We revisit a conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin about her latest epic biography on the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft that brought radical change to America. Read an excerpt from Chapter One of The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.
The Bully Pulpit
CHAPTER ONE The Hunter Returns
ROOSEVELT IS COMING HOME, HOORAY! Exultant headlines in mid-June 1910 trumpeted the daily progress of the Kaiserin, the luxury liner returning the former president, Theodore Roosevelt, to American shores after his year’s safari in Africa.
Despite popularity unrivaled since Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt, true to his word, had declined to run for a third term after completing seven and a half years in office. His tenure had stretched from William McKinley’s assassination in September 1901 to March 4, 1909, when his own elected term came to an end. Flush from his November 1904 election triumph, he had stunned the political world with his announcement that he would not run for president again, citing “the wise custom which limits the President to two terms.” Later, he reportedly told a friend that he would willingly cut off his hand at the wrist if he could take his pledge back.
Roosevelt had loved being president—“the greatest office in the world.” He had relished “every hour” of every day. Indeed, fearing the “dull thud” he would experience upon returning to private life, he had devised the perfect solution to “break his fall.” Within three weeks of the inauguration of his successor, William Howard Taft, he had embarked on his great African adventure, plunging into the most “impenetrable spot on the globe.”
For months Roosevelt’s friends had been preparing an elaborate reception to celebrate his arrival in New York. When “the Colonel,” as Roosevelt preferred to be called, first heard of the extravagant plans devised for his welcome, he was troubled, fearing that the public response would not match such lofty expectations. “Even at this moment I should certainly put an instant stop to all the proceedings if I felt they were being merely ‘worked up’ and there was not a real desire . . . of at least a great many people to greet me,” he wrote one of the organizers in March 1910. “My political career is ended,” he told Lawrence Abbott of The Outlook, who had come to meet him in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, when he first emerged from the jungle. “No man in American public life has ever reached the crest of the wave as I appear to have done without the wave’s breaking and engulfing him.”
Anxiety that his star had dimmed, that the public’s devotion had dwindled, proved wildly off the mark. While he had initially planned to return directly from Khartoum, Roosevelt received so many invitations to visit the reigning European sovereigns that he first embarked on a six-week tour of Italy, Austria, Hungary, France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, and England. Kings and queens greeted him as an equal, universities bestowed upon him their highest degrees, and the German Kaiser treated him as an intimate friend. Every city, town, and village received him with a frenzied enthusiasm that stunned the most sophisticated observers. “People gathered at railway stations, in school-houses, and in the village streets,” one journalist observed. They showered his carriage with flowers, thronged windows of tenement houses, and greeted him with “Viva, viva, viva Roosevelt!” Newspapers in the United States celebrated Roosevelt’s triumphant procession through the Old World, sensing in his unparalleled reception a tribute to America’s newfound position of power. “No foreign ruler or man of eminence could have aroused more universal attention, received a warmer welcome, or achieved greater popularity among every class of society,” the New York Times exulted.
“I don’t suppose there was ever such a reception as that being given Theodore in Europe,” Taft wistfully told his military aide, Captain Archie Butt. “It illustrates how his personality has swept over the world,” such that even “small villages which one would hardly think had ever heard of the United States should seem to know all about the man.” The stories of Roosevelt’s “royal progress” through Europe bolstered the efforts of his friends to ensure, in Taft’s words, “as great a demonstration of welcome from his countrymen as any American ever received.”
In the week preceding his arrival in America, tens of thousands of visitors from all over the country had descended upon New York, lending the city’s hotels and streets “a holiday appearance.” Inbound trains carried a cast of characters “as diversely typical of the American people as Mr. Roosevelt himself . . . conservationists and cowboys, capitalists and socialists, insurgents and regulars, churchmen and sportsmen, native born and aliens.” More than two hundred vessels, including five destroyers, six revenue cutters, and dozens of excursion steamboats, tugs, and ferryboats, all decked with colorful flags and pennants, had sailed into the harbor to take part in an extravagant naval display.
An army of construction workers labored to complete the speaker’s platform and grandstand seating at Battery Park, where Roosevelt would address an overflow crowd of invited guests. Businesses had given their workers a half-holiday so they could join in the festivities. “Flags floated everywhere,” an Ohio newspaper reported; “pictures of Roosevelt were hung in thousands of windows and along the line of march, buildings were draped with bunting.”
