Category Archives: Journalism

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Bully Pulpit

Well, how can you go wrong with a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin? She is definitely one of the top writers and populizers of American History now working. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism is no further proof of that. Beautifully written as all of her books are, this provides a unique take on the lives of Roosevelt, Taft, and the role of the muckraking media on their careers.

Not a full blown biography of either man, but one that tracks their rise to power initially in a parallel fashion which merges during the Presidency of Roosevelt, and then flies apart during the Presidency of Taft. The two men; Roosevelt, the scion of a rich New York family, born a sickly child who by the sheer will of his personality transformed himself into the “rough rider” we are all familiar with, and Taft, whose father was a successful businessman and public servant, who seemed less driven than Roosevelt, but who possessed a highly developed sense of what was right and wrong, and whose intelligence propelled his successful career, formed an unlikely though deep friendship that turned into deep enmity during the Presidential campaign of 1912.

Both men were part of the progressive wing of the Republican party, willing to impose regulations on businesses that used their influence in a way detrimental to the public good (trust busting). They also took up the cause of the working man, proposing limits on the length of the work week, a raise in the minimum wage, and safety and health standards. Their eventual falling out came about as a result of the largely mistaken view on Roosevelt’s part that President Taft was not carrying on this progressive legacy. During their careers both were the beneficiaries and targets of a new style of journalism – one that used investigative reporting to advocate for reforms in business and government to root out endemic corruption. This came to be known as muckraking.

Goodwin traces the rise of muckraking journalism – not a negative term at the time – as it rose during the careers of Roosevelt and Taft. Some of America’s greatest journalists came out of this progressive tradition including most notably, Ida Tarbell. Focused largely on the journalists working at McClure’s Magazine, one of the first and most successful of the muckraking publications, Goodwin details the many ways in which both Roosevelt and Taft relied on the work these journalists were doing to provide the factual basis for the progressive policies they were pushing.This alliance produced some of the most progressive and far reaching reforms of the twentieth century. And it also propelled Roosevelt into the top rank of U.S. Presidents. However, it also set an impossibly high standard for Taft to reach while he was President who, despite the fact he had some notable successes during his administration, by comparison,  looked like a failure in the eyes of Roosevelt and the Muckrakers. Both turned on Taft with a vengeance in 1912.

I really enjoyed this book quite a bit. While many books have been written about Roosevelt and a fair number on Taft, there are few that have looked at them in tandem and that also looked at the important role played by the media on their careers. It’s an important aspect of the Progressive era that is usually overlooked.

Three things really struck me as I read this book. First, it really hits home how far the modern Republican Party has strayed from its roots. There have been, arguably, three Republican Presidents that are nearly universally acknowledged to be great – Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower – none of whom would be welcome in today’s hyper-conservative party. Second, while Roosevelt deserves the acclaim he has received, he could also be petulant, hyper-sensitive to any perceived slight, and disloyal to formerly close friends, as evidenced by the way he turned on Taft. And last, I have a renewed respect for Taft who is caricatured in history as the bumbling fat man that squandered Roosevelt’s accomplishments. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was highly accomplished prior to his time in the White House, was a more successful President than is usually acknowledged, and had a very distinguished career as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court afterwards.

Highly Recommended!

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An unfortunately titled book that is nevertheless a very well argued if strident argument against the notion that Mother Teresa was the selfless advocate for the poor that her reputation would suggest.

Hitchens argues that her work with the poor was less an attempt to alleviate their suffering than a desire to use them to promote a retrograde worldview; “to propagandize one highly subjective view of human nature and need, so that she may one day be counted as a beatific founder of a new order and discipline within the Church itself.” He backs this up with several lines of evidence.

He interviewed a number of former volunteers with Teresa’s “Missionaries of Charity,” documenting the substandard condition at a number of their facilities despite the enormous amounts of money they had been given. The hospice facilities for example, provided almost no palliative care, reused unsterilized equipment, and  provided nothing in the way of physical comfort for the patients under their care. In one documented case a 15 year old boy became terminal after the nuns running the hospice facility neglected to get the boy proper medical care. Time after time, “Missionaries of Charity” declined to provide the resources necessary to actually lift the poor under their care out of the poverty they were suffering under. As Hitchens points out, whenever the needs of the poor conflicted with her religious worldview, it was the religious view that won out. Militantly anti-abortion and anti-contraception, she viewed the over population she saw around her as evidence of God’s grace.

