Philippines is like the U.S of 100 Years Ago: Exploitation, Corruption and Muckraking
By Mariano “Anong” Santos
THE BULLY PULPIT Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. By Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster. 910 pp. $40
Pulitzer-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin came out last October with another excellent account of American presidents. She has previously written books about Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. All were critically acclaimed.
Her latest, "THE BULLY PULPIT—Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism," is another engaging and excellent reading. Its relevance extends especially to the students and actors of Philippine political development—both past and present.
The book is about the relationship between two progressive U.S. presidents with contrasting personalities. Both were born into families of wealth and privileges. Roosevelt was a dynamo, an athletic and an outgoing politician. Taft was judicious, genteel and easy going. But they shared a common ground—that of the passion to fight and bring justice for the underdog.
The book is also about the relationship between political power and the crusading press. Emerging from the industrial revolution, the immense wealth created in the 1800s had made the gap between the rich and the poor Americans very wide. It was mitigated by the laissez-faire attitude of politicians on all levels of government. Corruption was creating havoc on the poor farmers, workers and small businessmen. Sounds familiar to the Filipinos of today?
This was America at the turn of the last century. Monopoly capitalists called the shots. The Morgans, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, the Schwabs practically had politicians on their payrolls. These few robber-barons stunted competitions, exploited workers—women and children especially—and consolidated economic power on their hands.
Theodore Roosevelt saw these inequities, first as governor of New York and, then, as a successor to the assassinated President William McKinley. Roosevelt got it right when he learned that he could not rely solely on his fellow politicians to institute reforms. He instead turned to the crusading members of the press for help.
The alliance between Theodore Roosevelt and publishers like Samuel McClure and investigative journalists (or muckrakers, as Roosevelt would call them) like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker and William Allen White became the formidable engine of progressive reform. It eventually rallied the public who paid to read 50,000-word exposes—which were carefully researched and documented.
The public soon understood how their lives were adversely affected by "The Trusts." Roosevelt was able to regulate the railroad companies and made transportation affordable even to small farmers who had long suffered from unfair pricing before the trust-busting laws were enacted. Labor rights were also strengthened. Consumers were also given protection from unsafe food and drugs. Roosevelt was also instrumental in saving large tracts of federal land from exploitation. Much of the national parks were preserved because of his initiative.
Roosevelt did not run for reelection—saying that eight years was enough for him—and hand-picked his close friend Taft to run instead. Unlike his predecessor, Taft did not work closely with the press. He did not share the hyper-active style of Roosevelt. Although more anti-trust legislations were passed under his watch, the unassuming Taft was not accorded a good image press by the press leading to a clamor for Teddy Roosevelt to run again for the White House in 1912.
Roosevelt, an author of 40 books, had an inner look on how writers work. He cultivated them to champion his presidential messages from what he termed as his "bully pulpit." It was his way of imparting moral teaching to arouse public consciousness. Select journalists were given access to almost all his private activities. He dined with them. He rode with them in his sorties. He consulted them on his speeches and valued their criticisms. Roosevelt was the epitome, nay, was the first of the modern presidents.
But the Republicans in their convention opted to renominate the incumbent Taft to run for reelection. This led to the formation of the Bull Moose Party that fielded Roosevelt. Their bitter split led to the election of the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson who thankfully continued the progressive agenda of his Republican predecessors.
Doris Kearns Goodwin said that her book started as one that would touch only on Teddy Roosevelt and his progressive era but later evolved into a work that included William Howard Taft and the members of the muckraking press that shaped the progressive era of American politics. These are vast subjects but credit Goodwin for her expert ability to put these all together clearly as one narrative.
I will venture to say that this book should be a required reading for Philippine President Noynoy Aquino. Our homeland is approximately at the same stage now as that of the United States when Theodore Roosevelt was its president. The gap in the Philippines between the rich and poor is perhaps wider. Political corruption is as prevalent. Monopolists like Manny Pangilinan, Henry Sy, Lucio Tan, Eduardo Cojuangco and the like have the stranglehold on the economic life of the Filipinos.