The night before the big day, a dragnet was set to arrest known pickpockets. Five thousand police and dozens of surgeons and nurses were called in for special duty. “The United States of America at the present moment simulates quite the attitude of the small boy who can’t go to sleep Christmas Eve for thinking of the next day,” the Atlanta Constitution suggested. “And the colonel, returning as rapidly as a lusty steamship can plow the waves, is the ‘next day.’ It is a remarkable tribute to the man’s personality that virtually every element of citizenship in the country should be more or less on tiptoes in the excitement of anticipation.”
SHORTLY AFTER 7 A.M. ON June 18, as the bright rising sun burned through the mists, Theodore Roosevelt, as jubilant with anticipation as his country, stood on the bridge of the Kaiserin as the vessel headed into New York Harbor. Edith, his handsome forty-eight-year-old wife, stood beside him. She had journeyed halfway around the world to join him in Khartoum at the end of his long African expedition. Edith had found their year-long parting, the longest in their twenty-three years of marriage, almost unbearable. “If it were not for the children here I would not have the nervous strength to live through these endless months of separation from Father,” she wrote her son Kermit after Theodore had been gone only two weeks. “When I am alone & let myself think I am done for.”
Edith was no stranger to the anxiety of being apart from the man for whom she “would do anything in the world.” They had been intimate childhood friends, growing up together in New York’s Union Square neighborhood. She had joined “Teedie,” as he was then called, and his younger sister Corinne, in a private schoolroom arranged at the Roosevelt mansion. Even as children, they missed each other when apart. As Teedie was setting off with his family on a Grand Tour of Europe when he was eleven years old, he broke down in tears at the thought of leaving eight-year-old Edith behind. She proved his most faithful correspondent over the long course of the trip. She had been a regular guest at “Tranquillity,” the Roosevelts’ summer home on Long Island, where they sailed together in the bay, rode horseback along the trails, and shared a growing passion for literature. As adolescents, they were dancing partners at cotillions and constant companions on the social scene. Roosevelt proudly noted that his freshman college classmates at Harvard considered Edith and her friend Annie Murray “the prettiest girls they had met” when they visited him in New York during Christmas vacation.
In the summer of 1878, after his sophomore year, however, the young couple had a mysterious “falling out” at Tranquillity. “One day,” Roosevelt later wrote, “there came a break” during a late afternoon rendezvous at the estate’s summerhouse. The conflict that erupted, Roosevelt admitted, ended “his very intimate relations” with Edith. Though neither one would ever say what had happened, Roosevelt cryptically noted to his sister Anna that “both of us had, and I suppose have, tempers that were far from being of the best.”
The intimacy that Edith had cherished for nearly two decades seemed lost forever the following October, when Roosevelt met Alice Hathaway Lee. The beautiful, enchanting daughter of a wealthy Boston businessman, Alice lived in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, not far from Cambridge. The young Harvard junior fell in love with his “whole heart and soul.” Four months after his graduation in 1880, they were married. Then, in 1884, only two days after giving birth to their only child, Alice died.
A year later, Theodore resumed his friendship with Edith. And the year after that they were married. As time passed, Edith’s meticulous and thoughtful nature made her an exemplary partner for Theodore. “I do not think my eyes are blinded by affection,” the president told a friend, “when I say that she has combined to a degree I have never seen in any other woman the power of being the best of wives and mothers, the wisest manager of the household, and at the same time the ideal great lady and mistress of the White House.”
Their boisterous family eventually included six children. Three of the six were standing next to their parents on the bridge of the ocean liner: twenty-year-old Kermit, who had accompanied his father to Africa; eighteen-year-old Ethel; and twenty-six-year-old Alice, the child born to his first wife.
The girls had joined their parents in Europe. Along the rails of the four upper decks, their fellow passengers, some 3,000 in all, formed a colorful pageant as they waved their handkerchiefs and cheered.
Although wireless telegrams on board the ship had alerted Roosevelt to some of the day’s planned activities, he was surprised to learn that President Taft had assigned the massive battleship South Carolina as his official escort. “By George! That’s one of my ships! Doesn’t she look good?” an overwhelmed Roosevelt exclaimed when he saw her gray bulk pulling near. “Flags were broken out from stem to stern in the ceremony of dressing the ship,” reported the Boston Daily Globe, while “a puff from the muzzle of an eight-pounder” signaled the start of a 21-gun salute, the highest ceremonial honor, generally reserved for heads of state. Sailors clad in blue lined the decks of the warship, as the scarlet-uniformed Marine Band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The cannon roar of the South Carolina was followed by the rhythmic volley of salutes and whistles from the dozen or more additional naval ships in the bay. President Taft had clearly gone to great lengths, Captain Butt proudly noted, “to add dignity to the welcome and to extend a warm personal greeting to his predecessor.”
