Wednesday, 8 December 2010

“Soft News Goes to War”, by Matthew Baum (Princeton)

Baum-SoftNewsGoesToWar Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy in the New Media Age

The American public has consistently declared itself less concerned with foreign affairs in the post-Cold War era, even after 9/11, than at any time since World War II. How can it be, then, that public attentiveness to U.S. foreign policy crises has increased? This book represents the first systematic attempt to explain this apparent paradox. Matthew Baum argues that the answer lies in changes to television's presentation of political information. In so doing he develops a compelling “byproduct” theory of information consumption. The information revolution has fundamentally changed the way the mass media, especially television, covers foreign policy. Traditional news has been repackaged into numerous entertainment-oriented news programs and talk shows. By transforming political issues involving scandal or violence (especially attacks against America) into entertainment, the “soft news” media have actually captured more viewers who will now follow news about foreign crises, due to its entertainment value, even if they remain uninterested in foreign policy.

Baum rigorously tests his theory through content analyses of traditional and soft news media coverage of various post-WWII U.S. foreign crises and statistical analyses of public opinion surveys. The results hold key implications for the future of American politics and foreign policy. For instance, watching soft news reinforces isolationism among many inattentive Americans. Scholars, political analysts, and even politicians have tended to ignore the soft news media and politically disengaged citizens. But, as this well-written book cogently demonstrates, soft news viewers represent a largely untapped reservoir of unusually persuadable voters.

Matthew Baum’s Soft News Goes to War is about the considerable changes that have taken place over several decades in how the mass media covers and reports on major political stories. In particular, Baum is interested, as the title suggests, in the impact that “soft news media” have on the public’s attentiveness to, and appreciation and understanding of foreign policy and in particular, crises. For Baum, soft news media are those sources that are not primarily news programs, but because of their nature – variety, comedy, entertainment, and so forth – content can often venture into politics and foreign policy. Examples of such programs would be The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Daily Show and the late night shows.

“Prior to the 1980s, the public learned about politics, particularly foreign policy, primarily from newspapers or the nightly newscasts of the big three broadcast networks.”

Today, the public increasingly draw information from other sources:

“today... political information is available across a far broader array of media outlets and formats, many of which bear only a superficial resemblance to traditional news venues.”

“given the mass media’s – particularly television’s – status as the primary, if not sole, source of political information for the vast majority of the American people, changes in mass media coverage of foreign policy are almost certain to affect how at least some segments of the public understand and evaluate the political world.”

Soft news programs, Baum argues, have democratised the dissemination of political information and knowledge. As some people only notice foreign policy issues when they appear on soft news programs, this is both good (because they notice the issue in the first place) and bad (because there’s no way of controlling the quality of the information they receive). When foreign policy issues cross over into soft news programs, Baum dubs them “water-cooler events”, which will likely be discussed afterwards at length by people who might not always do so. The rise of this

“new class of entertainment-oriented, quasi-news and information programs... has had the unintended effect of increasing the likelihood that... a given foreign policy crisis will become a water-cooler event.”

On why crises are more commonly covered by soft news programs, Baum explains that,

“like celebrity murder trials and sex scandals, foreign crises are easily framed as compelling human dramas.”

Therefore, given the US media’s corporate nature, there have been increased

“market-driven efforts by television broadcasters (and, to a lesser extent, other media outlets) to make certain types of news appealing to viewers who are uninterested in politics.”

Baum argues that, by making political and foreign policy news stories more entertaining, and by including such content in soft news settings, these programs are actually increasing a larger portion of the general public’s understanding of foreign policy. It’s an interesting difference from the plethora of material published bemoaning the rise of soft and opinion journalism.

“By transforming mundane political coverage into entertainment, the soft news media have successfully employed piggybacking and cheap framing strategies in order to capture a substantial segment, or niche, of the television audience. This has the perhaps unintended effect of increasing the likelihood that politically uninterested individuals will be exposed to information about these political issues that cross over from hard to soft news outlets.”

While it is difficult to deny that the depth of discussion is usually lacking and not as useful as that on “hard” news programs, that the soft media is able to make more Americans aware of the issues (whether skewed by bias, submerged in humour, or otherwise delivered) is a useful acceptance of the strengths of the soft news media.

