Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Burke and Fox, TR and Taft

Passing references to Wordsworth and Coleridge in Richard Holmes's Shelley: The Pursuit made me want to know more about the pair's long friendship and its eventual break--which, conveniently, is the subject of the reliable Adam Sisman's 2007 book The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge. I'm only a few chapters in, but thus far it seems likely to be as satisfying as Sisman's excellent book on Boswell.

The early chapters are largely devoted to the English reaction to the French Revolution, an eruption that caught the imagination of many thoughtful young Englishmen, including the two poets. I was particularly struck by a scene in which Sisman depicts the debates in Parliament over the legitimacy of France's new government, which finds longtime friends and allies Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke on opposite sides:
[W]hen an indignant Burke voiced his opposition to "all systems built on abstract rights" in the debate, Fox whispered his hope that though they disagreed, they might still remain friends. Burke spurned his appeal, declaring aloud that their friendship was at an end. Fox rose to reply, but was so hurt that he could not speak for some minutes, while tears trickled down his cheeks.
It is rare now, and--one assumes, with Trollope at least to back one up--was rare then, for political conflicts to reveal real, deep-seated emotion; carefully dissimulated reactions tend to be the order of the day. Fox's tears, however, reminded me immediately of another, more recent moment: the break between Theodore Roosevelt and his friend and successor William Howard Taft. I've written about it before as it's depicted in Patricia O'Toole's wonderful book about TR's post-presidential years, When Trumpets Call, but here's the gist:
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.” . . . 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.”
What's particularly remarkable about that excruciating scene is that it's hard to imagine TR even beginning to understand why Taft was upset; he seems to have been so utterly wrapped up in his own plans, so focused on his own importance, that he was almost entirely oblivious to the independent emotional existence of others. In my relatively limited, though growing, acquaintance with Burke, I get the impression that he was more open and human--but perhaps just as implacable a foe?

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