From the deck, Roosevelt spotted the tugboat carrying the reporters whose eyewitness accounts of the spectacular scene would dominate the news the following day. As he leaned over the rail and vigorously waved his top hat back and forth to them, they stood and cheered. To each familiar face, he nodded his head and smiled broadly, displaying his famous teeth, which appeared “just as prominent and just as white and perfect as when he went away.” Then, recognizing the photographers’ need to snap his picture, he stopped his hectic motions and stood perfectly still.
During his presidency, Roosevelt’s physical vigor and mental curiosity had made the White House a hive of activity and interest. His “love of the hurly-burly” that enchanted reporters and their readers was best captured by British viscount John Morley, who claimed that “he had seen two tremendous works of nature in America—the Niagara Falls and Mr. Roosevelt.” One magazine writer marveled at his prodigious stream of guests—“pugilists, college presidents, professional wrestlers, Greek scholars, baseball teams, big-game hunters, sociologists, press agents, authors, actors, Rough Riders, bad men, and gun-fighters from the West, wolf-catchers, photographers, guides, bear-hunters, artists, labor-leaders.” When he left for Africa, the “noise and excitement” vanished; little wonder that the members of the press were thrilled to see him return.
Shortly after the Kaiserin dropped anchor at Quarantine, the revenue cutter Manhattan pulled alongside, carrying the Roosevelts’ youngest sons, sixteen-year-old Archie and twelve-year-old Quentin, both of whom had remained at home. Their oldest son, twenty-two-year-old Theodore Junior, who was set to marry Eleanor Alexander the following Monday, joined the group along with an assortment of family members, including Roosevelt’s sisters, Anna and Corinne; his son-in-law, Congressman Nicholas Longworth; his niece Eleanor Roosevelt; and her husband, Franklin. While Edith anxiously sought a glimpse of the children she had not seen for more than two months, Roosevelt busily shook hands with each of the officers, sailors, and engineers of the ship. “Come here, Theodore, and see your children,” Edith called out. “They are of far greater importance than politics or anything else.”
Roosevelt searched the promenade deck of the Manhattan, reported the Chicago Tribune, until his eyes rested on “the round face of his youngest boy, Quentin, who was dancing up and down on the deck, impatient to be recognized,” telling all who would listen that he would be the one “to kiss pop first.” At the sight of the lively child, “the Colonel spread his arms out as if he would undertake a long-distance embrace” and smiled broadly as he nodded to each of his relatives in turn.
When Roosevelt stepped onto the crimson-covered gangplank for his transfer to the Manhattan, “pandemonium broke loose.” The ship’s band played “America,” the New York Times reported, and “there came from the river craft, yachts, and ships nearby a volley of cheers that lasted for fully five minutes.” Bugles blared, whistles shrieked, and “everywhere flags waved, hats were tossed into the air, and cries of welcome were heard.” Approaching the deck where his children were jumping in anticipation, Roosevelt executed a “flying leap,” and “with the exuberance and spirit of a school boy, he took up Quentin and Archie in his arms and gave them resounding smacks.” He greeted Theodore Junior with a hearty slap on the back, kissed his sisters, and then proceeded to shake hands with every crew member.
Around 9 a.m., the Androscoggin, carrying Cornelius Vanderbilt, the chairman of the reception, and two hundred distinguished guests, came alongside the Manhattan. As Roosevelt made the transfer to the official welcoming vessel, he asked that everyone form a line so that he could greet each individual personally and then went at the task of shaking hands with such high spirits, delivering for each person such “an explosive word of welcome,” that what might have been a duty for another politician became an act of joy. “I’m so glad to see you,” he greeted each person in turn. The New York Times reporter noted that “the ‘so’ went off like a firecracker. The smile backed it up in a radiation of energy, and the hearty grip of the hand that came down upon its respondent with a bang emphasized again the exact meaning of the words.”
When Roosevelt grasped the hand of Joe Murray, the savvy political boss who had first nominated him for the state legislature years before, it must have seemed as if his public life had come full circle. “This takes me back 29 years,” he said, “to the old Twenty-first Assembly district when I was getting a start in politics.” Earlier he had warmly welcomed Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, his closest friend for more than a quarter of a century, and Archie Butt, who had served as his devoted military aide before taking up the same position with President Taft. Jacob Riis, the Danish immigrant whose book, How the Other Half Lives, had greatly influenced Roosevelt when he was police commissioner of New York City, received a fraternal welcome and “the broadest of smiles.” Roosevelt clasped him with both hands, exclaiming, “O, Jake. I’ve got so much to tell you.” His face grew somber as he glimpsed Beverly Robinson, who conjured memories of McKinley’s assassination. “This boy was with me on top of Mount Mary,” he mused, “when the sudden news came that I had become President.” Nothing, however, could dampen his innate joviality for more than a moment. “Why, hello, Stimson, old sugar trust,” he laughed, his eyes twinkling, as he approached Henry Stimson, the government’s special counsel in the famous trust case. “Oh, friend, this is good. I can’t tell you how I feel,” he confided to Frank Tyree, the Secret Serviceman who had protected him loyally for years. On and on he went, his personal greetings for all interspersed with expressions of outright delight: “Fine! Fine! Oh, it’s simply great!” “George, this is bully!”
