Guest Commentary: The ‘Bully Pulpit’ – Then and Now

By David Reel

In today’s contentious political arena, few topics generate more intense discussion than the “proper” roles of the media and the “proper’ roles of the president of the United States.

Some believe the media is not reporting the news, but is aggressively trying to change the outcomes of not only elections, but the public policy debates following elections. Others believe the media has an obligation to provide their opinions on the shortcomings (perceived or real) of some candidates/elected officials/public policy proposals and ignoring or overlooking the shortcomings (perceived or real) of others.

Some also believe President Trump has significantly lowered the dignity of the office by responding with his unique brand of tweets on those media reports that he disagrees with. Others believe the president must respond to media outlets working relentlessly to undermine his presidency.

Some days it seems that the only thing both sides can agree on is they will disagree and will do so by being disagreeable. That said, there may be some agreement that a president bypassing the traditional media to advance an agenda is unprecedented. Those who study and learn from history know it is not.

In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism,” Goodwin chronicles how Teddy Roosevelt engaged in efforts to bypass traditional media to advance his agenda — and he did it more than a century ago.

To say that Teddy Roosevelt was a master at using the non-traditional media of his day is an understatement. He used his “bully pulpit” early and often as New York City police commissioner, as a member of the New York state legislature, and as governor of New York. Goodwin notes that Roosevelt realized, that “only by ‘appealing directly to the people,’ by ‘going over the heads’ of party leaders, did he have any chance of pushing significant reform through the legislature.”

Throughout his long career in public service, Roosevelt worked tirelessly to develop and nurture relationships with non-traditional media, most notably S.S. McClure the publisher of McClure’s’ Magazine. McClure assembled a stable of writers (often referred to as muckrakers), who openly engaged in efforts to rally public support for Roosevelt’s views on expanding the role and power of the national government.

Some even suggest Teddy Roosevelt’s successes as president were more consequential then the sweeping New Deal initiatives of Franklin Roosevelt, who was a distant cousin of Teddy and who waged a long and intense power struggle with Teddy’s branch of the Roosevelt family tree. This rivalry is the subject of another fascinating book — “The War of the Roosevelts,” by William Mann.

Teddy Roosevelt’s successful use of the bully pulpit never endeared him to the Republican establishment of his day. One opponent called him “that damn cowboy.” Some believe Roosevelt’s vice presidential nomination was to ensure he would have no meaningful impact on public policy at any level of government. That plan was derailed when President McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt assumed the Presidency.

What then is the primary take away for today from Goodwin’s book?

From Teddy‘s time until today, the president of the United States has immense power when using the national bully pulpit. Many others will strive to be heard and many will be heard, but all to a lesser degree than the one person who occupies the Oval Office.

That was true when Teddy Roosevelt first used printed publications to bypass the traditional media of his day to advance his “Square Deal” progressive agenda and it is still true today when Donald Trump uses social media outlets to bypass the traditional media of our day to advance his “Make America Great Again” agenda.

Agree or disagree with President Trump’s agenda, he has the bully pulpit, and like Teddy Roosevelt, he is striving to use it to his full advantage. Only time will tell if the way President Trump uses it will ultimately result in the same level of success in changing public policy that occurred when Teddy Roosevelt did it at the turn of the last century.

David Reel heads the Maryland office of Quantum Communications.  He can be reached at dreel@quantumcomms.com.

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