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Dominic Sandbrook

Teddy & Taft

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism
By Doris Kearns Gooding (Viking 910pp 20)
Taft: had the last laugh

On 14 October 1912, the former US president Theodore Roosevelt went to Milwaukee to give a speech. Although TR had retired from the political front line almost four years earlier, he had now decided to launch a comeback and was running for president on the independent Progressive Party ticket. Everywhere he was greeted by large, enthusiastic crowds and Milwaukee was no exception. But, as TR was leaving his hotel for the auditorium, a madman called John Flammang Schrank raised a pistol and fired, hitting the former president in the chest.

TR's companions urged the driver to race to the hospital. But their chief, almost incredibly, was having none of it. 'You get me to that speech,' he said thickly. The bullet had been deflected by the thick notes of his text, buried within his coat, which meant that it lodged near his fourth rib instead of entering his heart. For half an hour, pale but apparently unshaken, Roosevelt addressed the crowd, a handkerchief tied to his chest as a bandage. At one stage, as the colour suddenly drained from his face, he seemed likely to faint, and one of his aides begged him to stop. 'No, sir,' TR said, with a 'ferocious expression'. 'I will not stop until I have finished.' He was as good as his word; only when he had completed his speech did he agree to be taken to the hospital.

Outside the United States, Theodore Roosevelt is probably best known as the inspiration for the teddy bear. But as Doris Kearns Goodwin's book reminds us, he was by almost any standards a simply extraordinary figure: a sickly, asthmatic little boy who by sheer force of will turned himself into a rugged American hero. Not content with leading a volunteer cavalry regiment against the Spanish in Cuba, he became a youthful governor of New York and was picked as William McKinley's running mate in the 1900 presidential election. And when McKinley was shot in September 1901, the 42-year-old TR became the youngest president in history. 'That damned cowboy is president!' gasped the horrified Republican Party chief Mark Hanna.

But TR was more than a cowboy. He was a remarkably clever and energetic man who admired Oliver Cromwell and somehow found the time to write forty books, including a widely praised four-volume history of the conquest of the West. As president from 1901 to 1909 he was a ceaseless reformer, using the White House as a 'bully pulpit' and taking on the vast corporate monopolies (the 'trusts', in the jargon of the day) that had grown to dominate almost every aspect of American economic life. There was, admittedly, a slightly lunatic edge to TR's obsession with the 'soldierly virtues'. When he gushed about the 'joy in battle' or lamented that too many Americans were frightened of death, he came perilously close to sounding like Mussolini - another energetic, exuberant character who had reinvented himself as the voice of the people and the champion of the new nationalism. By and large, though, TR's heart was in the right place. And by the standards of the misfits who have generally occupied the White House in modern times, he was a giant.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Roosevelt has already been the subject of several excellent biographies, notably three prize-winning volumes by Edmund Morris. So Goodwin gives her book a new angle by examining TR alongside his friend, presidential successor and later rival, William Howard Taft.

In many ways the two were polar opposites. Where TR was restless and energetic, a lean, self-propelled American hero, Taft's most memorable quality was his tremendous fatness. As president between 1909 and 1913 he weighed 24 stone and was so large that workmen had to install a special White House bathtub, in which four (four!) of them posed afterwards for photographs. As a result, Taft suffered from sleep apnoea, presenting another obvious contrast with his hyperactive predecessor. He fell asleep at mealtimes, when playing golf, when playing cards, when standing up and even during meetings with the Speaker of the House. 'Often,' one senator later recorded, 'when I was talking to him after a meal his head would fall over on his breast and he would go sound asleep for ten or fifteen minutes. He would waken and resume the conversation, only to repeat the performance in the course of half an hour or so.'

The funny thing about Taft was that he was really not a bad president at all. As Goodwin points out, he was arguably even more effective than Roosevelt at tackling the injustices of American industrial capitalism. He was also, by all accounts, an extremely sensible, pleasant and companionable man. Unfortunately, because of his unprepossessing manner and poor speaking style, he presented an image of indolent obesity, which made him an easy target when Roosevelt got bored of retirement and decided to re-enter the presidential arena. As far as the issues were concerned, there was little to divide them: both were reformers, determined to use the power of government to address the woes of American society. But they contrived to split the non-Democratic vote and thereby handed the 1912 election to the intense but sophomoric Woodrow Wilson. It is a striking thought that if only Taft had lost a bit of weight, the world might have been spared the Treaty of Versailles.

As a joint biography of two endearing and impressive men, Goodwin's book has much to commend it. As in her bestselling book on Lincoln, Team of Rivals, she writes brilliantly about politics and has a terrific eye for character. But The Bully Pulpit is just too long. Not only does Goodwin spend far too much time on her principals' youth and college education, she muddies the waters by throwing in a third element: a potted survey of the muckraking journalism of the 1890s and 1900s, focusing above all on McClure's Magazine, which exposed the wrongdoings of the great oil and railroad empires. This stuff often feels unbearably worthy and you keep flicking forward to the next section about TR and Taft. Happily, the two men were reconciled in their final years; indeed, Goodwin's book ends with a lovely story about them meeting by chance at a Chicago hotel in 1918, onlookers applauding as the two old warhorses shook hands and chewed the fat. As it happens, Taft had now lost a lot of weight. He outlived Roosevelt by 11 years and became the only man to serve as both president and chief justice of the Supreme Court. That, I suppose, makes him the single most distinguished person in American history. So, in the end, he had the last laugh.

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Dominic Sandbrook's television series on the history of science fiction will be shown on BBC2 in 2014.

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