When Vanderbilt suggested it was time to go up to the bridge to acknowledge the thousands of people massed solidly on both the New Jersey and the Manhattan sides of the river, Roosevelt hesitated. “But here are the reporters,” he said, turning to the members of the press eagerly taking down his words. “I want to shake hands with them.” Indeed, at every stop during the long day, he made sure to deliver a special welcome to the members of the press. “Boys, I am glad (emphasis on the glad) to see you. It does me good to see you, boys. I am glad to be back.” Clearly, that pleasure was reciprocated. “We’re mighty glad to have you back,” shouted one exuberant reporter.
From the time reporters had accompanied the Colonel to Cuba—helping transform him and his intrepid Rough Riders into a national icon—Roosevelt had established a unique relationship with numerous journalists. He debated points with them as fellow writers; regardless of the disparity in political rank, when they argued as authors, they argued as equals. He had read and freely commented upon their stories, as they felt free to criticize his public statements and speeches. Little wonder, then, that these same journalists celebrated Roosevelt’s return from Africa, flocking to lower Manhattan to welcome him home. For the members of the press, the story of Roosevelt’s homecoming was not merely an assignment—it was personal.
Reporters present at the festivities remarked how “hale and hearty” the fifty-one-year-old Roosevelt looked, tanned and extremely fit. “It is true that the mustache, once brown, has grown grayer, but the strong face is not furrowed with deep wrinkles and the crows feet have not changed the expression which is habitual to the man who is in robust health and has a joy in living.” After the long African expedition he displayed a leaner physique, but overall, he seemed “the same bubbling, explosively exuberant American as when he left.” Archie Butt, however, detected “something different,” though at first he could not put his finger on it. After talking with Lodge, the two men speculated that as a citizen of the world, not simply an American, Roosevelt had developed “an enlarged personality,” with a “mental scope more encompassing.”
At Battery Park, where the Androscoggin was due to dock at around 11 a.m., an immense crowd had gathered since early morning, straining for sight of the ship that would bring Roosevelt onto American soil. A reporter captured this mood of anticipation in his story of a stevedore who, in the midst of unloading cargo off another ship, laid aside his hook in hopes of glimpsing Roosevelt. His foreman shouted at him: “You come back here or I’ll dock you an hour.” The stevedore, undaunted, retorted: “Dock me a week. I’m going to have a look at Teddy.”
“There he is!” rose the cry, soon confirmed as a beaming Roosevelt came ashore to a rendition of “Home, Sweet Home” by the Seventy-first Regimental Band. The uplifted cheers that greeted “the man of the hour” as he disembarked were said to exceed the “echoing boom of saluting cannon and the strident blast of steam whistles.”
Straightaway, Roosevelt headed from the pier to the speaker’s platform. He was in the midst of shaking hands with cabinet members, senators and congressmen, governors and mayors when his daughter Alice cried, “Turn around, father, and look at the crowd.” Outspread before him was “one vast expanse of human countenances, all upturned to him, all waiting for him.” Beyond the 600 seated guests, 3,500 people stood within the roped enclosure, and beyond them “unnumbered thousands” on the plaza. Still more crammed together on the surrounding streets. It was estimated that at least 100,000 people had come to Battery Park, undeterred by the crushing throngs and the oppressive heat and humidity. From a ninth-floor window of the nearby Washington Building, “a life-size Teddy bear” belted with a green sash was suspended. A large white banner bearing Roosevelt’s favorite word, “Delighted,” was displayed on the Whitehall Building, where “from street level to skyline every window was open and every sill held as many stenographers and office boys and bosses as the sills could accommodate.” Clearly, this was not a day for work!
