We know much about the life of Theodore Roosevelt, but much less about his friend and successor in the presidency, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt’s opposite in temperament, the genial Ohioan’s ambition was in the judicial system rather than the rough-and-tumble world of U.S. politics where Roosevelt thrived.
It was inevitable that the two would fall out, primarily because few could match Roosevelt’s insatiable appetite for competition and confrontation. Their rift led to the remarkable presidential election of 1912, which split the Republican Party and gave the White House to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
The context of the Roosevelt-Taft relationship was the emergence of the progressive movement in the early 1900s, driven by a “new journalism” of investigative reporting pioneered by Sam McClure and his team of reporters: Ida M. Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker and William Allen White.
Flush from her successful history “Team of Rivals,” about the Lincoln cabinet, Doris Kearns Goodwin thoroughly explores how the crusading work of this 20th-century team of reporters shoved politicians like Roosevelt and Taft out of their safe conservative positions and toward serious reforms in government and business.
While much of this historical period has been examined in close detail, Goodwin provides a fuller picture of Taft’s career that was driven strongly by his ambitious wife and of the life and times of the “muckrakers,” the pejorative term Roosevelt gave to the exposé mentality of the times.