“By altering the cost-benefit calculus for typical individuals, the rise of the soft news media has, without necessarily increasing the public’s overall appetite for political news, nonetheless increased the likelihood that typical individuals will attend to select high-profile issues, primarily those possessing characteristics – such as violence, heroism, scandal, a readily-identified villain, and the like – amenable to framing as dramatic human interest stories.”

Prior to 2000, presidential politics was not much covered in the soft news media. However, because the candidates recognised the wider audience they could connect with through such media outlets, and their willingness to be interviewed on these programs (or even appear in ‘skits’ on Saturday Night Live), presidential politics has become a frequent topic of discussion. Indeed, shows like The Daily Show will devote entire weeks to presidential, congressional and senatorial campaigns, and before the 2010 midterm elections, President Obama came on The Daily Show for an interview. It is becoming increasingly apparent that soft media are influential actors in the media-politics arena – and this has only become more apparent since Baum’s book was published.

“In general, issues that can be readily framed in stark and dramatic terms, thereby priming widely accessible frames, without generating significant cognitive conflict between simultaneously accessible yet contradictory causal narratives, are most likely to be covered by the soft news media. Such issues are thereby most likely to attract the attention of even politically uninterested individuals.”

The proliferation of soft news media outlets has only increased the likelihood that a broader segment of the American population will discover (more) information about any given foreign policy crisis. Taking Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, Kosovo, Bosnia, the Israel-Lebanon crisis as examples, Baum shows how soft news coverage of events has increased, and also how the coverage may have affected policy and presentation of information.

Using the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the Afghanistan-Sudan missile strikes as examples, Baum also discusses the “wag-the-dog” effect – that is, using foreign policy events and/or crises to deflect from domestic political issues or as means to increase domestic support (in the case of a foreign policy success). Baum calls this the “rally-round-the-flag” principle.

“the rally effect is central to the debate in the scholarly literature and the popular press regarding whether political leaders ever use military force for domestic political reasons – the so-called wag-the-dog scenario, or diversionary use of force.”

Baum does not offer an answer as to how effective this strategy can be, as it appears that rally effects are ephemeral and short-lived. He suggests it requires greater study, and this would certainly help students and scholars of media-political influencing. Certainly, a study of this with regards to the George W Bush administration could potentially be illuminating, as the never-ending War on Terror allowed the administration to continuously utilise rally-round-the-flag tactics to boost the president’s approval ratings and also acceptance of any controversial policy proposal (although, the Bush White House also relied on public fear and jingoism to achieve their political goals).

Baum’s research and the presentation of his results is impeccable, not to mention highly detailed and exhaustive. This is a real boon for scholars and researchers, as there is so much data included in the book. This does have the unfortunate effect of making the book less accessible as something to read, rather than study. Baum’s writing is clear and his structuring is logical and well-presented, but Soft News Goes to War could not exactly be considered a ‘good read’. This is not what it was intended to be, however, so one should not take this into account when considering whether or not to read, buy, or consult this book.

Soft News Goes to War is an excellent, highly-detailed academic study of the impact of certain news outlets on the public’s attentiveness and knowledge of foreign policy issues. It focuses on crises, of course, because these events are best suited to the transition from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ news. Baum acknowledges that such news outlets do not, in all likelihood, impact the positions and consumption of news of politically-minded and -interested individuals. The greatest impact of these programs can, instead, be seen in the larger portion of the population who is less interested in following or learning about politics and especially foreign policy. The study certainly offers plenty to start and further any debate on the role of the media with regards to foreign policy, and is therefore highly recommended to all students and scholars of foreign policy, American politics, and journalism/media.

[Baum has since written another book on the media and foreign policy, in collaboration with Tim J. Groeling – War Stories: The Causes & Consequences of Public Views of War – which I shall review next for this site.]

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

“A Dubya in the Headlights”, by Joseph R. Hayden (Lexington Books)


President George W Bush and the Media

A Dubya in the Headlights trains a critical eye on the curious interaction between America’s forty-third president and the people who write about him, talk about him, photograph him, and draw him. Hayden details a rough, often tense, relationship between George W Bush and media outlets from CBS to the New York Times to The Tonight Show. He also challenges what until recently was the conventional wisdom about Bush’s public relations – the notion that the White House was a masterful manipulator of the media, a Machiavellian puppet-master. According to Hayden, those types of characterisations are not just overly generous; they are distortions and a cop-out for the press. Focusing in particular on the period since Hurricane Katrina, this lively and timely volume details the pattern of mistakes made by the Bush administration in carrying out its communication strategy and offers a clear portrait of a president stumbling from one crisis to another.

