The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin

THE dance between politicians and the press can appear awkward, largely because both sides want to be the ones who are leading. Doris Kearns Goodwin, a popular scholar of American politics, traces the early days of this fraught negotiation in “The Bully Pulpit”. Here she tells the story of Theodore Roosevelt, America’s 26th president, who at the turn of the 20th century became the first to install a press room in the White House. Savvy and larger than life, he understood the benefits of co-operating with the press. Yet it was the very “muckraking” of these newly powerful journalists that exacerbated tensions within his Republican This sophisticated, character-driven book tells two big stories. The first concerns the role of the press in American politics; the second considers the fate of the Republican Party and the ideological divisions that persist to this day. Dominating this tale is Roosevelt, a charismatic man described by John Morley, a British statesman, as one of “two tremendous works of nature in America” (the other one was Niagara Falls).

Roosevelt had a close but complicated relationship with his successor, William Howard Taft, whom he anointed, in effect, as his natural heir. Yet Taft’s reputation has not survived as Roosevelt’s has, in part, Ms Goodwin argues, because he lacked his predecessor’s vim. “He loves the woods, he loves hunting,” Taft said of Roosevelt; “he loves roughing it, and I don’t.”

In an era when oil, railway and steel giants monopolised America’s booming business, Roosevelt began the process of regulating trade. In this he was aided by the crusading journalists of McClure’s magazine, founded by the Irish-born S.S. McClure. A 1903 issue of McClure’s remains a landmark of American journalism, most notably for Ida Tarbell’s exposé of the monopolistic practices of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. And Roosevelt, Ms Goodwin shows, eagerly courted this activist press.

The book is a striking reminder that the Republican Party was once the more progressive of America’s two political parties. Against the might of the great 20th-century industrialists, Roosevelt fought for a “square deal” for the working man. Yet arguments over this very progressivism led to deep divisions within the party, and a painful rupture between the arrogant Roosevelt and the far more cautious Taft. This fracture—widely publicised by an increasingly influential press (which frowned upon Taft’s more passive approach to big business)—enabled the landslide victory of Woodrow Wilson’s Democrats in 1912.

Despite its great length—and the occasional sense that this in fact might be two books, rather than one—this is a fascinating work, even a timely one. (DreamWorks, the studio behind the 2012 film “Lincoln”, based on a biography by Ms Goodwin, has already bought the rights.) It captures the way a political party can be destroyed by factionalism, and it shows the important role investigative journalists play in political life. Casting about for a remedy for America’s woes in the early 1900s, McClure exhorted his readers: “There is no one left; none but all of us.”

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Simon & Schuster; 928 pages; $40; Viking; £20.

From The Economist