Sunday, April 27, 2014

On Will and Teddy

Being, in part, a review of The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin and, in larger part, a meditation on a particular beautiful epoch and on the little-recognized friendship that shaped it and the world that came after.

What did I learn about William Howard Taft from this book?  I learned that he was a big-hearted, good-humored man who made a friend of everyone he met, a dedicated public servant with a passion for the law, an all-too-human figure with an unfortunate tendency toward inertia and a desperate need for approval.
What did I learn about Theodore Roosevelt?
That he was one nutty sumbitch.
Roosevelt was for war.  He had this need to prove himself manly enough to dodge bullets and laugh in the face of death that led to some unseemly personal and private statements.  This was a guy who declared he would leave his wife’s deathbed to prove himself in mortal combat continents away.  There’s something weird in the head of a guy who could take a father’s benign advice to ‘get strong’ so literally and so seriously, to make himself into the perfect Rough Rider, despite hailing from an elevated social class with no particular need to cultivate Davey Crocket-esque Renaissance Men.  That he did so anyway is both a credit to him and somewhat pathological-seeming.  

What else to say about Roosevelt? His was a life of manic, astonishingly effective lunacy: ushering guests through his office on a revolving basis, somehow completely engaging with each of them while reading three books, writing four more, fighting the bosses in the Republican Party with one hand, drafting progressive legislation with the other, and doing an end-run around Congress by scribbling an executive order to declare 105% of the North American continent protected wilderness.  With his feet.  Oh, and probably giving dictation for about 300 pieces of personal correspondence, including florid letters to his wife (whom he dearly loved, despite his willingness to abandon her should duty call).  And that’s just during his presidency, after which you could count on him to be hunting big game with all the crowned heads of Europe while firing back telegrams on the upcoming 1912 presidential election alongside chapters of his memoir and editorials on gun control to run in all the major papers….I’m tired just thinking about it.

In this review as in life, Teddy is sucking all the air out of the room thanks to his huge personality, his boundless ambition, and his constant need for recognition.  Taft’s is a quieter presence, but one deserving of attention.  It’s a shame he’s known today mainly as the president with the giant tub; I am not exaggerating when I say he may be the most underrated public figure of the 20th century.  From his humanitarian work as Governor-general of the Philippines, to his troubled tenure in the White House, to the fulfillment of his life’s goal to preside over the Supreme Court--to say nothing of his much-cited decisions in his early judicial career--Taft left a great mark on the United States in the early 1900s.  Besides all that, Taft could have given a master class in sensitive familial relations and in honorable political sportsmanship.

(The third, and most atrophied, leg of this book’s narrative tripod consists of the muckraking journalists whose efforts awakened the American conscience and spurred on reformers like Roosevelt and Taft, with varying degrees of success.  The McClure’s magazine gang is interesting and important to the story of the progressive advances of the era, but I could have hoped for muted coverage of their personal lives—it bogs down the story and distracts from our presidential protagonists.  But the story of the magazine’s eventual schism is fascinating--tense, even, in a political thriller kind of way.  But now back to our dynamic duo.)

What surprised me was to learn that these two men were close, intimate friends.  Now, it’s easy to say that two public figures who served together and exchanged letters were friends without it necessarily being so, not by the standards of friendship most of us hold today.  But Doris Kearns Goodwin demonstrates that T.R. and W.H.T. were just that: a pair of public servants who met early in their careers in Washington, mingling their families, enjoying some of each other’s pastimes, corresponding constantly, and, most importantly, serving as each other’s sounding boards at every stage of their policymaking.  In each other they found strong political allies, full-throated advocates, and--so Roosevelt believed--a one-two punch of Progressive Presidential Power.  (That is to say, following his term in office, T.R. anointed Taft his heir, and the Republican Party did as their frustrating, beloved chief bade.)
When Taft takes office, the big issues of the day get a lot drier than Roosevelt’s dramatic wrangling of the trusts and imposition of regulations on America’s burgeoning industries.  Ironically, though, they take on greater implications for the success or failure of the administration.  Drab-sounding debates over the staffing of the conservation department and appropriate levels for the federal tariff turn into scandals that threaten to implode the presidency of Teddy’s hand-picked successor—and bring the two friends into direct conflict.
The differences between the political fortunes of the two can be best expressed by extending the qualities of their respective inaugurations.  For Roosevelt it was, almost literally, all bright skies and elated crowds, while for Taft it was often blizzards and calculated division.  Taft, a more methodical and conservative brand of politician, was ill-served by the brash style of his predecessor, finding the Republican Party ready to fracture; in any other circumstances, he probably would have made for a strong conciliatory leader, but not in the age of Teddy.
Roosevelt, for his part, seems to suffer a mild psychotic break after leaving office.  Gone is the charismatic firebrand who, for all his passion, was quick to forgive his friends’ opposing positions, to find a common ground.  One would be forgiven for thinking that Roosevelt’s tour of the European capitals, hailed by world leaders as the most famous American, rather went to his head, convincing him that any concessions to the realities of politics made by his successor must necessarily be out of line.  He is certainly cool to the beleaguered Taft upon his return to the States, and soon erupts into an all-out rival who threatens to exacerbate the growing rift in the Republican Party.  He, to paraphrase Christopher Nolan’s Harvey Dent, lived long enough to be unaware of the fact that he became the well-meaning, ego-driven villain.