A crusading press corps is definitely needed by a leader who has the passion of a Teddy Roosevelt in instituting reforms. We actually have them. For instance, why can't PNoy harness the talent and courage of Maritess Danguilan Vitug who had taken on the shady justices at the Supreme Court or a Sheila Coronel of the Center for Investigative Journalism or more recently the team of Philippine Daily Inquirer investigative reporters who continually make the investigation of the pork barrel scandal alive?
The Philippine media just like during the progressive era has its share of yellow journalists. (Those under the employ of the infamous William Randolph Hearst come to mind.) Many TV stations and newspapers in Manila are now part of the vertical integration of industrial holdings which certainly breached the ethical boundaries of media practice. But the more reason why reformist-leaders like PNoy should look into working with media practitioners who are dedicated in rooting out corruption.
Furthermore, historian Goodwin has particularly special for Filipino readers in her latest book. Her account of Taft's stay in the Philippines, first as head of the Philippine Commission and then as the first Civilian Governor General of the Philippines, 1901-1903 is revealing and informative. Taft was recalcitrant in accepting McKinley's appointment because of his strong opposition to the American occupation of the islands.
But through the prodding of his ambitious wife, Nellie, Taft was persuaded to leave his position as judge to take on the chairmanship of the Philippine Commission created by President McKinley. The unit was to create civilian code for the new U.S. colony, to establish courts, to determine taxes and to appropriate money and would also be the legislative body with the Military Governor Arthur MacArthur retaining executive power.
Taft and his family were met with a cold reception when they arrived in Manila in May 1900. The Filipinos were engaged in the war for liberation while Gen. MacArthur resented the commissioners usurping his absolute power. Autocratic MacArthur did not share Malacanang Palace with Taft who was forced to rent a place near Intramuros.
Taft assured Filipinos that roads, bridges, schools, clinics and harbors would be built; and a system of justice and political structure run by Filipinos would be established. He and his wife, in contrast with the racist policies of MacArthur, opened their home to both Americans and Filipinos. They strived to learn the local culture even dancing the rigodon and attending many cotillions.
Roosevelt made known his great desire to be the governor-general of the Philippines. Unlike Taft, he was a firm supporter of the American takeover of the Spanish colony and he envisioned a Philippines that he could teach on the American democratic ways of government. But having been elected vice president when McKinley won reelection, he knew he lost his chance. On July 4, 1901, to the great envy of his friend Roosevelt, Taft was sworn in by Gen. MacArthur as the first civilian Governor General of the colony.
Taft expanded the commission to include three Filipino commissioners and appointed members of the Filipino elite to key government positions. Later Taft, also persuaded the U.S. Congress to pay the Vatican $7.5 million for the 400,000 acres of friar land in the Philippines which was then broken into smaller parcels to be sold to the Filipinos.
Goodwin noted Stanley Karnow's analysis that these developments actually created the present feudal oligarchy that still grips the contemporary Philippines. In 1903, Taft was able to buck Roosevelt's recall of him to fill in a vacancy in the U.S. Supreme Court—a position that Taft desired for so long. But Taft wanted to finish his work in the Philippines that he was even willing to sacrifice his top ambition of serving as a justice.
Later in 1903, Elihu Root retired as Secretary of War. This time, Taft was prevailed upon by Roosevelt to take over the position and made Taft practically the Deputy U.S. President. But Taft's departure from Manila resulted in a big demonstration of the Filipinos' love for the genial governor-general and his equally accommodating wife, Nellie.
Though they were set apart by their political rivalry in the 1912 elections, Taft and Roosevelt eventually reconciled in 1918. Roosevelt died on Jan. 6, 1919 at the age of 60. William Howard Taft was one of the 500 invited in a private funeral held in an Episcopal Church in Oyster Bay, New York.
Taft is remembered by most Filipinos mainly because of the avenue named after him that spans most of the southern part of Manila—in the general area where he and his family had lived during the early years of their stay in 1900. William Howard Taft died on March 8, 1930—just a month after he retired as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—a position that he served for more than eight years. His wife Nellie outlived him for 13 years. She died at age 81. •