“Is there a stenographer here?” Roosevelt asked, as he prepared to speak. Assured that one was present, he began, his voice filled with emotion: “No man could receive such a greeting without being made to feel very proud and humble. . . . I have been away a year and a quarter from America and I have seen strange and interesting things alike in the heart of the wilderness and in the capitals of the mightiest and most highly polished civilized nations.” Nonetheless, he assured the crowd, “I am more glad than I can say to get home, back in my own country, back among the people I love. And I am ready and eager to do my part so far as I am able in helping to solve problems which must be solved. . . . This is the duty of every citizen but it is peculiarly my duty, for any man who has ever been honored by being made president of the United States is thereby forever after rendered the debtor of the American people.” For those who wondered whether Roosevelt would remain active in public life, his brief but eloquent remarks were telling.
The address at Battery Park only served to set off the real celebration. A five-mile parade up Broadway to 59th and Fifth followed, with an estimated 1 million spectators lining the streets. “The sidewalks on both sides of Broadway were jammed with people, from curb to building fronts,” the Chicago Tribune noted. “There were people in all the windows, people on the housetops, and people banked up in the side streets.” As Roosevelt took his place in the open carriage leading the procession, an additional surprise lay in store for him: 150 members of his Rough Rider unit, whom he had led so brilliantly in the Spanish-American War, appeared on horseback to serve as his escort of honor. Beyond the Rough Riders, there were 2,000 additional veterans from that same war who had come to participate in the celebration. The demonstration was “incomparably the largest affair of its kind on record,” the Washington, D.C., Evening Star claimed, “characteristic of the man himself, the man of superlatives, and of intense moods.”
Placards with friendly inscriptions, familiar cartoons, and exhortations for Roosevelt to once again run for the presidency in 1912 hung in shop windows all along the way. At 310 Broadway, an immense Teddy bear stared down an enormous stuffed African lion. At Scribner’s, a ten-foot-high portrait of the Colonel in full hunting gear graced the front of the building. Peddlers were everywhere. “You could not move a step,” one reporter observed, “without having shoved in your face a remarkable assortment of Teddy souvenirs. There were jungle hats with ribbons bearing the word De-lighted, there were Roosevelt medals, Teddy’s teeth in celluloid, miniature Teddy bears, gorgeous flags on canes, with a picture of the Rough Rider, buttons, pins and many other reminders of the Colonel’s career.” Even along Wall Street, where it was jokingly predicted black crepe would signal Roosevelt’s return (given his storied fights with “the malefactors of great wealth”), flags waved and colored streamers were tossed from upper windows.
“Teddy! Teddy! Bully for you, Teddy,” the crowd yelled, and he responded with “unconcealed delight” to the gleeful chants. “One could see that he enjoyed every moment of the triumphal progress,” the New York Times reported, and “those who cheered cheered the louder when they saw how their cheers delighted him.” Near the end of the route, a reporter shouted: “Are you tired?” His answer was clear and firm despite the long day, the hot sun, and the perspiration dripping down his face. “Not a bit.”
Around 1 p.m., when the parade finally concluded at the 59th Street Plaza, Roosevelt, with tears in his eyes, flashed his dazzling smile and headed toward a private residence for a family lunch. No sooner had the Colonel reached his destination than a frightening storm began. Lightning, thunder, and ferocious winds accompanied a heavy downpour. Uprooted trees littered the ground with fallen limbs. In all, seventeen lives were lost. It seemed the sky had stayed peaceful and blue only for the sun-splashed hours of the celebration for Roosevelt.
“Everyone began talking about Roosevelt luck,” Captain Butt observed. While the pelting rain continued, Roosevelt relaxed in the Fifth Avenue home belonging to the grandfather of his son’s fiancée and enjoyed a festive meal of chicken in cream sauce with rice while catching up on the news of the day. In the late afternoon, he boarded a special train for his hometown of Oyster Bay, Long Island. Once again, the Roosevelt luck came into play. The severe rainstorm miraculously ceased just as his train pulled in. He was met by “the whole town,” complete with a 500-member children’s choir, a display of devotion that nearly “swept the former President from his feet as he stepped to the ground.” Walking beneath “triumphal arches” constructed by his neighbors, Roosevelt reached a nearby ballpark where grandstands had been raised to seat 3,000 people. There, he spoke movingly of what it meant to be home once more, “to live among you again as I have for the last 40 years.” Reporters who had followed Roosevelt since he began shaking hands on the Kaiserin that morning marveled at the energy with which he continued to grasp the hands of his neighbors, finding something personal to say to one and all, without revealing “the slightest trace of fatigue in voice or manner.”
In their lengthy coverage of the historic day, the press corps brought to light scores of colorful anecdotes. The story they failed to get, however, was the story they wanted above all—Roosevelt’s response to the major political issue of the day: the growing disenchantment of progressive Republicans with the leadership of President Taft.
Excerpted from The Bully Pulpit copyright © 2013 by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.