History Book Club
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
The "Yellow Kid" cartoon of the 1890s may have given the name to "the Yellow Press"
The History of Journalism and the Media
Wednesday, April 27, 2016: History of Journalism and the Media. Benjamin Franklin, Horace Greeley, Yellow Press, “Acta Diurna” in Ancient Rome; “Notizie Scritta in Venice; The Manchester Guardian; Jonathan Swift; more.
THE BULLY PULPIT
Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism
By Doris Kearns Goodwin, Illustrated. 909 pp. Simon & Schuster. 2013 (Kindle Edition)
Doris Kearns Goodwin is the quintessential presidential historian. As the author of Team of Rivals, she appeared on Stephen Colbert’s Late Night show a few months ago. She was brought in on a platform carried by four half-nude Chippendale-type males with beards and top hats à la Lincoln.
When Colbert asked about Donald Trump’s campaign she said that there has never been a demagogue like him elected president. But, of course there is always a first time.
Theodore Roosevelt family at the White House, ca. 1905
Bully Pulpit is three stories, set in the 1890s, when America was changing from a growing industrial country to a nation with international aspirations, on its way toward become a super power. Goodwin tells the story of a young, sickly “Teedy” Roosevelt, born to a privileged family. That boy overcame the sickliness and became a model of masculine energy and achievement, the Eveready Bunny who studied, learned, wrote scores of books, dreamed and carried out ideas, became a leader and champion of the underdog. On his way to becoming President, he fought corruption as a New York City Police Commissioner, served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy at a time when he could help our Navy to become the force that eventually defeated Japan and Germany in World War II.
William Howard Taft family, Manila, ca. 1902
The second story is of William Howard Taft, also born to a privileged family, who became what historian Henry Adams felt was eminently qualified to become President. Where Will Taft began life as a husky, handsome achiever in sharp contrast to Theodore, as time went on he became obese, while Teddy was shooting bison in the west and hunting big game in Africa.
The story is also of Alice, Roosevelt’s first wife, who died after their first child was born, then Edith, the quiet, intelligent woman who served as a brake for her impetuous husband, and of Helen (Nellie), Taft’s wife, who had the political aggressiveness that Taft lacked, as well as intelligence and style to help propel him through his career.
The third story is about the “Muckrakers”--- a group of journalists who gathered together by Sam McClure to create a unique magazine, which served up long, detailed articles each month which opened the eyes of intelligent middle class Americans to the predatory activities of rapacious captains of industry, criminally cruel slumlords, and corrupt politicians, public servants and union bosses.
This collection of journalists included Ida Tarbell, whose father had been squeezed out of the oil business by Standard Oil Company; Lincoln Steffens, who had observed the crooked politicians who ran Minneapolis; and Ray Stannard Baker, who had observed the labor unions who cheated their members and colluded with their employers. There were also William Allen White editor of the Emporia (KS) Gazette, Albert Boyden and John Siddal.
Teddy Roosevelt began his education of the realities of life in New York City as a New York Police Commissioner. He soon saw that much of police work was corrupt, from top to bottom, and he began nightly walks around neighborhoods to see where police were actually walking their beats, or were napping or otherwise engaged in crooked practices. Along the way he befriended Jacob Riis, who had already devoted much energy toward chronicling the plight of new immigrants jammed into stinking tenements.
As a politician who actually wanted to make a difference, Teddy became one of the Progressive Republicans, fighting crooked Tammany Hall, which was the New York Democratic party.
He soon began friendships with the journalists of McClure’s Magazine and Riis, which helped him to learn the dark side of his world, and gave him the opportunity to capture the attention of millions of voters to right these wrongs. Roosevelt and the Muckrakers formed a tight, mutually-beneficial team for good in the city. This marked the era when Republicans like Teddy and Taft opposed the laissez faire, get along establishment part of the GOP.
How different were Teddy and Will Taft, fighting status quo Republicans for Progressive causes like improving the lot of the poor, stopping big corporate monopolies and busting trusts. Today the “Progressive” label belongs to the Democrats, and the Republicans have the reputation of opposing abortion, gay marriage, denying climate change, stopping government in its tracks, unwavering loyalty to the National Rifle Association, and, with its fundamentalist religious wing, extreme views on evolution, the Christian bible, and creation.
