I have a soft spot for well-written biography. All of us love a good story, and good stories are about characters. But for them to really fill our heads, to suffuse the corners of the mind during the interstices of day, they must bring an entire era and society to life. A good biography is a time travel machine, carrying me to Peter The Great’s Russia or Krupp’s Germany.
Think of it like fiction: Why do The Hobbit or Star Wars or Harry Potter succeed? Because they build worlds. We want story, but we also want to be transported. And this desire is not limited to books, of course. The explosive rise of first-person video gaming, from Minecraft to Call of Duty, underscores my point.
For my money, nobody can touch the late, great William Manchester when it comes to writing immersive biographies. But Doris Kearns Goodwin isn’t far behind. I picked up The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and The Golden Age of Journalism on a whim, and was sucked into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There’s much to recommend this book, not the least of which is her portrait of Taft as a sympathetic, almost tragic figure and of Roosevelt as a man who was almost certainly manic depressive but who turned those characteristics to extraordinary advantage.
What I least expected, however, was to be pleasantly surprised by her portrayal of political corruption. I previously had no comprehension of how deep and widespread corruption was throughout the land, all the way down to the municipal level. In one instance city legislators even printed a price sheet for votes and distributed it to lobbyists. This revelation gives me cheer in these dark political days of Citizens United and the Koch brothers. I long have wanted to believe that America will turn a corner and move closer to her better nature. After seeing the ingrained and powerful forces that Roosevelt confronted and, with the help of crusading journalists, ousted, I have renewed hope for America. We turned back the forces of corruption and oligarchy before; we can do so again.