In his introduction, Hayden paints a picture of a president hostile to the media and the necessity for a president to deal with them. George W Bush, he writes, “did not understand national news media, he did not like them, he did not want to deal with them.” Because of this dislike, Bush had a “barely existent relationship with the press”, and the limited relations would be “characterized by mistrust and suspicion”. This, of course, would lead to difficulties in conducting the work of the White House, as well as – at times – create a distinctly hostile atmosphere for the president.

There are a number of media-related controversies that occurred during the Bush presidency, all of which are discussed and analysed in this volume – they range from the trivial, such as relying on “faux journalists” in the press corps (including Karen Ryan, Armstrong Miller and Jeff Gannon – who get a good chunk of a chapter late in the book); to the extremely serious (Katrina, Iraq, and so on). In each of the chapters in this book, Hayden takes one theme or issue as its centrepiece and builds a convincing and well-detailed argument. The chapters are introduced well, before the author provides considerable evidence and examples to support his thesis and conclusions.

Hayden starts his analysis of George W Bush’s relationship with the media with a quick look at the 2000 presidential campaign, which laid the groundwork for much of the media’s impression and frequent caricature of Bush for the duration of his presidency.

“[Bush’s] interaction with the media was plagued from the start by chronic problems and liabilities, ones he never solved or conquered. Instead, they came back time and again to damage him politically and expose him to a long-term relationship with journalists that has been extraordinarily dysfunctional.”

During the campaign, Al Gore also made many missteps, of course, but “Bush seldom came across as confident, smooth, or in control.” It was only in carefully controlled or scripted situations when he was able to perform best, otherwise

“he often lurched in awkward and embarrassing fashion. He frequently sounded unprepared. He rarely seemed knowledgeable, engaged or sharp.”

From the campaign onwards, President Bush would give birth to a lucrative sideline in “Bushisms”, as journalists like Jacob Weisberg of began to collect Bush’s malapropisms and vocal hiccups – it resulted in a “cottage industry” springing up that benefited from the president’s vocal mannerisms and mistakes. Hayden includes many of these in the chapter devoted to this element of the media during Bush’s presidency.

“Bush... seemed nearly incapable of speaking in public without butchering the English language, without misspeaking, without uttering startling, Yogi Berra-like pronouncements.”

The chapter is quite funny, of course, as it allows the reader to reminisce about the funnier moments of Bush’s presidency. The chapter is not, however, just about the president’s vocal flubs – Hayden also discusses some other authors who have written about George W Bush, be they positive supporters (e.g. Fred Barnes, David Frum) or vocal opponents (e.g. Ron Suskind). He discusses some authors who also tried to be unbiased and objective (e.g. Robert Draper). From his analysis, Hayden finds that the greatest consistency between almost everyone who’s written about Bush, is that they are disappointed by the president’s “remarkable lack of curiosity”, exhibiting a “vacuousness not easily overcome” – although, of course, supporters try to dress this up as folksy charm or a praiseworthy belief in the president’s gut instincts (see what Charles Pierce has to say about that in Idiot America). Detractors certainly have more material to support their case than do Bush’s supporters.

The Silent Treatment

Because of Bush’s dislike and distrust of the media, there were frequent instances at the beginning of his presidency when the media were simply locked out. This was both surprising and also detrimental to Bush’s ability to convey proper messages to the electorate.

“Relations between presidents and the press have always been uneasy and not infrequently tend toward the turbulent. While journalists and politicians may cozy up to one another, they are seldom satisfied with the result.”

Due to the Bush White House’s obsession with (some might say ‘addiction’ to) secrecy,

“the national press corps quickly came to view the entire Bush Administration as squelchors of information – unhelpful, contemptuous, and always adversarial. This toxic relationship would come back to burn the Bush presidency.”

The president also had to contend with a rapidly changing media environment – one that had, since the 1980s, been evolving at a considerable pace, growing more complicated and also revolutionized by the proliferation of online news sources and the rise of opinion journalism. The mushrooming of information technology in the 1990s spawned a huge number of media outlets from which readers and viewers could draw their news and therefore opinions on any given policy. It also makes the White House’s job that much harder:

“The fragmentation renders each individual media organisation correspondingly less important, for it’s one thing for a politician to try to influence three television networks and a handful of national publications, but what do you do about a thousand political blogs? Commanding media space and attention is much more challenging in the twenty-first century.”

