Friday, November 10, 2006

I think I made the right choice, or, It's hard to go wrong deciding to read about TR

TR was the right choice. In the first half of Patricia O’Toole’s splendid When Trumpets Call (2005), Roosevelt publicly breaks with his hand-picked successor, Taft, and the Republican Party to run a doomed campaign at the head of the newly formed Progressive Party. O’Toole presents a detailed picture of the rupture between Roosevelt and Taft, suffused with sadness and misunderstanding and driven in equal parts by Taft’s lack of self-assurance and Roosevelt’s lack of self-knowledge.

Taft’s hurt feelings are palpable; in his laments about Roosevelt’s mistreatment of him, he frequently sounds like a jilted lover, or a kid who’s been beaten up by his long-admired older brother. In 1910 when Roosevelt first began speaking out against the work of Taft’s administration, “He is unhappy without the power he wielded as president. I have been made to feel it. His treatment of me has left scars that will never heal.” As Roosevelt saw it, though, O’Toole explains,
After promising the country that he would “complete and perfect the machinery” built by Roosevelt, Taft had allowed it to be dismantled. Roosevelt had not foreseen the dangers of leaving his progressivism to a maintenance man. Progress requires motion, change, momentum. Taft was a creature of stasis.

Baffled by Roosevelt’s animosity, Taft said more than once in the summer of 1910 that if he knew what Roosevelt wanted, he would do it. “I am absolutely in the dark.”
Following a slashing anti-Roosevelt speech on the campaign trail, Taft was dicovered by a reporter alone, head in hands. “‘Roosevelt was my closest friend,’ he said. Then he wept.” Despite his somewhat muddled nature and his less-than-forceful personality (especially when set alongside TR), it’s extremely hard not to feel sorry for Taft throughout the whole miserable period. He did, however, get the last laugh, I suppose: he not only defeated Roosevelt for the Republican nomination, but he went on to outlive him and to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the job he had always wanted most of all.

Meanwhile, though Roosevelt's need for power was so starkly obvious that his blatant refusal to even acknowledge it must have required a supreme exercise of his vaunted will. When, with Taft out of town (Taft liked to travel in part because it got him away from his wife and her hectoring about his waistline.), he visited Washington, DC,
[Roosevelt] stopped by [the White House] to leave his card—it would have been discourteous not to—and when the servants seemed glad to see him, he lingered. He inquired about the kitchen’s cornbread, which he remembered fondly, and the staff brought him a piece. He ate it as he followed the chief usher on a tour, which included an inspection of the new tennis court and a stop in the executive office, where he sat at the president’s desk and said how natural it felt to be there.
Trying to imagine a contemporary ex-president doing such a thing boggles the mind. O’Toole’s book leaves no doubt that it would have been good for Roosevelt—as it has been, I would argue, for Bill Clinton—had the Twenty-second Amendment been in place to set an insuperable limit on both his ambitions and his sense of duty.

Adding yet another layer of political and emotional complexity to the conflict is TR’s daughter Alice’s marriage to Republican congressman Nick Longworth, who represented Taft’s home district in Cincinnati. Though Roosevelt privately urged him to support Taft, as was his duty as Taft’s home congressman, the tension within the Longworth family was almost unsupportable. Taft backers through and through, they all, aside from Nick himself, hated the Roosevelts, including (especially?) Alice, and they never hesitated to make their feelings clear. Alice, truly torn, and unable to appear to support either candidate too fervently in public, perhaps suffered more than anyone other than TR when he lost the election; her husband, possibly due to his undesired (and undesirable) association with Roosevelt, was defeated by 101 votes in 1912, meaning the couple had to leave their beloved DC and move back to what Alice dubbed “Cincinnasty.” Worse yet, they were forced to live in Nick’s mother’s house, where
“even [Alice's] nieces and nephews had been taught to despise her. One of the boys, down with the chickenpox, had been told by his mother to be sure to kiss Aunt Alice. The boy allegedly refused on the ground that she would infect him with something worse from her.”
In this, too, President Taft comes off better than most, able to retain legitimate affection for Alice despite the difficult situation.

These brief episodes alone should give you an idea of how full of fascinating detail, incident, and insight When Trumpets Call is. It’s the work of a historian who is able to fully flesh out characters, bringing tremendous empathy to bear without letting it cloud her critical judgment. If the last half of the book holds up, it will be one of the best history books I’ve ever read, right up there with the first volume of Edmund Morris’s two-volume life of Roosevelt (while making any third volume he may be considering writing utterly unnecessary).

And I haven’t even touched on the story of the assassin who shot Roosevelt in Milwaukee during the 1912 campaign. I’ll save that for a later post; for now I’ll just tell you that of course TR didn’t allow the shooting to prevent him from making his planned speech that night, and that the reason the assassin didn’t shoot him in Chicago was that “he did not want to spoil the city’s ‘decent, respectable reception.’”

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