Many of us have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's "The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism" this year. And boy, is it relevant right now, as Americans assess the fallout from the midterm elections and prepare for the 2016 presidential race.
"Bully Pulpit" – a phrase coined by Roosevelt and a technique he used masterfully – is the story of two fascinating presidents, the stark differences between them, and the influence of the news media during their presidencies.
It's also a fascinating analysis of presidential leadership. Roosevelt was a great leader. Taft was an inherently good man, loved by many people. But he was not the leader Roosevelt was.
In 2008, when he was running for president, Barack Obama appeared to have excellent leadership potential. Now that's very much in doubt. It's not just that Republicans in Congress seem determined to block anything he proposes. If numerous media reports are true, he's done an abysmal job working with legislators in his own party. Should we have seen that coming?
What makes a great leader? How much of Roosevelt's leadership success was due to his personality? How much to experience?
Whatever the source, Roosevelt was a powerful, effective president, leaving a legacy of national parks and forests, protections for consumers and workers, and regulations that reduced the power and manipulations of greedy corporations.
The public adored him. One reason: he was a terrific communicator. He considered the White House a "bully pulpit" – "bully" meaning "good," not "intimidating" – and he used it to help bring about the changes he wanted.
Goodwin's discussion of that usage – and of the role journalists played in helping further his causes – is thought provoking, particularly in the context of today's politics and challenges.
Take this quote from the book, for instance: "As S.S. McClure [the publisher of the popular muckracking magazine McClure's] well understood, the 'vitality of democracy' depends on 'popular knowledge of complex questions.'"
And this one: Roosevelt, Goodwin writes, understood that good legislation "could be passed only if the conscience of the public was awakened, exerting pressure on the passive majority."
"In order 'to secure proper administration of the laws,'" Goodwin writes, quoting Roosevelt biographer Henry Pringle, "the task before Roosevelt was nothing less than 'to change the average citizen's mental attitude toward the question.'"
"In order to battle this entrenched spoils system," Goodwin writes, "it was necessary to instill something of his own sense of outrage into the people, to popularize the reformist cause and foment change from the bottom up."
But Goodwin also quotes Ray Stannard Baker, one of McClure's muckracking journalists: "Baker contended that Roosevelt succeeded through 'the simple device of self-control and self-discipline, of using every power he possesses to its utmost limit – a dazzling, even appalling spectacle of a human engine driven at full speed.'"
"Roosevelt never leads; he always follows," Baker wrote. "He acts but he acts only when he thinks the crowd is behind him.... Upon all the great issues which he has championed, the country was prepared before he entered the arena."
So which is it? Was Roosevelt simply masterful at firing up people about issues they already cared about? A demagogue can do that. And demagogues can play to people's fears and capitalize on those fears to accomplish their own goals.
Or was Roosevelt able to educate people and change minds? Did he get them to understand complex issues, see things in a way they hadn't previously?
We badly need presidents – and Congressional leaders – who can do the latter. The number of complex issues facing this country seems to grow daily.
We badly need leaders, period. And maybe, as we approach the election of 2016, we should wrestle with questions that – for me, anyway – grow out of Goodwin's book: What makes a true leader? And how, in our democracy, can we get more of them?