To refer back to opinion journalism, here is Hayden’s critique:

“the centrist, neutral, or ‘objective’ approach has been radically challenged by what is sometimes called ‘opinion journalism’, and that species of information operates more on the fringes than in the middle, more with emotion and innuendo than with facts or investigation” [see, for example, Fox & MSNBC]

“the shady art of fulmination has influenced television news profoundly and even affected print journalism to the point that news sometimes seems to have been trumped by views.”

This “fulmination” and preference for views over news can most noticeably be found on the Web, “which is notoriously dominated by ranting viewpoints and righteous denunciation” (I’m sure we can all identify a couple of sources that make our blood boil...).

War on Terror, Iraq

Hayden devotes a handful of good chapters to the War on Terror and Iraq – discussing the run-up to these events and also the fallout afterwards – specifically, the “frequent mistakes and miscalculations” by the Bush team. Hayden does put the Bush years into wider perspective, however:

“Perhaps any American president would have erred in similar ways at the time. But seen as part of a larger pattern of administration practice, these communication lapses show recurring themes in the Bush record: lack of preparation, lack of careful consideration, lack of precise execution.”

According to Hayden, the lead up to the Iraq war is the biggest failure of the American press corps “to do their duty as vigilant watchdogs of the public trust”. If you’ll permit a personal reflection, I remember being rather confused by the speed with which the administration’s attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq – this is partly because I was at the time relying on just two news sources (TIME and Newsweek) while studying for a year in Japan (I didn’t have an internet connection at home, either). The seemingly sudden shift in focus was jarring, and it has also meant I’ve been distinctly unimpressed by the conduct of the media on this issue (something I’ve included in my PhD thesis).

“Rather than keep the White House accountable for statements that turned out to be erroneous, misleading, or wholly deceptive, the national press corps largely lay down and kept quiet, when it didn’t actually help the administration get away with various misdeeds. The news media, in this view, were snookered into supporting the rationale for going to war.”

One should not overlook the role of “journalistic enablers” (e.g. Judith Miller) who effectively abdicated their journalistic responsibilities to swallow whole what the administration fed them. Hayden includes in this chapter details of the roles of Ahmed Chalabi, the ‘Cabal’ (or the Office of Special Plans), and the jingoist speeches Bush gave during this time, as a means for painting a doomsday scenario as an outcome if action was not taken against Saddam Hussein’s regime. In a later chapter, Hayden describes the “Troop Tricks” the administration used to pump up support for the troops, the wars, and not coincidentally the administration who instigated the conflicts.

While most political and journalism analysts focus on the failure of the press during this period, Hayden also points out that, ultimately, Bush “paid a heavy price for success in that initial battle. In the overall war for public opinion, he has lost mightily.”

Ultimately, Hayden’s conclusion of the Iraq media war is:

“That meticulous planning went into the communication effort there was no doubt. The September rollout, Powell’s U.N. speech, the Mission Accomplished stunt – all were carefully choreographed and, at times, ably executed. But, as with most other elements in the Bush White House, the overwhelming emphasis was on process, on tactics, on the little pictures that wagered on short-term gain.”

The high stakes and long-term potential for catastrophe were ignored by White House strategists and operatives. The focus on short-term vignettes, of course, has become overwhelmingly characteristic of media and politics in the United States. In the Obama age, it seems almost the only political commentary is short-term, uninterested in long-term consequences or trends.

Re-Reporting Vietnam: Media Wars over Iraq & the White House

Hayden devotes two chapters to the media’s “obsession” with Vietnam, and the saturation-level usage of that war as a comparative study for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as discussing how the Vietnam lexicon is used too often to describe the current conflicts. After offering a brief history of Vietnam and what it has meant for American foreign policy and media, he moves on to the post-9/11 examples and discussion. The Vietnam-obsession “distressed a lot of writers, because, among other things, they feared the past was distracting the country from dealing with the present.” Hayden analyses the importance of Vietnam as a campaign issue in 2004, and how it affected each candidate: for John Kerry, it allowed him to paint himself as a decorated war veteran who had become disillusioned with the war and then came home to help end it. For the Bush team, it was less beneficial, considering the President’s muddled National Guard record – therefore, as all good political operatives would, they chose to tear down the virtuous image Kerry’s team created.

