The Los Angeles Times this weekend carries my review of Doris Kearns Goodwin's new history, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism It's Goodwin's usual solid job of richly detailed lives at crossroads that had significant effects on the nation. My only quibble with it is the length - 750 pages before the notes and index. As I wrote in the review:
[T]hat's because this really is three overlapping books stitched together. There's a bio of Roosevelt (president from 1901-09), a bio of Taft (president, 1909-13), and a history of the muckraker era, with shorter bios of such seminal figures as Samuel L. McClure and the stable of writers (including Ida M. Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens) he brought together at his eponymous magazine.I took particular interest in the work because it overlaps in time and in some characters with my forthcoming The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, due out in the Spring. Jones's body was recovered by Horace Porter, ambassador to France under President McKinley and then Roosevelt, during Roosevelt's first term, so I was already attuned to the era. And Goodwin gets it right.
The strength and the weakness of Goodwin's work here rest in the details. Roosevelt and Taft have been the subjects of many biographies, and for good reason. Both are outsized figures (for Taft, in the literal sense), and each was touched by personal tragedy (Roosevelt's first wife died shortly after giving birth; Taft's wife suffered a debilitating stroke two months after he became president). Roosevelt became president with the assassination of William McKinley and survived an assassination attempt himself during the 1912 presidential campaign. Taft went on to serve as chief justice of the United States, the only president to have done so.
While each is a fascinating figure in his own right, there's too much space devoted to their formative years here — they don't meet until Page 135. Similarly, there is too much minutiae about legislative battles that might have been significant in the moment but are not so significant against the historical backdrop. This is where the work, for all of Goodwin's strength as a writer, bogs down.