“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”
US President Theodore Roosevelt uttered those words in office (reported in the February 27, 1909, issue of The Outlook magazine), coining the phrase ‘bully pulpit’ in referring to the presidency as an ideal platform from which to expound his ideas and advocate his causes.
Of course, in his day, bully – a word with which Roosevelt was very fond – as an adjective meant ‘excellent,’ ‘first-rate,’ ‘jovial’ or just ‘good’ – a usage we still share when we say ‘bully for you.’ His bully pulpit, however, was a moral platform.
Roosevelt wasn’t commenting on having a platform of influence from which to bully people in today’s more common use of the noun to describe “a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.”*
Both uses of the word bully come from the Dutch boele, meaning ‘lover’ and it was originally a term of endearment. They migrated to their odd, double meaning in the 17th century.
I came across the term recently in the title of Doris Goodwin’s book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt , William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism,” which I picked up last week, mostly for its references to the historical development of journalism.** But the politics also interest me and, since I am not as well-versed in American history and politics of that era as I am in other periods, I wanted to educate myself.
Roosevelt is fascinating in that he was a Republican and very progressive – yet it’s a party today we associate with backwardness, the entitlement of the 1%, racism, promoting anti-Christian policies while pretending to be devout and religious***, anti-environmental, anti-science, intolerant, corrupt, petty, mean-spirited spokespeople for whichever industry or corporation buys their votes.
Yet remarkably, in Roosevelt’s day, the Republicans were the progressive party, and it was under Roosevelt that the government put limits on corporate greed, stifled the robber barons, sponsored economic and monetary reform, protected the environment and created national parks, passed socially progressive laws for education and labour… quite the opposite of today’s narrow-minded and suspicious Republicans.
In part, I wanted to read Goodwin’s book to understand, if I can, how the GOP fell from such socially responsible heights to become the despicable, misanthropic and misogynistic party it is today. As the New York Times wrote in reviewing Goodwin’s book:
Let her transport you back to the turn of the 20th century, to a time when this country had politicians of stature and conscience, when the public believed that government could right great wrongs, when, before truncated attention spans, a 50,000-word exposé of corruption could sell out magazines and galvanize a reluctant Congress. The villains seemed bigger, too, or at least more brazen — industrial barons and political bosses who monopolized entire industries, strangled entire cities. And “change” was not just a slogan. “There are but a handful of times in the history of our country,” Goodwin writes in her introduction, “when there occurs a transformation so remarkable that a molt seems to take place, and an altered country begins to emerge.” The years covered in this book are such a time. It makes a pretty grand story.
In his career as a politician, Roosevelt had a very good, close relationship with the media. He engaged them in debate and discussion, created a separate room for the media in the White House, and challenged reporters over their stories – Roosevelt also coined the phrase ‘muckraker’. But it was a relationship based on mutual respect and civility. As Goodwin writes:
…Roosevelt had established a unique relationship with numerous journalists. He debated points with them as fellow writers; regardless of the disparity in political rank, when they argued as authors, they argued as equals. He had read and freely commented upon their stories, as they felt free to criticize his public statements and speeches.
Goodwin calls the relationship between Roosevelt and the media “collegial” – the New York Times suggests ‘symbiotic” as a better choice. As the NYT tells it, Roosevelt
…allowed reporters to question him during his midday shave. Editors and writers who caught his attention would be invited for luncheon conversations that might last until midnight. With his many favorites, Roosevelt exchanged voluminous correspondence, sometimes two or three letters a week. He shared early drafts of his major policy speeches and legislative proposals, and they briefed him on their reporting projects before publication.
Quite a difference from modern media where relations with politicians seem to be either cloyingly sycophantic and ideological (as in Fox Media’s remora-like attachment to the Republicans or the Sun’s with the Conservatives) or highly adversarial (as in most Canadian media’s relationship with Stephen Harper, or the Star’s acerbic relationship with former mayor Rob Ford).
Perhaps that’s why it was dubbed the ‘Golden Age’ of journalism: there was some mutual respect, civil and mature debate; two-way communication was possible between media and politicians, and criticism was relished as a jumping off point for debate, not treated as a personal attack on the writer’s or politician’s credibility.
Which is very different from many media, including local, with their overt biases, thin skins and prickly reactions to even the merest suggestion of criticism. A former newspaper editor became apoplectic last term when I questioned his wisdom in putting his close friend’s opinion on the front page of the paper, thinly masquerading as news. The result of my criticism was, in my opinion, a campaign of spite and malice for daring to question his unassailable judgment. Not exactly a golden age moment for the local media – more like tin.
Apparently, civil, engaged debate with the ‘loyal opposition’ no longer exists here; it survives merely as a nostalgic memory of when I was also among the media. It is strained in the national media at the best of times.
Roosevelt’s honeymoon with the media also ended somewhat, when he called investigative journalists “muckrakers” in a speech in 1906, halfway through his term. As the New York Times notes, this was a turning point that soured the relationship for some reporters as it appeared a sop to corporate interests: “The morale among conservatives and corporate interests, Goodwin notes, rallied.”
On the other hand, he may have been demarcating the difference between fair, informed criticism and the sort of ideological lambasting we get from Fox and Sun networks. Or perhaps he was targetting criticism for its own sake – the kind of malicious allegation and innuendo published to raise a publication’s profile and boost circulation, rather than to advocate a contrary position for the benefit of the country or community.
Roosevelt had himself written disparaging of the “… the parlor critic who condemns others but has no power himself to do good” and warmly of men who “…tried to make the world a little better off rather than worse off because he has lived; of having been a doer of the word and not a hearer only still less a mere critic of the doers.” And in a speech made in 1910, at the Sorbonne in France, he said it best:
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.
Roosevelt was a century before cowardly cyberbullying and web trolls, but his words still resonate today: those who cannot do the work, who will not shoulder the burden of responsibility, who do not have the backbone to take on the task are usually those who criticize most loudly those who do. That’s as true today as it was then.
Still, when Roosevelt returned from Africa, after a year’s safari post-presidency, the media were thick among the hundreds of thousands who greeted him warmly and with rousing cheers, at the docks and everywhere he went for months.
But while the term ‘bully pulpit’ continues in its use as Roosevelt meant it, it too is changing: today it is increasingly used negatively to describe “a public office from which one can have great influence, by bullying or otherwise.” As Warren Blumenfeld wrote in the Huffington Post:
…given contemporary meanings and understandings of the term “bully,” are we in fact stating directly, or at least implying, that by advancing the metaphoric expression of the “bully pulpit,” we are promoting the notion that “might makes right,” that people with political power can use that power to figuratively at least beat their opponents into submission?
I would take that argument even further and suggest that it need not be restricted to politics and politicians, but in fact all of social media has the potential to be a bully pulpit in the more pejorative sense of the word. The internet has democratized our ability to criticize, to complain, to spew and to slander.
Today’s bully pulpit can be a blog, a Facebook post, a Twitter feed because all have been used as a platform to bully, harass and intimidate people. And when that fails to get their way, the cyberbullies and trolls fall to vulgarity and name calling.
What, one wonders, would Teddy have made of social media?
* We use it in that negative sense today when we apply the term cyberbully: “…the use of information technology to repeatedly harm or harass other people in a deliberate manner.”
** It pairs nicely with a related work on my shelf, Paul Starr’s 2004 book, “The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications.”
*** The recent Republican budget that targets America’s poor, low-income and working classes while benefitting the already wealthy and their corporate friends, compares poorly against the parables in Matthew 25, and shows just how very un-Christian, un-charitable, and self-entitled Republican politicians are. As Jesus would have said to these politicians:
“Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”