After the Storm

A particularly good and detailed chapter deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

After briefly mentioning Cindy Sheehan’s protests against the Iraq War outside Bush’s ranch, and the White House’s ineptitude in dealing with the fallout, the author proceeds to discuss what he sees as the turning point in George W Bush’s relations with the press. “Katrina seems to have jolted American journalists out of their post-9/11 daze”, and “exacted a heavy price on the president.”

Impressions of a “bubble” and “White House indifference” made the press “aggressively” question “the federal government’s response, its effort, its motives, its compassion.” Following the devastation of Katrina, “criticism of other Bush legacies likewise increased”. It was a stark turning point in the reporting of Bush presidency, and “a pattern was becoming evident: government neglect on an epic scale.”

“after Katrina... The media woke up from its 9/11-induced spell to find, to detail, and to proclaim the notion that the Bush administration was basically incompetent; that the president was less like Machiavelli and more like Scaramouche, less a master manipulator than a buffoon; that for years there had been a faltering ignoramus in the White House – a Dubya in the headlights.”

I should take this opportunity to address something in the synopsis, related to the above quotation – that of George W Bush as “Machiavellian puppet master”: I don’t think many people thought the President himself was the brains behind the outfit. Indeed, there was plenty of material published suggesting the strings were being pulled by Cheney, Karl Rove, the president’s “handlers”, or a shadow neoconservative cabal within the administration. I’ve not read many (if any, now that I try to recall) accounts of George W Bush himself being identified as a press manipulator extraordinaire... Hayden does address this impression, as mentioned above, stating instead that the Bush White House was mostly inept, and giving the reader the impression that, when a media strategy succeeded, it was more down to luck and outside forces, rather than any brilliant mastermind within the administration.

After Bush’s re-election, Hayden explains, he attempted to change the media perception of both himself and his administration. He did this by trying to appear more in front of the press, increasing access, and so forth. What did not change, however, was the secrecy and the administration’s “penchant for dishonest tactics”. For the Bush administration, as time progressed,

“the time-honored democratic political strategy of influencing public opinion included recurring bouts of dissembling and distortion. Some of that misinformation was large in scale, some of it small, perhaps little of it directly the original decision of the president himself.”

In the final chapter of the book, Hayden takes a look at the Bush administration’s late-term obsession with Bush’s presidential legacy and what was done to polish past policies and decisions. The author takes a look at the legacy Bush has had on Hollywood, taking a look at a selection of movies about the War on Terror, all of which include commentary on the methods and machinations of the Bush years. Hayden also takes a quick look at the media’s Bush post-mortems.

If I had one criticism of the book, it would be that Hayden focuses too much on just George W. Bush’s administration. The volume would have benefited from a more generalised introduction and conclusion – something that spent more time locating Bush’s presidency within the history of Presidential media relations. While he does mention, from time to time, the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, I think the reader would benefit from a little more historical context. This book is, in other words, an excellent and extensive case study for a wider piece of research on the American presidents and how they have dealt with the media.

One of the great strengths of the book is Hayden’s level of research, and the convenient presentation of source material after each chapter. His writing style is fluid and accessible, his chapters very well- and logically-structured, and he avoids almost all academic dryness in his descriptions and analysis. This is, as the synopsis proposes, a ‘lively’ volume – helped along in no small part, of course, by the chapter about Bushisms, which lightened a potentially over-serious volume. Hayden maintains a journalist’s objectivity for the most part, but there are times when he cannot help but voice his disappointment – be it with Bush or the media.

A Dubya in the Headlights is a highly recommended book on the president’s relations with the media during the George W Bush years, of considerable value to anyone studying the media, George W Bush, the presidency or the early 2000s.

Also try: Matt Latimer, Speech-Less (2009); Julian Zelizer ed., The Presidency of George W Bush (2010); Robert Draper, Dead Certain (2007); George W Bush, Decision Points (2010); Scott McClellan, What Happened? (2009); Mike Loew, Thanks for the Memories, George (2009)

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

“Lion in the White House”, by Aida D. Donald (Basic Books)

Donald-LionInTheWhiteHouseA Life of Theodore Roosevelt

New York State Assemblyman, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice President and, at forty-two, the youngest President ever — in his own words, Theodore Roosevelt “rose like a rocket.” He was also a cowboy, a soldier, a historian, an intrepid explorer, and an unsurpassed environmentalist.

