One of the highlights for me this semester was plowing through The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I read it with one of my undergraduate students. We met together every Wednesday afternoon to talk about the book as we trudged through it. It’s incredibly long and slow going, but my student and I agreed that it’s really quite a marvel.
The basic gist of the book is a look at the Roosevelt and Taft presidencies within the context of the heyday of the Muckrakers. Fascinating enough. But what really struck me in the book was reading about how Taft handled his career.
Before I read The Bully Pulpit, my knowledge of Taft was scant to say the least. I only knew him as the obese president who had to have a special bathtub installed in the White House.
But, after 750+ pages, here’s what I learned. Taft got things done. And he got things done by studying the issues so he could make an informed decision about what policies to push. He listened to those who agreed with him and those who adamantly opposed him. He gave credit where credit was due. He compromised when he had to—even when both sides found that unsatisfactory. He was willing to let others bask in the limelight. He worked hard at everything he did.
And he was willing to step up to the plate even if it meant putting his own dreams on hold. In the process he learned new skills. (Apparently he didn’t like to give speeches, but learned to deliver some pretty darn good ones.) His dream of sitting on the Supreme Court was put on hold for a very long time. In the meantime he became Governor General of the Philippines and, eventually, President of the United States. He ran for re-election even though it was never his dream to be POTUS in the first place. He ran a clean campaign despite running against scallywag Teddy Roosevelt’s fledging Progressive Party as well as Woodrow Wilson (who shared many of the same viewpoints as Taft). And when he lost (big time!), he held his head high and left the White House with his dignity intact.
And, then, finally, William Taft got to do what he wanted to do most of all—and what he had trained to do for years—sit on the Supreme Court (as Chief Justice, no less!). A reward for a life well lived.
Granted, my administrative job is miniscule compared to Taft’s. But I’m taking his principles to heart. And as I get ready to begin My Year Away, I, too, feel like, perhaps I will be getting back to doing what I’ve wanted to do most of all—and what I had trained to do. The life of an academic, pure and simple.
May 1, 2014 at 3:40 am
I too read this book late last year. I read everything that Doris Kearns Goodwin writes because she outdoes most historians in making history complete and interesting. If only she and Ken Burns would collaborate on something. But you were perfectly right about learning about Taft. Who knew he was more than i ever imagined. But I think the things I most enjoyed were the stories, processes and techniques of journalism in those days. In many ways things were better by being less transparent, but the manipulation by the newsmakers was incredible. I’m sure you are looking forward to the end of the semester. Tell Erik Collins I meant exactly what I said on that “tree ornament” at his retirement event. –jack Hillwig
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