On the surface it is the story of two great friends, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and the terrible ending of that great friendship.
But Goodwin uses those two men to tell the larger story of the turn-of-the-century Progressive Movement and the role they both played in advancing progressive causes, along with a remarkable cadre of investigative journalists.
It is timely that this historical masterpiece should come out this month during the celebration (and condemnation) of the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, which was declared by the president Goodwin served, Lyndon B. Johnson.
Both of these movements were born in great turmoil, new ideas and relationships pushing against a powerful and determined status quo, which refused to yield their status without a fight.
Goodwin’s book also describes the perpetual struggle between the interests of those who own the engine of the marketplace, those who work for the owners and the state as a mediator in that recurring battle.
In both cases, out of the testing of wills in battle emerged a better nation.
Isn’t it ironic that Roosevelt, alone among modern presidents, was deemed worthy to have his face carved on Mount Rushmore alongside Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln but who couldn’t win a primary for any office in today’s Republican Party?
Neither could Taft, the only man ever to be both president and chief justice of the United States, be nominated for a federal judgeship by the modern GOP. Too liberal, too soft on unions.
Roosevelt’s trust-busting, consumer-friendly “Square Deal” burst on the scene with all the energy of a rapidly industrializing America. A star group of reporters had been assembled by the brilliant S.S. McClure for the magazine that bore his name. Roosevelt saw from their exposés the underside of accumulations of wealth.
Roosevelt read and became friends with a New York police reporter, Jacob Riis, who wrote How The Other Half Lives, and with Lincoln Steffens, whose series in McClure’s became a book, The Crime of the City.
Almost in tandem when Roosevelt was police commissioner, the three uncovered police corruption, handouts to look the other way, which went to the top, and 2 a.m. raids along with Roosevelt that startled cops sleeping on the job.
Other influential journalist friends were Ida Tarbell, who exposed the vicious crushing of competitors by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Another friend was Upton Sinclair, who vividly described how meat packers let rat feces spice up your morning sausage.
The bottom line of TR’s Square Deal was the shutting down of 44 monopolies, new meat inspections and pure food and drug acts, and millions of acres which were placed under protection of the government for the pleasure of picnickers and tourists.
Fifty years after Roosevelt left office in 1908, the progressive movement morphed not into bloody strikes but tumultuous though nonviolent appeals to the conscience of the nation to free black citizens who were captives of legal racism.
The response of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations was The Great Society, which encompassed the War on Poverty and much more. Again, new ideas and relationships pushed against an adamant status quo, which insisted, as opponents of Obamacare do now, that the free will of Americans would disappear in the smothering embrace of an all-powerful federal government.
A question for defenders of the status quo then is: 50 years on, would we be better off without the Voting Rights Act, the opening of university doors to blacks and the creation for the first time in history of a black middle-class body of consumers in the South?
Would health be better if we didn’t have Medicare and Medicaid? Would life be sweeter and more uplifting without NPR on our radios and Downton Abbey on our TV sets?
Would the Great Recession be less harsh for millions of middle-income people thrown out of work without food stamps?
It seems undeniable that a better America emerged from both The Square Deal and The Great Society.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.