Archive for Monday, March 24, 2014

Problems of 100 years ago mirror those of today

March 24, 2014

Recently I completed reading “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is a scholarly book dealing with the battle for change in the United States at the turn of the 20th century and the role the newspapers and magazines of that era played in the making of a much better world.

As I completed the lengthy (nearly 800 pages) book, two thoughts popped into my mind. First, I believe more people should read real, factual history so they can understand how really bad conditions were in “the good old days,” and how far we have come in terms of dignity for individuals. The second is how little the arguments have changed in a hundred-plus years.

Some of the arguments are exactly the same as we are hearing today. They only thing that has changed is there were a lot more progressive Republicans. Actually the word “progressive” has almost the same meaning as “liberal” does now. It was interesting to note that Kansas a century ago was regarded as one of the most progressive states, which certainly not the case now.

For example, immigration was a problem back then. No, it wasn’t Hispanics crossing the border; it was Japanese arriving in California. Conservatives were very concerned about the Japanese taking American jobs and wanted to limit immigration. In addition eastern Europeans were flooding the east coast and “taking jobs.” The Progressives weren’t concerned about the new arrivals and were cultivating votes.

Writers such as S. S. McClure, Ray Stannard Baker, Ida Tarbell and Kansan William Allen White were among the premier “muckrakers” of the time pointing out a variety of problems. Their work led to a variety of changes including inspection of food processing plants, railroad shipping rates, violence against strikers, the eight-hour work day, direct election of senators, women’s voting rights and much, much more. The media was instrumental in President Roosevelt’s “trust busting” efforts.

Of course, the print media was in its heyday since it was a couple of decades before radio and half a century ahead of television. In general, the president had a great relationship with newspapers and magazines and was always available. There was one major exception: The southern press. President Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House for lunch which was the first time a president had brought an African-American to the White House. Never mind that Mr. Washington was a brilliant man, the southern press vilified Roosevelt, and certainly much of what was said could not be printed in a modern publication and frankly it shouldn’t be. What it showed was the vile hatred many had of persons of color.

The conservative wing of the party detested President Roosevelt but he was so popular with the people he couldn’t be defeated. What I really found interesting is that many of the arguments against Roosevelt were the same as today. They felt government should not regulate business and that dictating working conditions was unconstitutional. They raised question about the president wanting to be a dictator and the word “socialist” was quite often used.

I learned a lot about President Taft who was a far better leader than I thought. He and President Roosevelt were close friends who had a falling out before the 1912 election. Fortunately for both men they renewed their close friendship prior to President Roosevelt’s death. President Taft went on to serve as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

A lot of the progressive ideas of that era are now commonly accepted and certainly important to our quality of life. Yet, the strife between conservatives and liberals continues and I would expect it to be around in 2114 and maybe forever.


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