Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Lincoln or TR?

On the eve of this splendid, historic Election Day, I faced a reading choice, one that seems to confront me every couple of years: Lincoln or TR? I find both endlessly fascinating, but it’s hard to imagine men of more different temperaments. So which president should accompany me through this election week? So far, I’ve dithered, reading bits of some books about each, unable to choose.

Reading about Roosevelt is, it seems, a lot like being with Roosevelt: fascinating and fun, but draining. He was exactly who he seemed to be, a big, boisterous, energetic, smart, willful, needy man who, in the words of his children, “longed to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” There are virtually no unplumbed depths there—as biographer Patricia O’Toole puts it, he “galloped away from introspection.” So the pleasures of reading about Roosevelt lie in a combination of the joys of reading about someone of such indomitable will and awe at the sheer number of his accomplishments, good and bad. O’Toole’s book, When Trumpets Call (2005), which is the one I have before me, promises to be of particular interest on both fronts, as it focuses on Roosevelt’s post-presidential years, when his will began to be thwarted and his own sense of accomplishment began to waver.

To read about Lincoln, on the other hand, is to yaw between shivering admiration (bordering, this life-long Illinoisan will admit, on reverence) and deeply felt sympathy for the obviously human, familiar man trying not to be crushed by the unimaginable pressures brought to bear on him in the last five years of his life. In his knowledge of himself, Lincoln seems to have been the opposite of Roosevelt. Doris Kearns Goodwin explains in her book about Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals (2005):
Lincoln possessed an uncanny understanding of his shifting moods, a profound self-awareness that enabled him to find constructive ways to alleviate sadness and stress. Indeed, when he is compared with his colleagues, it is clear that he possessed the most even-tempered disposition of them all. Time and again, he was the one who dispelled his colleagues’ anxiety and sustained their spirits with his gift for storytelling and his life-affirming sense of humor. When resentment and contention threatened to destroy his administration, he refused to be provoked by petty grievances, to submit to jealousy, or to brood over perceived slights. Through the appalling pressures he faced day after day, he retained an unflagging faith in his country’s cause.
Yet he remains somewhat mysterious; as Richard Carwardine relates in Lincoln (2003),
Lincoln had dignity, considerable reserve, few real intimates, and a proper sense of the private; as John G. Nicolay and John Milton Hay, his White House secretaries [both quite young men, who would go on to write the first major biography of Lincoln], later remarked, in personal relations with him, “there was a line beyond which no one ever thought of passing.” But he was hardly aloof. He cultivated no airs and graces. In the words of a fellow lawyer, “in the ordinary walks of life [he] did not appear the ‘great man’ that he really was.”

Yet, like TR, Lincoln got people to do what he wanted and needed them to do—including his star-studded, fractious cabinet. And he was clearly a shrewd judge of character (a characteristic he definitely shared with General Grant, though, not, sadly, with President Grant). My interest in that aspect of Lincoln, of his deep understanding of personal relations and how to work with people, may tip the balance this week in his favor, and in favor of Team of Rivals.

But on the other hand, When Trumpets Call, because it treats TR’s post-presidential years, necessarily delves into the many failures of President Taft and the vexed relationship between Roosevelt and his hand-picked successor:
[Taft biographers] have wondered in exasperation how Roosevelt ever could have considered him fit for the presidency. Taft was indolent, irresolute, dependent, and undone by opposition and criticism—a dooming combination. But the Taft that Roosevelt knew had distinguished himself as governor-general of the Philippines, problem-solver in Cuba and Panama, and secretary of war. Under Roosevelt’s energetic leadership, Taft kept his lassitude in check, and his other shortcomings easily could have manifested themselves as virtues. A dependent man makes an excellent lieutenant, for he is happiest when carrying out the orders of others. And a man who shies away from conflict can be an exceptionally agreeable colleague. TR thought his friend Will had “the most loveable personality” of anyone he had ever known.
If that’s not a recipe for a fascinating book, what is?

So TR or Lincoln? Taft and TR or Lincoln and his cabinet? How to choose?

Maybe I should change the name of this blog to too many books, too little time?


  1. TR is Mr. Toad and Taft is Moley. Who are Ratty and Badger?

  2. Ratty is without a doubt Elihu Root. Badger I'll have to think about.

  3. What a good writer you are! I think I could spend a week reading your posts about TR, just about my favorite man in the world. And this coming from a vegetarian, non-hunter, is saying something. I'll be back to read more and more. I haven't read When Trumpets Call... yet. I've read a few about him, and was prompted to join the Theodore Roosevelt Association:

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Nan. For all that TR has his inexcusable sides, he's such a complicated and outsized figure that I find him perpetually fascinating and impressive. You just may convince me to join the Association!

    As you can probably tell, I was very impressed with When Trumpets Call--so much so that I'm not sure what will be left for Edmund Morris to contribute when he gets around to finally publishing the third volume of his very good TR trilogy.

    Another fantastic late TR book is Candice Millard's River of Doubt, about a dangerous Amazon exploration trip TR took just after leaving office. It's quite a story, full of drama--yet the incidents it describes in its 250+ pages take up all of about three pages in When Trumpets Call!

    Finally, a great recent TR moment: during Major League Baseball's season-opening game March 30th at the new Washington Nationals Park,
    the Nationals featured a foot race among four people dressed up in big foam-headed costumes as the four Mount Rushmore presidents. Washington, simply flying, took an early lead, and when Jefferson tripped over his own feet, taking Honest Abe down with him, it looked like Washington's race all the way. But then TR came streaking into the frame--having clearly taken an illegal shortcut across the diamond and came very close to pipping Washington at the tape. His moustache bristled with just the right TR-style competitive fervor!