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Theodore Roosevelt gives a speech while reporters, in the foreground, make notes

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Viking, RRP£20/Simon & Schuster, RRP$40, 928 pages

Four US presidential likenesses are carved into Mount Rushmore – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Each is revered by Democrats and Republicans alike. None since Teddy Roosevelt, who stepped down in 1909 after almost two terms, has gone up since. Space considerations aside, it is hard to imagine who could achieve the required consensus. Republicans disdain Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy’s cousin, who gave us the New Deal in the 1930s. Democrats, for their part, are not big fans of Ronald Reagan. Which means Teddy’s is probably the last face to appear.

As Doris Kearns Goodwin shows in her sweeping new biography, The Bully Pulpit, he is also the odd one out. Washington and Jefferson were leaders of the American Revolution. Lincoln completed that business two generations later when he defeated the slave south in the American civil war. By contrast, Roosevelt inherited no looming war or national emergency. With the same resolve the young Teddy showed to “transform” his body and overcome a morbid childhood frailty, the 42-year-old war hero lifted up his presidency by its bootstraps. As he put it himself, he used “every ounce of power there was in the office”.

From the vantage point of today’s horribly gridlocked Washington DC, it is enough to make your mouth water. Perhaps that is the point. Goodwin has a knack for pulling off dramatic popular histories at the right moment. Her award-winning – and Hollywood movie-inspiring – study of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, Team Of Rivals (2005), won an influential admirer in America’s first African-American president. Shortly after his 2008 victory, Barack Obama cited the book as an inspiration to build his own large-tented administration – a goal now quietly forgotten. Goodwin was nevertheless enshrined as the historian who had caught the zeitgeist. She may have done so again.

The quality most Americans associate with Teddy Roosevelt is his sheer ebullience. Whether it was the mustachioed soldier charging a Cuban hill in 1898 to help defeat the Spanish imperialists, or the polymath who penned almost a book a year through his life, Roosevelt personified the ambition of a dawning American century. Many Republicans love him because he embodied a more muscular US presence in the world. Roosevelt seized the Panamanian isthmus from Colombia and built a canal. He earned the Nobel Peace Prize while in office for brokering an end to the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. And he cemented US colonial rule over the Philippines. He was America’s Bismarck. In the 2008 election John McCain, the Republican nominee, held up Roosevelt as his role model.

Democrats like Roosevelt because he was the first US president to take on the big industrial combines. After a generation of untrammeled Carnegies and Vanderbilts, here was a leader with the gumption to confront them. Teddy broke up the Rockefeller oil empire, regulated the railroads and cut the legendary JP Morgan down to size. In addition to trust-busting, he drastically extended federal protection of wilderness lands. But for Roosevelt, the Grand Canyon would have been stripped bare for minerals. He was also the first president to invite a black intellectual – Booker T Washington – for dinner at the White House. The backlash was vicious. “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place,” said Ben Tillman, the Democratic senator from South Carolina.

Most of all, Teddy was the progressive movement’s answer to the acute disparities of the gilded age. To his foreign contemporaries Roosevelt was larger than life. At a moment of incipient British decline, Roosevelt’s preternatural energy hinted at a new age to come. He had an Obamaesque ability to pull crowds. When he toured Europe more than a year after leaving the White House, tens of thousands thronged the streets of Paris, London and other cities to catch a glimpse of the “Rough Rider”. Even his enemies, notably Mark Hanna, who epitomised the corrupt Republican machine Teddy had sidelined, could not help but admire him – “that damned cowboy” was Hanna’s description.

The Bully Pulpit is more than just a biography of this most tireless of US presidents. It is also a tribute to America’s “golden age of journalism”. From early in his career, Roosevelt saw the benefit of having allies in the media. By the time he became president in 1902, they could be found mainly at the legendary McClure’s magazine, which housed the most talented stable of journalists in the US. Writers such as Lincoln Steffens, who chronicled the railroad barons, Ida Tarbell, who dissected Standard Oil, and Ray Baker, who exposed the rat-infested conditions of Chicago’s meat factories, became confidantes of the young president.

Their style was both meticulous and unabashedly crusading, with a whiff of the zealous “Social Gospel” that Teddy was later to embrace. Sam McClure, editor of the eponymous magazine, said that “the vitality of democracy” depended on “popular knowledge of complex questions”. A serial exposé in McClure’s could change the politics of a nation. Under Roosevelt it frequently did. His cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, is credited with embracing the age of broadcasting with his radio “fireside chats” in the 1930s. Teddy did the same with the media of his age.

Richard Hofstadter, the US political historian, said that the “progressive mind was characteristically a journalistic mind”. Roosevelt would think nothing of composing 3,000-word letters to his favourite writers. He was repaid in kind. Roosevelt would encourage journalists to investigate a particular monopoly then ride on their publicity to browbeat Congress into action. Such manoeuvres are inconceivable today. Figures such as Roosevelt are equally hard to imagine. “I had never known such a man as he,” wrote William Allen White, another influential writer of the age, “and never shall again.”

Like most great love affairs, this one also lost its ardour. Roosevelt and journalism changed – in both cases for the worse. The exhaustive methods of progressive journalists were dislodged by a populist and more commercial-minded “yellow press” that thrived on bashing the rich. Teddy branded them the “muckrakers”. The term was inspired by a character in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress who always carried a rake and whose gaze was always down. To Roosevelt, he was someone “who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness on that which is vile and debasing”. He added: “It is not the critic who counts . . . The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”

Given how much he was lionised, perhaps it was inevitable that Roosevelt’s grasp on reality went downhill. In spite of having renounced a third term and helped his ally, William Howard Taft, to succeed him, Teddy came to believe he was the only true handmaiden of the “New Nationalism”. Having failed in 1912 to dislodge his former friend from the Republican nomination, Roosevelt broke loose to form a third party, the Bull Moose, which split the Republican electorate and enabled Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic candidate, to take the White House. “The only question now is which corpse gets the most flowers,” said one delegate after Roosevelt and Taft had torn each other apart.

Roosevelt died a semi-broken man in 1919, aged 60. He lived to see Wilson cement his reforms with the creation of the Federal Reserve and the progressive income tax. But the Republican party’s “spoils system” that he had so hated – and that so hated him back – had come back to life.

A century later, Roosevelt’s party is again mired in civil war and there is a Democrat in the White House. But there the parallels end. Goodwin has written another fine book about one of America’s greatest figures. As is always the case with such biographies, readers will be looking for contemporary lessons. The temptation to elevate yesterday’s leaders into giants is sometimes hard to resist. Yet in the case of Roosevelt – and particularly as he is revealed to us by Goodwin’s pen – it comes close to being justified. Roosevelt forged a new age. No president today, whether it is Obama or anyone else, has much hope of emulating that.


Edward Luce is the FT’s chief US commentator and author of ‘Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline’ (Little, Brown)


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