The January 1903 issue of McClure’s Magazine was the high-water mark of the Progressive Era investigative journalism known as muckraking. Muckrakers took on the corruption of turn-of-the-century America, digging into the pernicious influence of money on politics. Americans had long suspected that rich men bought the government. What else could explain the legislation that enabled industrialists to amass fortunes while their uneducated employees — including children — lost their youth, often their eyes or arms, and sometimes their lives on the work floor?

Muckrakers gave definitive shape to those vague suspicions. Deeply researched studies into the many facets of the link between business and government by journalists Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens galvanized regular Americans and inspired them to retake their nation.

In “The Bully Pulpit,” Doris Kearns Goodwin charts the vital role the muckrakers played in creating the popular will to force political change in early 20th-century America. To reveal the journalists’ impact, she compares the presidencies of two great friends, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, bright, able men both, whose different relationships with journalists meant that one launched the Progressive Era and one was destroyed by it.

The muckrakers gave life to their arguments by highlighting individuals; like them, Goodwin illuminates the story of politics and journalism by focusing on Roosevelt and Taft. They were both born into wealth in the late 1850s, only 13 months apart, but their childhoods made them into very different men. Roosevelt’s open-minded family, wide-ranging education and determination to overcome his early physical weakness helped him become an explosive and commanding man who craved information and believed that the world revolved around him. Taft’s parents emphasized order and conventionality, and their hearty son grew up insecure and eager for friends, which, being a kind soul, he found easily.

Their careers reflected their contrasting personalities. Roosevelt thrived on excitement and action, throwing himself into a race for a seat in the New York State Assembly as soon as he graduated from Harvard. His penchant for public battles over reform fueled a meteoric rise. In 1889, a federal appointment took him to Washington, where he befriended Taft.

‘The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster. 910 pp. $40). (Simon & Schuster)

Taft had proceeded deliberately through law school and then obtained a series of ever more prestigious judgeships. He hated the rough and tumble of politics and loved the deliberation of the courtroom, where learned men sifted evidence and decided the law.

While Roosevelt’s second wife, Edith Carow, provided the stable home life that her volatile husband needed, Nellie Herron, who was far more adventuresome than her staid spouse, had to prod Taft into politics. In 1901, he became the governor general of the Philippines. Three years later, Roosevelt made him secretary of war.

As Goodwin traces the journeys of Roosevelt and then Taft to the White House, she explores their relationship to muckraking journalism, personified by the mercurial S. S. McClure. A manic and brilliant publisher, McClure found great writers and pushed them to illuminate corruption not with sweeping condemnations but with painstaking research and careful writing. Led by Tarbell, this talented community of like-minded reformers exposed the rot at the core of industrial prosperity, revealing government offices sold for a price, robber barons who colluded to ruin their smaller competitors, industrialists who cheerfully destroyed their workers and poisoned consumers, and union workers who occasionally killed scabs. This was a new kind of journalism that shocked middle-class readers and inspired them to fight back.

The muckrakers exploded onto the American scene in the 1890s, just as Roosevelt and Taft were becoming political leaders. Roosevelt understood the power modern journalists wielded and carefully cultivated their goodwill as he rose to power. He applauded their articles, asked their advice and gave them unprecedented access to his words and to himself. In the White House, he dedicated a room to the press and gave frequent news conferences, but also permitted journalists to question him even during his midday shave. Deliberately, he used reporters to build a popular movement for progressive reform.

The diffident Taft could not abide reporters’ quick deadlines and truncated use of his comments. He preferred long periods of time to review all sides of a question and to revise his words. His reluctance to communicate with journalists meant that others — including Roosevelt — shaped the popular understanding of his actions and, eventually, of his presidency. Ironically, Taft — who, as Goodwin notes, accomplished more of the Progressives’ political goals than Roosevelt — came to be dismissed as a conservative.

Goodwin’s evocative examination of the Progressive world is smart and engaging, and if she presents a bit too much about family trees and legislative wrangling, her style shows her imitating the amassing of evidence pioneered by the muckrakers. Like them, she presents a highly readable and detailed portrait of an era. “The Bully Pulpit” brings the early 20th century to life and firmly establishes the crucial importance of the press to Progressive politics.

Goodwin describes a society that had many of the same strains evident in modern America, and she suggests a prescription for reform today that recalls the muckrakers before her. She plays down the idea that presidents, however outspoken or competent, can remake the nation. Journalists held the key to political reform in the Progressive Era, and Goodwin suggests they hold it still.

She recalls that in McClure’s introduction to the famous January 1903 issue of his magazine, he explained that his writers had exposed in painstaking detail the corruption of capitalists, politicians, lawyers, workers and ministers. “There is no one left” to fix the nation, he concluded, “none but all of us.” McClure’s writers briefly inspired Americans to back reform, and Goodwin concludes by quoting a muckraker’s wistful hope that another generation of journalists would take up the cause, exposing the corruption that stunted America. With “The Bully Pulpit,” she has echoed his call to arms.

Ida Tarbell would be pleased.

Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College and the president of the Historical Society.


Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

By Doris Kearns Goodwin

Simon & Schuster. 910 pp. $40