In her latest bio-epic, “The Bully Pulpit,” Doris Kearns Goodwin has moved on from the Civil War years, the setting for her highly acclaimed “Team of Rivals,” to the first decade of the 20th century and the rise of this country’s Progressive movement.
Goodwin uses the complex relationships between two American presidents as the framework for her monumental 910-page history. Her book’s subtitle — “Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Golden Age of Journalism” — points up the role that journalists played in propelling a reform agenda during the years that Roosevelt and Taft occupied the White House.
A group of writers known as muckrakers, the investigative reporters of their day, figure prominently in Goodwin’s sprawling saga of pre-World War I America. That saga includes a brief account of the muckraking by one of the group’s most prominent members, Lincoln Steffens, here in Minnesota.
‘Doc Ames’ and his brother
In 1903, Steffens brought an unwelcome spotlight to this state’s largest city in his exposé of municipal corruption known as the Shame of Minneapolis. Writing in McClure’s Magazine, Steffens profiled the city’s scandalous mayor, Albert Alonzo Ames, and his profligate ways. A medical doctor known as “Doc Ames,” the mayor and his brother, Fred, the city’s venal police chief, had turned the Minneapolis Police Department into their own private army with orders to shake down the city’s vice industries for their own personal benefit.
By the time Steffens’ cover story appeared in McClure’s January 1903 issue, the Ames scandal had subsided. The two brothers had been driven from office by a crusading local civic leader, Hovey Clarke.
Steffens had befriended Clarke, who provided the muckraking journalist with new details about the Ames affair. The McClure article included a reprint of the ledger that showed the pay-offs to Ames and his henchmen after Doc returned to City Hall as mayor in 1901. The corruption scandal that enveloped City Hall in ’01 was an open secret that many of the city’s leading citizens chose to ignore. But Clarke, a gruff, plain spoken businessman, was not one of them.
‘I am after you’
Steffens reprised a verbal confrontation between Clarke and Ames that occurred on the steps of City Hall. “I am after you,” Clarke declared angrily, when he came face- to-face with the mayor. “ I have been in this town for 17 years, and all that time you have been a moral leper. … Now, I am going to put you where all contagious things are put—where you cannot contaminate anyone else.”
Hired private detectives
Clarke followed through on his threat, hiring his own crew of private detectives to investigate the corruption scandal, when the county attorney refused to prosecute the Ames brothers. But the outspoken civic reformer was not able to put Doc where “all contagious things are put.” Ames was tried and convicted on bribery charges, but his conviction was later struck down by the Minnesota Supreme Court on a technicality and he was never retried for the crimes he committed during his abbreviated mayoral term in 1901 and 1902.
In the “Bully Pulpit,” Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about an exchange between Lincoln Steffens and his editor, S.S. McClure, after Steffens had submitted the initial draft of his story to McClure. “Your article is certainly a ‘corker,’ ” McClure told his ace reporter. “We will call it ‘The Shame of Minneapolis.’ ” Goodwin commented that McClure’s intent was to frame the piece “as a colossal battle between one crusading individual and the corrupt establishment.”
Goodwin went on to note the press reaction to the Steffens piece when it appeared in the January 1903 issue of McClure’s. That reaction included a commentary from the Arizona Republic that McClure’s was doing a “public service,” prodding people to conclude that similar corruption networks were in scores of other cities “not yet overtaken by a wave of reform.”
Back in Minnesota, the Stefffens article, when it hit the newsstands, was front-page news in the evening Minneapolis Journal, but the article did not rate a mention in the Journal’s morning competitor, the Minneapolis Tribune. Earlier, while Doc was still in power, neither paper had covered the Ames affair until Hovey Clarke started bringing indictments against the Ames brothers and their henchmen.
‘All of us are accomplices’
In March 1903, three months after the Shame of Minneapolis was national news, the Tribune sounded a note of contrition in a lead editorial. “All of us are accomplices in the things he (Ames) did, by active assistance in putting him in office and contributory negligence in relations to his acts for a year and a half,” the paper declared.
Lincoln Steffens’ “The Shame of Minneapolis” did not uncover the Ames scandal, but it did point up the role of the press in exposing political misdeeds to broader public scrutiny. Now, 110 years later, as a new mayor and council are about to take office in Minneapolis City Hall, Doris Kearns Goodwin has provided a contemporary reminder about the essential role that American journalism still plays in maintaining this country’s democratic system.