Lion in the White House chronicles the life of this first modern president. TR’s accomplishments in office were immense. As President, Roosevelt redesigned the office of Chief Executive and the workings of the Republican Party to meet the challenges of the new industrial economy. Believing that the emerging aristocracy of wealth represented a genuine threat to democracy, TR broke trusts to curb the rapacity of big business. He built the Panama Canal and engaged the country in world affairs, putting a temporary end to American isolationism. And he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Throughout his public career, TR fought valiantly to steer the GOP back to its noblest ideals as embodied by Abraham Lincoln. Alas, his hopes for his party were quashed by the GOP’s strong rightward turn in the years after he left office. But his vision for America lives on.

In lapidary prose, this concise biography recounts the courageous life of one of the greatest leaders our nation has ever known.

Theodore Roosevelt is one of my favourite US presidents, and I am always on the lookout for new books about his life, presidency and personality. He is one of the more written about presidents (not to mention the most prolific of writers himself, having published almost twenty books over his lifetime).

Donald gives us a spirited and brisk tour through TR’s youth, upbringing, career at Harvard, and also his early political career. The Roosevelt family was almost picture-perfect; the children were doted upon by both their parents, and TR’s father was his idol and the epitome of what he believed a man should be. His childhood was that of a sickly child overcoming his frail body – a hurdle he cleared admirably and with a tenacity that would characterise much of his political style, not to mention his vigorous conduct as colonel during the war for Cuba (for which he raised his famous unit, the Rough Riders – a move that would ultimately catapult him onto the national stage as the most famous politician in America). At Harvard, he performed admirably, making a mixed impression on his professors but receiving good grades throughout his tenure there, and his father encouraged his pursuit of science and authorial impulses. After Harvard, TR enrolled at Columbia Law School, but “he found the law lacking in social justice and only a cover to protect wealth and business.” This would be the beginning of his long disgust at the power of corporations and business interests in the United States. “It was a critical judgement, made early in life, which would soon carry into a turbulent political career.”

In his early forays into politics, we see the roots of his eventual presidential priorities. His focus on doing and seeing for himself, rather than just taking people at their word, would lead him to acquire an increasing wish to ease the suffering of the lower and labouring classes – walking through New York’s slums was particularly eye-opening and, as a member of the Police Commission in New York City, TR would personally take part in patrols and organising arrests of slumlords and tenement closures.

“Roosevelt intuited that a politician must lead the people with an original set of principles, not just mirror those cobbled to the lowest common denominator.”

TR righteously went after the corruption that characterised New York politics at the time. His reformation of the police force as Police Commission President was particularly noteworthy and impressive, as he slowly eroded the power and influence of Tammany Hall. It was an impressive time for TR, save one considerable blunder at the end of his tenure on the commission (namely, making drinking illegal on Sundays, which resulted in huge opposition & consequent political defeats for Republicans).

The author often mentions TR’s reverence for Lincoln, who he frequently drew inspiration from, and how this impacted his political views and approach:

“As a Republican whose ideal was Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt would always be color-blind and guided by the tenet of equality.”

Throughout his career, he would hold firm in the face of (usually Democratic) opposition to, and complaints about, his application of equality, regardless of the government post he occupied. In only one instance did he cave to popular resentment, and that was with Booker T. Washington, who consulted and met with TR – but only once, after the meeting caused a racist backlash. This is an example of TR’s pragmatic approach to politics overtaking his personal disinterest in anyone’s colour or creed.

As governor of New York, TR took on the large corporations and trusts by seeking to make them report their profits. Through a slew of provisions, he was able to grow the State’s coffers by roughly $11.5million (a vast sum at the time).

“He sought laws to break monopolies and to oversee accounting reviews to get corporations to pay their taxes. Not incidentally, he thought he made corporations more moral by making them pay their fair share. Roosevelt also knew corporations would now have less money with which to corrupt politics.”

In an example of his progressivism, Donald discusses TR’s appreciation of the needs of the labouring class, who had been struggling for too long against the all-powerful corporations and trusts who were wealthy enough to bribe and buy off government officials to do their bidding.

“Within the broad sphere of society and social relations, Roosevelt preferred order, regularity, and balance. This meant curbing the meretricious, laissez-faire tendencies by business that had injured the laboring population. The way to help labor was to empower it to organize and even strike, although Roosevelt would never condone mob violence either by labor or capital. Labor was expected to negotiate wages and conditions.”

