This book, subtitled Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism, seemed, with its 750 pages, to be quite imposing. And it does start slowly. Goodwin depicts the rise of Roosevelt and Taft and the development of their relationship. Interesting, but rather familiar and formulaic stuff. It is only with the introduction of S.S. McClure, his magazine, and the amazing writers he gathered (Ida Tarbell, Ray Baker, Lincoln Steffens and William Allen White) that the book seems to pick up any kind of steam. These writers, soon to become known as muckrakers, are given remarkable amounts of funding, latitude and access, as they report – in long form and often serialized pieces – on the issues of the day.
Even with the dramatic shift in their relationship (and the 750 pages), Goodwin’s portraits of the two presidents seem stagnant. Roosevelt is energetic, impulsive, popular and, especially as time goes by, too egotistical. Ever the able servant, Taft is a tentative leader, too much the nice guy to use the media and trumpet himself the way Roosevelt does. Even given the opportunity to insert her commentary into the parallels between the days of Roosevelt and our own (the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few), Goodwin remains remarkably detached. Perhaps I’m romanticizing Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals, but there at least seemed to be an argument in that book (and one that I wish more leaders would attend to) that inviting dissenting opinions was, at least in part, responsible for Lincoln’s success.
As I mentioned, Goodwin does have some energy for McClure, Tarbell et al. There seems to be a longing for the day when journalists could and were allowed to do serious and important work and that their work had a genuine impact on the work of the government. But perhaps I’m reaching. This section may have been of the most interest to me because it was new to me.
Still, the lingering perception of Goodwin’s detachment is hard to shake. What would have happened, I wonder, if McClure and his muckrakers had been at the center of her work?