- Inventing the Media Presidency
Give Doris Kearns Goodwin ample credit. No ordinary presidential biographer, Goodwin invariably situates her main characters amid a supporting cast that at once illuminates their distinctive temperaments and the ways they shaped the spirit of their times. Goodwin also excavates one aspect of each president’s experience that speaks to the present condition; through their relationships with family, colleagues, and opponents, her heroes offer useful commentary on contemporary American politics. Thus, in Team of Rivals (2005), Abraham Lincoln’s interaction with his cabinet not only limned the “political genius” of the Great Emancipator, but also provided an object lesson for the era of Barack Obama (one he seemed to follow in his appointments of Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates). A decade earlier, Goodwin’s account of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s wartime White House offered historical perspective on the fraught relations between Hillary and Bill Clinton.
Goodwin now turns her talents to Theodore Roosevelt. Setting TR against William Howard Taft, his friend, protégé, and eventual rival, The Bully Pulpit also offers biographical sketches of the two protagonists’ wives, Edith Roosevelt and Nellie Taft; magazine editor S. S. McClure; and four famous journalists who published in McClure’s magazine (Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, and William Allen White). While remaining largely a conventional biography—Goodwin rounds up the usual suspects and rehearses the most widely cited sources—the book highlights Roosevelt’s intimate relationship with the press (and by contrast, Taft’s failures to manage the media). In Goodwin’s pages, TR emerges as the originator of the modern media presidency and a model for leadership in a fractious era of inequality and conflict that mirrors today’s contentious times.
The youngest person ever to serve as U.S. Chief Executive—just forty-two years old when he ascended to the office—Roosevelt was the first president to ride in a car, the first to fly in an airplane, the first to submerge in a submarine. He also became the first sitting president to travel outside the United States, [End Page 110] and he virtually invented the idea of the president as a world leader. “There inheres in the presidency,” he asserted, “more power than in any other office in any great republic or constitutional monarchy of modern times.”1 Roosevelt understood the office to be a “bully pulpit,” and that favorite phrase of his resonated. Certainly, it implied a platform for preaching, to exhort the nation and the world to right conduct.
It meant so much more than that, though; for TR’s use of the bully pulpit embodied significant innovations in the presidency and the nation. First, it signaled the emergence of the president and executive branch of the government as the nation’s principal policymaker. Unlike his predecessor, TR drafted bills and sent a detailed legislative program up Capitol Hill. Rather than seeing the executive as separate from and equal to the legislative branch—allowing Congress to devise the laws and either signing or vetoing them, TR made it clear that the president, his staff, and cabinet would not merely sketch out the principles and enforce the law, but would draft, guide, and make policy.
Second, TR pioneered the use of the bully pulpit for mobilizing public opinion. The House and Senate resented his disregard for their historical authority, and TR had a very mixed record at actually getting his programs enacted. Instead, he developed the now familiar, but then unprecedented idea of going over Congress’ head. He went directly to the American people and used public opinion to force the Congress into action—or, often, to keep it from interfering with actions he took on his own initiative.
Third, the bully pulpit meant conscious, astute management of the press. He understood that most Americans learned about presidential actions and policies from the press. And he knew how the newly emerging mass media functioned. Beginning in the 1880s, he contributed to...