TR’s time as governor of New York would have a considerable impact on how he later conducted himself as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and then as President. Over the course of the political battles to reform the corrupt New York civil and police services, he evolved as a politician and political operative. He was not always successful, and was less opposed to compromising than he used to be when he was a member of the state legislature – willing to allow bills to pass that were the best he could hope for, rather than all he wished for.

“He was fast becoming a practical politician and slipping away from the high idealism of reformers. His hard political life seemed to mimic, more and more, the strenuous life he knew in the saddle, and his resilience owed much to his experience with the ebb and flow of the natural world in the West. If Roosevelt rose like a rocket, he governed like he was shot from a gun.”

His interest and passion for Civil Service reform would again surface in the Governor’s mansion and then the White House. In New York City, it was the police force; in Albany, it was the New York State civil service; in the White House it was the nation.

“He had demanded accountability from corporations when he was governor of New York, when they overvalued stock, watered stock, and fooled investors with corrupt practices, and he would take his battle against what he called ‘bad’ trusts to the larger playing field.”

TR’s anti-trust tendencies also led him to make one of his most significant contributions to American politics and society: the appointment of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., to the Supreme Court.

“The high court was antilabor, probusiness, laissez-faire to the extreme, and prohibited most union activity. In doing so, it put private property above individual or community rights, which Roosevelt thought was wrong.”

Holmes promised to give America a more Rooseveltian Supreme Court. Holmes would, however, side against TR in the first major anti-trust case. Holmes would eventually go on to become a progressive high court judge, in tune with many of TR’s policies and preferences.

“Roosevelt was probably too hasty in his judgement of Holmes, whose promise developed slowly. The president’s instinct was true, but his patience was limited.”

Donald provides us with an excellent, broad account of TR’s foreign policy, and his plans to extend McKinley’s more modest policies. From Hawaii, Cuba and the Philippines to his addition of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, the author provides detailed, well-structured accounts of the policy process. TR’s work on conservation is also detailed and explained, as his continued activity and political and progressive activism post-presidency.

If I have one criticism, it is that more could have been made of TR’s friendship with Henry Cabot Lodge, which (thanks most recently to The War Lovers) we know was an exceptionally close partnership, and one that provided not only a great deal of comfort for both men, but also many political victories. [I should note, at this point, that I am a great fan of Henry Cabot Lodge, and feel he is a man long over-due his own proper biography. Perhaps I should write one...]

The main themes running throughout the book are TR’s progressivism and his character. The former informed all of his political decisions and policies (proposed, rejected and implemented). The latter is what gives the book its great flavour and style – Donald utilises many words and phrases that have a distinctly ‘TR-feel’ to them, matching his brio and eccentricities perfectly. Frequent passages about TR’s devotion to his family, his pastimes and interests help round out a positive portrait of an energetic, charismatic family-man. It is also interesting to note how at odds TR’s policies and wishes are with the contemporary Republican Party – who, it should be pointed out, frequently lay claim to TR, despite their considerable and stark differences in ideology (the same can be said for the GOP’s ownership claim of Abraham Lincoln).

A delight to read, Lion in the White House is both engaging and informative. It kept me awake reading well into the night in two long sittings – something non-fiction works rarely do (Evan Thomas’s The War Lovers – also TR-related – being the only other recent work of history to do this). Donald’s brisk pacing and historian’s authorial skill allows for a quick read that does not skimp on details while avoiding the pitfalls of over-detailing.

Lion in the White House is the best short biography of Theodore Roosevelt I’ve come across. It is insightful, detailed yet not overly so; an enjoyable read, written in a fresh pace and style. If you only read one book on TR, I would strongly recommend it be this one. I thoroughly enjoyed Lion in the White House, and can’t recommend it enough.


Also try: Evan Thomas, The War Lovers (2010); Louis Auchincloss, Theodore Roosevelt (2002); H.W. Brands, TR: The Last Romantic (1998) Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979), Theodore Rex (2001) & Colonel Roosevelt (2010); Theodore Roosevelt, The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt (numerous editions); David McCullough, Mornings on Horseback (1982); Douglas Brinkley, The Wilderness Warrior (2010); Edward Kohn, Hot Time in the Old Town (2010)