Book review: The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism

Book review: The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Viking/Penguin.

Bully Pulpit

Although not exactly a dynasty, the Roosevelts produced both the best Democrat president (Franklin Delano) while his cousin Teddy, discussed here, was the best Republican one.
Hugely charismatic, energetic and popular, Theodore, a keen hunter and former veteran of the Spanish American Wars, became the nation’s youngest ever president, when at 42, he inherited the office from the unfortunate William McKinley who was assassinated by a Polish anarchist while opening the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo in September 1901.
Roosevelt was elected comfortably in his own right before unwisely relinquishing office in 1988, ignoring enthusiastic pleas from within his own party to stay (there was no two term limit then). He later came to regret his decision even to the point of standing against his successor and old friend Republican President William Taft as a third party Progressive “Bull Moose” candidate. But TR’s intervention proved hugely divisive. Taft, the incumbent, was pushed into a humiliating third place, Roosevelt, the ex-president came second. The victor was Woodrow Wilson, winning only the third victory for a Democratic presidential candidate since the end of the Civil War. Wilson won with 42% of the vote and would undoubtedly have lost had it not been for Roosevelt’s presence in the campaign. Taft went onto achieve his foremost lifelong dream: becoming Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Roosevelt went onto a fairly early death thus only witnessing the start of his cousin Franklin’s rose to power. Wilson led the United States into and through the First World War. The course of global history might have been very different had William Taft or Teddy Roosevelt led in his place.
This is a massive, thorough and entertaining book from Doris Kearns Goodwin whose Team of Rivals inspired not just Steven Spielberg to make his fairly dull Lincoln movie but which may have inspired President Obama to appoint his defeated opponent (and possible successor) Hilary Clinton as his first Secretary of State. This book may turn out to have some lasting political impact too as it is thought to have influenced Ed Miliband, the man most opinion polls suggest will be British Prime Minister within the year. Miliband could do worse than look to Teddy Roosevelt as a role model. Roosevelt was able to use the press of his time to press home the need for reform, however. In 21st century Britain, conditions are less favourable, however. The hostility of the right wing press may ultimately prove the greatest barrier not just to reform but to Mr Miliband even winning office in the first place.

Roosevelt Taft

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Presidents on screen

Ronald Reagan

So Daniel Day Lewis has nailed Abraham Lincoln. Bill Murray also apparently masters FDR in the forthcoming Hyde Park on Hudson while Anthony Hopkins (amongst others) have recreated Richard Nixon on screen while Dennis Quaid and John Travolta have (sort of) portrayed Bill Clinton. But what about all the other presidents who have never had a decent shot at being on screen? Here are a few possible contenders:

George Washington

Who was he? Only the first US president (1789-97) and victor in the American War of Independence (or as the Americans more excitingly call it, the Revolutionary War).

Who could play him? Tricky. Tom Hanks? Washington doesn’t actually look much like any contemporary actor.

Prospects? On the one hand, it’s surprising there haven’t been more films about Washington. On the other, films about the early days of the Republic (Revolution, The Patriot, The Alamo) often perform badly at the box office. And are boring.

 

Teddy Roosevelt

Who was he? The 26th president (1901-1909). The youngest ever Commander in Chief whose refusal to shoot a bear on a hunting expedition inspired the creation of the teddy bear. More importantly, he fought and won a vital domestic battle against the great monopolies (trusts) of his day and pledged to “speak softly and wield a big stick” in foreign policy. Later ran as an independent presidential candidate and is distantly related to Democrat president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45).

Who could play him? John Goodman, Oliver Platt, Nathan Lane. Anyone fat basically.

Prospects? Already a major character played by Brian Keith in The Wind and the Lion (1975), Teddy R also had a tragic upbringing and an exciting military career. He was also shot and wounded as a presidential candidate in 1912, but delivered a speech regardless. Potentially a great film.

 

Dwight David Eisenhower

Who was he? Ike was a leading commander in World War II and in peacetime 1953-61) a hugely popular president.

Who could play him? Anthony Hopkins. Ed Harris. Anyone bald.

Prospects? Ike’s military career was exciting but his presidency was uneventful. Unless you enjoy watching people play golf.

 

John Fitzgerald  Kennedy

Who was he? Youthful charismatic inspiration to the world, Cold Warrior, first Catholic president and compulsive womaniser. Famously assassinated 1963.

Who could play him? Was played well on TV by Greg Kinnear and thirty years ago by Martin Sheen.

Prospects? JFK has been portrayed a few times in TV and film, but it’s surprising no one’s done a full scale biopic yet. War hero, family tragedy, nuclear confrontation, the battle for civil rights: it’s all there. That said, it’s quite tricky to square this with his womanising and dealings with the Mafia particularly as the Kennedy family remain such a potent force in the US. Their opposition effectively forced an end to the (admittedly dodgy) Greg Kinnear/Katie Holmes TV series The Kennedys.

 

Lyndon Baines Johnson

Who was he? Kennedy’s successor (1963-69) began his presidency well with a wealth of civil rights and anti-poverty legislation (“the Great Society”) but ultimately became hopelessly bogged down in the Vietnam quagmire.

Who could play him? Liam Neeson. Perhaps Daniel Day Lewis again.

Prospects? Ultimately a bit of a downer story-wise and the garrulous sometimes bullying LBJ is not an instantly loveable figure.

 

Ronald Reagan

Who was he? Simple minded Hollywood actor turned ultra-conservative 40th president (1981-89). Almost started World War III but somehow managed to oversee the end of the Cold War instead.

Who could play him? Warren Beatty, Tom Hanks, Josh Brolin (who played him in the short lived TV series). Richard Dreyfus could play Gorbachev, Sacha Baron Cohen Colonel Gadaffi while John Hamm could be Oliver North.

Prospects? Great. Assassination attempts, arms to Ira, bombing in Libya and Reagan’s ultimate decline into Alzheimer’s. A movie is only a matter of time,

 

Films that sound like they should be about presidents …but are not.

George Washington: 2000 film set in a depressed contemporary US city. Not actually about the first US president.

Garfield: About a cat. Nothing at all to do with the 20th president James A. Garfield who was assassinated in 1881.

Ted: No. Not about Teddy Roosevelt at all. Seth MacFarlane adult comedy about a teddy bear who comes to life.

The Truman Show: A man who grows up in a world entirely created for TV. His name’s Truman Burbank. Nothing to do with atomic bomb dropper Harry S. Truman (1945-53). That one was actually portrayed by Gary Sinese in the decent 1995 TV movie Truman.

JFK: Actually very little about JFK himself, aside from a short biography at the start. O liver Stone’s film is instead a dramatised account of the investigation into why the 35th president was assassinated. And by whom.

Dead Presidents: Hughes Brothers’ crime drama. “Dead presidents” is US slang for banknotes (which, of course, have portraits of dead presidents on them).Image