Her reputation as an political neophyte allowed her to escape criticism for letting her name and reputation be used by various crooks, thugs and dictators including the brutal dictator of Haiti Jean-Claude Duvalier, and crook Charles Keating, looking to exculpate their crimes in the eyes of the public. In fact the evidence shows she was not a political neophyte and knew quite well how and when she could use the support of such people without drawing criticism to herself. A notorious example of this is the letter she wrote to Judge Lance Ito asking that Charles Keating be shown leniency in his sentencing for bilking hundreds of millions of dollars from the unsuspecting investors he hoodwinked. When a prosecutor in the case wrote a reply explaining exactly what Keating had done and that perhaps the Christian thing to do would be to return the money she had been given by Keating so it could be returned to its owners, he was met with silence.

I’m not an uncritical fan of Hitchens. He sometimes went out of his way to be insulting (as the title of this books shows). His views on American politics and culture were juvenile and often ill-informed. and of course his support for the Iraq war was a spectacular blunder. Having said all that however, we need folks like Hitchens to stir up the pot and force us to take a critical look at the people and institutions we rely on to make sure we are not deluding ourselves about their effectiveness. This goes for religious institutions as well. Were the facilities under Mother Teresa’s direction subject to the same scrutiny as those run by secular non-profits or the government they would have been shut down, or their funds would have dried up as donors got word of their ineffectiveness.

Both Hitchens and Mother Teresa have passed away of course, so neither can elaborate or defend their positions. I have tried to look for a reasoned look at her work from a sympathetic viewpoint, but all seem to be of the hagiographic variety. I will keep looking

Missionary Position continues to have relevance due to the cautionary tale it highlights.



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A wonderfully written book on a topic that is probably not well known to most people. With the life of George Bird Grinnell as the vehicle, this book explores the death of the old west, the rise of the conservation movement, and the campaign to save the last herds of wild Buffalo.

At its peak the population of wild Buffalo in America ranged as high as 30 million individuals. In the course of 40 years that population had dwindled to little over 1,000. For Native Americans the Buffalo was the primary source of sustenance. For the United States Army, killing the Buffalo was a way to resolve the “Indian problem.” Add to  that unchecked hunting of Buffalo for hides, robes and as decorative accouterments for Gilded Age homes, and there was no way it could survive the onslaught. It was only through the efforts of a handful of men that the last remaining individuals were saved.

George Bird Grinnell is probably someone who should be more well known. A central figure of the early conservation movement, he played a pivotal role as owner and editor of Forest and Stream magazine, lobbying for and finally achieving protections for Yellowstone National park and the remaining wild Buffalo that lived within its borders. That herd, which had dwindled to only 23 by the early 20th century, now numbers about 4000 thanks to Grinnell and those he was able to enlist in his cause, including Theodore Roosevelt.

A scion of an elite family, his father became wealthy providing financial services to some of the great barons of the Gilded Age. Escaping that life through the influence of one of his college professors, Grinnell made several trips west on various expeditions were he interacted with many of the west’s most famous figures, including George Armstrong Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody. It was through these experiences, along with the tutelage of Lucy Audubon, (John J. Audubon’s widow), that Grinnell developed a love of the west, and an ethic of self sacrifice.

The author made an excellent choice focusing on Grinnell because he represents in one man the transition from the conspicuous consumption and lust for wealth that characterized the Gilded Age, to an ethic that demanded America’s natural and cultural heritage be preserved even if it meant the sacrifice of profit – something we should be paying attention to today.

Though perhaps not intended by the author, this work should be regarded as a cautionary tale, as in many ways we are witnessing a return to the Gilded Age ethic that nearly destroyed our natural heritage and completed the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. As we witness rollbacks in protection for the environment, denial of the effects of man made climate change, and a return to the mindset that the earth and its resources are here only to enrich us monetarily, we are forgetting the lessens  learned by such short sighted behavior only 100 years ago.

I’m not all that familiar with the history surrounding the birth of the conservation movement or of the rise of the new west, so I cannot comment with any authority on the accuracy of everything in this book. I have seen comments that point to some inaccuracies. However, I have not seen any criticism of its value as a popular work of history, or that these few inaccuracies detract from the power of its message.

Highly recommended!

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Very enjoyable. A mix of irreverent humor, spot on satire, and some really devastating observations. And, it makes a serious case that the South is culturally, economically, and politically different from the rest of the country, how it is holding back progress, and why secession might actually make sense.

If you are a died in the wool southerner you will not like this book…some of it is pretty devastating IMO.

Not perfect by any means, but…it makes you think!

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Currently Reading: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

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On Deck: Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood

In the Bullpen: Summer for the Gods: The Scopes trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson

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