The goal of McClure’s Magazine was to educate literate middle class Americans, and it worked for several years. They priced the magazine within reach of the middle class (35¢) and readers gobbled up issues loaded with lengthy stories which revealed sleazy, greedy, avaricious practices of big industry, big labor, government, and landlords. The McClure’s team dug out stories that exposed wrongdoing, and their readers often gave leaders like Roosevelt and Taft the backing to achieve legislative and regulatory change. Goodwin wrote that the muckrakers were “putting faces and names to the giant corporations, shining a bright light on the sordid maneuvers that were crushing independent businessmen in one sector after another.”
McClure's Magazine in 1902 featured Tarbell's History of Standard Oil
For years the railroads had worked a scheme of charging different rates for different customers. Ida Tarbell’s father had been a small oil producer in the country’s first oilfields at Titusville, PA. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil had a special low rate for his oil shipments, but Tarbell had a much higher rate. This forced small producers out of business.
All over the country there were deals like this. One of Roosevelt’s first targets after taking office was to regulate the railroads, and to empower the Interstate Commerce Commission to set rates and root out discriminatory practices. Ray Stannard Baker produced a multi-part article, 50,000 words total, which each month revealed more of the railroads’ trickery.
Roosevelt and Baker collaborated on this measure, because in Congress, with senators well taken care of by the railroad lobby, it was going to be nearly impossible. After several months, and against fierce opposition, but with an angry public well informed on the issue, the legislation passed. This was a great example of how Roosevelt and the media could gain the support of the public to right an old wrong.
Bully Pulpit is also a story of a strange friendship, between two quite dissimilar men. Teddy admired Taft, and brought him into his cabinet as Secretary of War, where he performed well. After nearly eight years, Teddy urged his old friend to run for President. Taft really did not want the job, but his wife, Nellie did, and she urged him to run.
The book ends with the election of 1912. Taft has completed his term and is running for a second term against Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Teddy, after a year’s hunting trip in Africa and other adventures, has unfriended Taft, and ends up running for President as a third party candidate. The party is his own creation, The Progressive Party, or The Bull Moose party. Teddy lost, dragging Taft down with him, and Wilson went on to face The Great War.
Future History Book Club Topics
Here are the topics for the rest of 2016. Feel free to comment on these topics, and to suggest additional or substitute topics.
Wednesday, May 25, 2016: Modern Life in the Middle East and the Islamic State. Iraq from its formation after WWI, Syria, the Caliphate, Origins of conflict, Sunni vs. Shii vs. Kurds vs. Alewhites Vs. Wahabi vs. ? Modern technology with Seventh-century ideas, Impact of USSR and U.S. in Afghanistan, U.S. combat in Iraq; Arab Spring; Turkey and Islam, Jordan, The Gulf States, Egypt, much more.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016: Africa since 1900. Colonization by Belgium, France, Britain, Germany and Portugal; End of Colonialism; Democracy and Dictatorship; Rwanda; Jomo Kenyatta; Apartheid and South Africa; Congo; Angola; more….
Wednesday, July 27, 2016: American Foreign Policy from the Barbara Pirates to today. Civil War alliances by both Union and Confederacy; Gunboat Diplomacy; Spanish-American War; “He Kept Us out of War!”; Britain and the U.S. in WWII; The Cold War; more.
Wednesday, August, 31, 2016: Germs and Plagues: A history of epidemics in the world. Plague of Athens (429 BC), Plague of Justinian (541 AD), “Black Death” in 1346, Cocoliztli Epidemic in Mexico (1528), Wampanoag Smallpox in 1616, 1918 Flu Pandemic, more.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016: Scaremongering and Witch Hunts in America. Salem Witch Trials, House Un-American Activities Committee; McCarthy Investigations; more.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016: Political Parties in America. Whigs, Know-Nothings, Federalists, Copperheads; Communists, Socialists, Republicans, Democrats, more.
Wednesday, November 30, 2016: Colonization in America. Jamestown, Plymouth, Gloucester, St. Augustine, Junipero Serra, Roger Williams, Quebec, Nieuw Amsterdam, more.
December: No Meeting