One no-prize to the first True Believer who photoshops
this into a Teddy-Two Face.
The vicious three-way campaign that follows (hi, Woodrow Wilson and the genesis of the modern Democratic Party) has the unfortunate effect of driving the moderate-Progressive Taft deeper into party conservatism, as he feels compelled to defend the Republican brand from what he sees as Roosevelt’s radical, unconstitutional views on the judiciary (and if there’s one thing to know about Taft, it’s this: you do NOT mess with his judiciary).  Even as I understood and appreciated Taft’s reasons, I couldn’t help but be dismayed at his retreat from Progressivism—and I certainly lay a good amount of the blame for it at the feet of Theodore Roosevelt.  This is a good lesson for today’s radicals about how, with the best of intentions, they can shift the mechanisms of power away from their lofty aims and deeper into reactionary conservatism.  Let those of us with good hearts work together to take confident steps toward progress, rather than faltering leaps that land us on our liberal faces.  (In other words, liberals, enough of this “I stand with Rand” nonsense.)

The issues faced by Roosevelt and Taft--and those covered by the muckrakers--are eerily similar to those of today, much of them related to the role of privilege and wealth in our society, the power of government to regulate business, and the plight of the common folk in a highly striated class system.  What takes up most of our heroes’ time in a political sense is equally familiar as they contended with the radicals of both parties, crowds of firebrands who bear great resemblance to the current era’s Occupy Wall Streeters and Snowden-philes.  Taft and Roosevelt, like our present leaders, had to make hard choices between gratifying and combating these bases, and their actions reaffirm my faith in the sort of tack taken by President Obama today: that progress cannot be won by capitulation to the demands of such agitators, even when we might agree, in a broad sense, with the world they earnestly hope to establish.  At one point Roosevelt delivers a remarkable approximation of President Obama’s much cited exhortation not to let “the perfect be the enemy of the good”--and, not coincidentally, Roosevelt’s administration, like Obama’s, is known for its many progressive, epoch-shaping achievements, in spite of the hand-wringing of the radicals of both eras.  (Roosevelt and Taft, fortunately for them, didn’t have to deal with any serious equivalent of the Tea Party.)

The American century was kicked off by the turbo engine of these two men’s disparate personalities, and in many ways we can thank them for the shape of the society we enjoy today.  I’m glad Teddy didn’t win the election of 1912; I shudder to think about the alternate history emanating from a Great War with the Bull Moose at the helm.  But I am gratified that the planks of his separatist Progressive party have become an inextricable strand in the modern American social contract, with never a serious question as to their excision, but merely an ongoing effort to actualize and extend them. And I am glad that Taft was there, during Roosevelt’s tenure and after, to moderate the excesses of an enthusiastic but perhaps self-destructive Progressive movement--and to do so with admirable humanity and tact.

Like so many of these popular histories do, this one ends with a heart-wrenching coda on the lives of its central figures.  I turned the pages with apprehension, afraid to close the book on a great friendship still in ruins.  I’ll leave it to you to discover if my fears were realized.  Regardless, the great lesson I draw from this book is, corny as it may be, the power of friendship: the century just past was irrevocably altered because these two men, so dissimilar, one day moved to lodgings in the nation’s capital just up the street from one another.  The rupture of that friendship some decades later altered the course of history again.  What will you accomplish with your best friend?

1 comment:

  1. We will watch every X-Files episode.

    Great piece, maybe one of the best you've ever written. This little delicious linguistic shandy, "with never a serious question as to their excision, but merely an ongoing effort to actualize and extend them," is especially good, though I don't even know what excision means.

    Also, I grew tired of the book, and the Goodwin-y-ness, so you did an excellent job reviewing it, and also giving me the broad strokes I wanted in the first place.

    Now back to Mulder and Scully.