Thursday, December 26, 2013

Courage ("The Bully Pulpit" by Doris Kearns Goodwin)

It's tempting to see Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit, a study of the close relationship between politics and the press in the early years of the 20th century, as an attempt to proselytize about current events through historical narrative. At over 900 pages, with a full quarter of them being the sources and index alone, Goodwin focuses on two decades--1901 to 1919--in which the United States was in a state of social and political upheaval. The Republican Party was enduring its own internal war, with half of its members looking to keep the party unchanged and the other half looking to transform it into something more radical, often by challenging  incumbents. The environment was threatened by pollution and industrialization, companies were so large that they could easily destabilize  the American economy,  the gap between rich and poor was as wide as it had ever been, and money was so permissive in politics that corruption was the rule rather than the exception. And the media, specifically journals located on the East Coast, saw their roles as shapers of opinion and ideology rather than protectors of fact and conveyors of truth. The similarities between these long-ago events and those of today are, from a distance, staggering.

However, these similarities are also coincidental; as Goodwin herself notes in the opening to her book, she labored over this story for seven years, long before the age of Obama, the recession, bank bailouts, Citizens United, and "too big to fail"; it even began as a study of an entirely narrower topic, expanding only when Goodwin realized the scope of Roosevelt's relationship with the press. Nevertheless, a coincidence doesn't necessarily make these similarities unimportant. On the contrary, the fact that we are enduring these same issues so many decades later shows not only the cyclical nature of history--that we are doomed to repeat what we choose to ignore--but the necessity of the changes men like Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft once fought for. Together, they did more than any other single president since, with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt, to change the anatomy of our country:  most of the national parks and natural landmarks we have today exist because of protections they established, often in complete disregard for the law; every business and industry in operation today does so under regulations and guidelines passed during their respective administrations; the food we eat is kept safe by laws they supported; and our relationships with other nations were affected by both men, often in person rather than through legislation. Even after both men had left elected office, the issues on which they took public stands and, in Roosevelt's case, hoped to return to the White House--women's suffrage, an 8-hour workday, the direct election of senators, presidential primaries--were revolutionary for their time but have since become ingrained in our modern society. (In fact, Constitutional amendments guaranteeing women the right to vote and the direct election of senators would both be realized by 1920.)

Despite the undeniable roles both Roosevelt and Taft had in bringing about lasting and important change, they do not deserve full and complete credit; rather, much attention is given to the half-dozen or so journalists who saw a crusade within the truths they were assigned to tell. Goodwin focuses especially on the staff of McClure's, a monthly East Coast magazine that, almost instantly, became a voice for the large swathes of America that were downtrodden, abused, or ignored. These included coal miners who were beaten and harassed by their fellow miners; soldiers who were unwilling cogs in the drummed-up jingoism of an unnecessary war; consumers who paid inflated prices for daily necessities because they were produced and distributed by an unregulated monopoly; and everyday citizens whose voices went unheard because their elected officials were guided by money rather than elections and conscience. These journalists--Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, and William Allen White foremost among them--also investigated the forces that poisoned American society and politics, including corrupt party bosses, industry executives, and union heads. Such was their reach and significance that billion-dollar monopolies were rendered illegal and disassembled, corrupt politicos were thrown from their thrones, and progressive ideals once considered outlandish were now the foundation of party platforms. Part of this was because of the journalists' ability to find the most convincing details and render them in a way that was relatable to the average reader, and part of this was because, as Goodwin details, they were exceptionally close to both Taft and Roosevelt...closer, in fact, than one would ever expect, with their research often serving as the cornerstone of a speech or piece of legislation.

Goodwin's tome is a fascinating, exhaustive, and often exhausting look at how politics and journalism worked together in order to bring about changes that were necessary but also next to impossible:  had either piece of the puzzle been missing--had Roosevelt or Taft never been president, had McClure's never chosen to become a moral compass for its readers and the nation itself--the affects on American history and its people would be unimaginable. And this is the one area where there is a sad, telling contrast between the early 20th century and these early years of the 21st century. We have politicians with almost impossibly high--but desperately needed--ideals, and we have a media that is continuous, pervasive, and influential--that is, they are in the best possibly position to affect real change. The problem is that, unlike the 1910s, these two pieces no longer have the same relationship they once did:  a politician cannot gain any traction without selling out to the biggest bank account, and a news channel cannot gain an audience without devoting its energy and staff to the biggest money-makers, which have increasingly become stories of scandal and entertainment. And it's this lack of courage--a politician and a news organization both willing to break from money for the greater good--that will keep us from experiencing the same progressive changes that so reshaped our country for the better 100 years ago. For all its similarities and coincidences, and for all the cycles through which it passes, sometimes history does not repeat itself.