Mike Norman

Mike Norman: Theodore Roosevelt’s frustration with Congress seems familiar

I love a good book on U.S. history, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest is one of the best I’ve seen.

As in her last book, Team of Rivals, a biography of Abraham Lincoln woven around his relationships with members of his cabinet, Goodwin doesn’t just write. She invites readers into what The New York Times called her “time machine,” and it’s a fascinating trip.

Her ability to turn years of research into such readable narrative, creating intimate relationships with her real-life characters, is a special gift.

I’m still reading The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, so don’t tell me how it ends (and, obviously, I can’t tell you).

What struck me the other night was a passage about events 111 years back that in many ways could describe today.

The year was 1903. Roosevelt, 45, was a veteran politician but still a newly minted president, having been pushed up from the boring life of a vice president two years earlier when anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley.

“T.R.,” the hard-charging hero of San Juan Hill, was a reformist Republican — a “Progressive” as they were called at the time, although certainly not a Democrat as that term tends to mean today.

As New York City police commissioner, he cleaned out corruption on the force and cleaned up tenement sweatshops.

As New York governor, he worked to maintain relationships with Tammany political bosses, but his reformist history doomed him. The bosses deposed him after a single term, thinking they had him corralled as vice president.

Suddenly thrust into power when McKinley died, by late 1903 Roosevelt had focused his attention on breaking up huge corporate trusts that so controlled basic industries like railroads, meat-packing, steel and sugar as to force independent operators out of business and drive up prices at will.

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But change was in the air, spurred by public sentiment aroused by journalism the nation had never seen before and has seldom seen since — the now-famous “muckrackers.”

Ida M. Tarbell had just published her voluminous, multipart series of stories on one of the most vicious of the trusts, Standard Oil, and its leader, John D. Rockefeller, in McClure’s Magazine.

It was the sort of opinion-galvanizing trigger Roosevelt had wanted and had encouraged through close relationships with journalists. He was ready to pounce on the trusts, but Congress was — well, not much different from Congress today.

“Republican leaders in the Senate spread the word that there would be ‘no time for anti-trust legislation at this session,’ ” because of the subject’s complexities, Goodwin writes. “On the other side of the aisle, Democrats called for radical proposals that stood little chance of passing constitutional muster.”

I couldn’t help but draw parallels to many recent policy debates in Washington, notably the extensive wrangling, proposals, counterproposals and game-playing that seemed to freeze Congress in place on immigration policy.

And Roosevelt’s reaction was much the same as mine. Goodwin writes:

“ ‘I pass my days in a state of exasperation,’ Roosevelt told his son Kermit, ‘first, with the fools who do not want any of the things that ought to be done, and, second, with the equally obnoxious fools who insist upon so much that they cannot get anything.’ ”

I know some about history. I know Roosevelt was able to achieve some of his goals, not others. Today it seems like Congress fails more than it succeeds, but T.R. must have felt the same way.

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