Reading note: Roosevelt, Taft—Then like Now

I recently finished The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This is a great read. As I was reading I marked a few things that seem very relevant to today’s issues. These are quotes from the book; my comments within the text are in brackets. Other comments by me in italics.

As S. S. McClure [extremely important magazine publisher that I knew nothing about before] well understood, the “vitality of democracy” depends on “popular knowledge of complex questions.” Two interesting things here: that the populace must be knowledgeable, and that the questions are complex—so simple sloganeering won’t do.

Theodore Roosevelt was by birth a New York patrician Republican, but as is well known went roughing it in the West with cowboys, etc.—the working class. He said that his fellow politicians were out of touch, not understanding the issues. He realized that real connection was necessary: “When you have worked with them, when you have lived with them, you do not have to wonder how they feel, because you feel it yourself.” It seems many politicians remain out of touch today.

“I passed my days in a state of exasperation,” Roosevelt told his son Kermit, “first, with the fools who do not want any of the things that ought to be done, and, second, with the equally obnoxious fools who insist upon so much that they cannot get anything.” That was 112 years ago.

The cost to both his party and the country would be immense, [Roosevelt] believed if “the people at large” perceived “that the Republican Party had become unduly subservient to the so-called Wall Street men—to the men of wealth, the plutocracy.” It would result in a “a dreadful calamity,” Roosevelt told a conservative friend, to see the nation “divided into two parties, one containing the bulk of the property owners and conservative people, the other the bulk of the wage workers and the less prosperous people generally; each party insisting upon demanding much that was wrong, and each party sullen  and angered by real and fancied grievances.” 1905—and the perception 110 years later might be that the “dreadful calamity” has come.

[For the 1908 election] Taft pledged to make public all campaign contributions as soon as the election was over. Realizing such transparency might paralyze large donors, Taft told the president [Roosevelt ] that he was “willing to undergo the disadvantage in order to make certain that in the future we shall reduce the power of money in politics.” How’s that working out?

Though “every special interest is entitled to justice,” [Roosevelt] declared, “not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office.”

 Of course there has been a lot of improvement over the last century, but some basic concerns of the early 20th century remain basic concerns for us today.


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