novel”. It’s like watching “The West Wing scripted by Henry James”.

“Goodwin’s evocative examination of the Progressive world is smart and engaging,” agrees Professor Heather Cox Richardson of Boston College, writing in The Washington Post. In telling the story, the author borrows effectively from the crusading journalists who helped shape the politics of the day. “Her style shows her imitating the amassing of evidence pioneered by the muckrakers.” It is a “highly readable and detailed portrait of an era”, which “brings the early 20th century to life and firmly establishes the crucial importance of the press to Progressive politics”.

The book took Kearns eight years to write and produce and “the effort shows, much to the reader’s benefit and delight”, says Erik Spanberg, writing for CSMonitor.com. Having covered other American leaders, including Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, the writer clearly “has a knack for finding fresh angles to bring her beloved dead presidents back to life”. She manages to “keep the story clipping along” – she chooses “enlightening anecdotes and has the narrative and historical acumen to weave her theme through 900 pages”.

There are a few minor criticisms. The book is very readable, but Goodwin’s “discussion of muckraking goes on far too long, distracting from the main story”, says John Steele Gordon in The Wall Street Journal. And there’s “the occasional sense that this in fact might be two books, rather than one”, says The Economist. But in all it is a “sophisticated, character-driven” book – and certainly “timely”.

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin is published by Viking (£20).

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