To borrow a phrase from Carl Sandburg, here are U.S. politics journalism during the Golden Age “with the lid off”
I agree with Bill Keller and his observation, in a review of this book for The New York Times, that Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book, as did her previous Team of Rivals, serves as a time machine in which a reader can travel back to the turn of the 20th century, “to a time when this country had politicians of stature and conscience, when the public believed that government could right great wrongs, when, before truncated attention spans, a 50,000-word exposé of corruption could sell out magazines and galvanize a reluctant Congress. The villains seemed bigger, too, or at least more brazen — industrial barons and political bosses who monopolized entire industries, strangled entire cities. And “change” was not just a slogan. There are but a handful of times in the history of our country,” Goodwin writes in her introduction, “when there occurs a transformation so remarkable that a molt seems to take place, and an altered country begins to emerge.”
Actually, although she set out to write only one book, about the rise and fall of the Progressive Party, she ended up writing several: her discussion of that period but also an analysis of what is frequently referred to as the “Golden Age of Journalism” and of the two political figures that dominated that period, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
Goodwin does indeed have an ambitious undertaking. Besides the two principals, her cast includes their adored wives — Edith Roosevelt (literary and reclusive, a brake on her impetuous husband) and Nellie Taft (politically aware and astute, a goad to her chronically circumspect husband); they are treated not just as first ladies but as essential partners in and insightful commentators on the careers of their mates. There is also a colorful cast of industrialists, labor leaders, political rivals, cabinet members and, especially, fired-up journalists. Goodwin directs her characters with precision and affection, and the story comes together like a well-wrought novel.
In the 1890s, as now, there was a growing preoccupation with economic inequality. Then, as now, the liveliest political drama played out within a bitterly divided Republican Party. But back then the Republican insurgents were progressives, among them Roosevelt and Taft, challenging the party’s long defense of laissez-faire and building a federal regulatory apparatus. Now, as William Howard Taft’s great-grandson pointed out in a recent Op-Ed lament, the Republican insurgents champion “bomb-throwing obstructionism” and “empty nihilism” in an effort to dismantle the regulatory machinery the progressives constructed. I am reminded of one of Heraclitus’ observations that everything changes, nothing changes.
The golden age Goodwin describes was, probably inevitably, short-lived. The success of McClure’s and Collier’s magazines and the other premier investigative publications inspired many imitators who were more strident and less conscientious about their reporting. A “national fatigue with the ubiquitous literature of exposure” set in.
And the crusading journalists gradually became disillusioned by their hero. The disenchantment was mutual. Roosevelt’s “exasperation with the proliferation of increasingly sensational and shoddily investigated exposure journalism had been slowly building,” Goodwin writes. In 1906 he vented his anger in a speech at the annual Gridiron Dinner, castigating the new journalists for ignoring success and inflaming public passions. (It was this speech that popularized the term “muckrakers,” which the journalists later adopted as a badge of honor.) The next morning Steffens called on the president. “Well,” he said, “you have put an end to all these journalistic investigations that have made you.”
Judge for yourself whether or not that is true. In fact, read the book and then formulate your own opinions about a cast of compelling characters and their complicated interrelationships during one of the most turbulent — and most exciting — periods in U.S. history.