BLOG -- WATCHING OUR CENTURY REPEAT ITS PAST
I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. It is a biography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft supplemented with the lives of what were later called “the muckrakers,” and what we would today call investigative journalists. They included Samuel McClure, Ray Davis, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and William Allen White. Goodwin writes a compelling narrative and brings to life the Gilded Age which led to the progressive movement as a response to the excesses of the wealthy few and the neglected many.
How bad were those times? Consider child labor. It was not thought harmful to send children to fill the coal carts in mine shafts. No one thought it their concern if the elderly were unable to work because of the infirmities of their bodies or minds. No one of their employers thought there should be a retirement income for them. It was their family’s responsibility. No one of their employers thought there should be a minimum wage. No one of their employers thought they should be regulated for safe conditions of working (if there was an accident it was the worker’s fault). If big companies made secret deals with railroads for cheaper rates to force small business competitors out of business, that was just good laissez faire capitalism at work. If insider trading made the rich richer and the smaller investor broke, that was just good laissez faire capitalism at its best. Regulate it? Horrors, that was socialism and big government restraining trade. If legislation was needed to provide rights of way for the railroads, campaign contributions or outright bribes determined where those rails would be placed and who would benefit. Bags of money bought jobs – chiefs of police, judges, Senators.
I loved reading the way the muckrakers did their research for McClure’s Magazine. When I finished the book I looked up that magazine on the web. Most of the issues are on-line and free to read. I entered the 1890s and early 20th century. From Goodwin’s book I reversed my judgments and had more respect for Taft as a President and person than I did for Teddy Roosevelt. Of today’s recent Presidents, Bush the younger is most like Roosevelt in his aggressive actions dragging the US into elective wars. Obama is most like Taft in trying to negotiate, obtaining as many views as possible, and trying to persuade others without using the spotlight of publicity to harass those differing from him.
It is depressing to see history repeat itself and I do not doubt that a look back at the Civil War, the Mexican-American War, and the Revolutionary War, would show the same diversity of personalities attracted to government service. Some seek the fame of being a fighter and conqueror. Some seek to be the peace-makers (but rarely find lasting fame). Some are corrupt and seek power, money, or prestige. We try to make government independent of those who govern, and seek laws rather than opinions of those with power and money. All too often, without regulation or the watchful eyes of muckrakers, our institutions are betrayed by the greedy, the self-deceived, and those who enjoy manipulating others.