Wednesday, 1 December 2010

“Lion in the White House”, by Aida D. Donald (Basic Books)

Donald-LionInTheWhiteHouseA Life of Theodore Roosevelt

New York State Assemblyman, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice President and, at forty-two, the youngest President ever — in his own words, Theodore Roosevelt “rose like a rocket.” He was also a cowboy, a soldier, a historian, an intrepid explorer, and an unsurpassed environmentalist.

Lion in the White House chronicles the life of this first modern president. TR’s accomplishments in office were immense. As President, Roosevelt redesigned the office of Chief Executive and the workings of the Republican Party to meet the challenges of the new industrial economy. Believing that the emerging aristocracy of wealth represented a genuine threat to democracy, TR broke trusts to curb the rapacity of big business. He built the Panama Canal and engaged the country in world affairs, putting a temporary end to American isolationism. And he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Throughout his public career, TR fought valiantly to steer the GOP back to its noblest ideals as embodied by Abraham Lincoln. Alas, his hopes for his party were quashed by the GOP’s strong rightward turn in the years after he left office. But his vision for America lives on.

In lapidary prose, this concise biography recounts the courageous life of one of the greatest leaders our nation has ever known.

Theodore Roosevelt is one of my favourite US presidents, and I am always on the lookout for new books about his life, presidency and personality. He is one of the more written about presidents (not to mention the most prolific of writers himself, having published almost twenty books over his lifetime).

Donald gives us a spirited and brisk tour through TR’s youth, upbringing, career at Harvard, and also his early political career. The Roosevelt family was almost picture-perfect; the children were doted upon by both their parents, and TR’s father was his idol and the epitome of what he believed a man should be. His childhood was that of a sickly child overcoming his frail body – a hurdle he cleared admirably and with a tenacity that would characterise much of his political style, not to mention his vigorous conduct as colonel during the war for Cuba (for which he raised his famous unit, the Rough Riders – a move that would ultimately catapult him onto the national stage as the most famous politician in America). At Harvard, he performed admirably, making a mixed impression on his professors but receiving good grades throughout his tenure there, and his father encouraged his pursuit of science and authorial impulses. After Harvard, TR enrolled at Columbia Law School, but “he found the law lacking in social justice and only a cover to protect wealth and business.” This would be the beginning of his long disgust at the power of corporations and business interests in the United States. “It was a critical judgement, made early in life, which would soon carry into a turbulent political career.”

In his early forays into politics, we see the roots of his eventual presidential priorities. His focus on doing and seeing for himself, rather than just taking people at their word, would lead him to acquire an increasing wish to ease the suffering of the lower and labouring classes – walking through New York’s slums was particularly eye-opening and, as a member of the Police Commission in New York City, TR would personally take part in patrols and organising arrests of slumlords and tenement closures.

“Roosevelt intuited that a politician must lead the people with an original set of principles, not just mirror those cobbled to the lowest common denominator.”

TR righteously went after the corruption that characterised New York politics at the time. His reformation of the police force as Police Commission President was particularly noteworthy and impressive, as he slowly eroded the power and influence of Tammany Hall. It was an impressive time for TR, save one considerable blunder at the end of his tenure on the commission (namely, making drinking illegal on Sundays, which resulted in huge opposition & consequent political defeats for Republicans).

The author often mentions TR’s reverence for Lincoln, who he frequently drew inspiration from, and how this impacted his political views and approach:

“As a Republican whose ideal was Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt would always be color-blind and guided by the tenet of equality.”

Throughout his career, he would hold firm in the face of (usually Democratic) opposition to, and complaints about, his application of equality, regardless of the government post he occupied. In only one instance did he cave to popular resentment, and that was with Booker T. Washington, who consulted and met with TR – but only once, after the meeting caused a racist backlash. This is an example of TR’s pragmatic approach to politics overtaking his personal disinterest in anyone’s colour or creed.

As governor of New York, TR took on the large corporations and trusts by seeking to make them report their profits. Through a slew of provisions, he was able to grow the State’s coffers by roughly $11.5million (a vast sum at the time).

“He sought laws to break monopolies and to oversee accounting reviews to get corporations to pay their taxes. Not incidentally, he thought he made corporations more moral by making them pay their fair share. Roosevelt also knew corporations would now have less money with which to corrupt politics.”

In an example of his progressivism, Donald discusses TR’s appreciation of the needs of the labouring class, who had been struggling for too long against the all-powerful corporations and trusts who were wealthy enough to bribe and buy off government officials to do their bidding.

“Within the broad sphere of society and social relations, Roosevelt preferred order, regularity, and balance. This meant curbing the meretricious, laissez-faire tendencies by business that had injured the laboring population. The way to help labor was to empower it to organize and even strike, although Roosevelt would never condone mob violence either by labor or capital. Labor was expected to negotiate wages and conditions.”

TR’s time as governor of New York would have a considerable impact on how he later conducted himself as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and then as President. Over the course of the political battles to reform the corrupt New York civil and police services, he evolved as a politician and political operative. He was not always successful, and was less opposed to compromising than he used to be when he was a member of the state legislature – willing to allow bills to pass that were the best he could hope for, rather than all he wished for.

“He was fast becoming a practical politician and slipping away from the high idealism of reformers. His hard political life seemed to mimic, more and more, the strenuous life he knew in the saddle, and his resilience owed much to his experience with the ebb and flow of the natural world in the West. If Roosevelt rose like a rocket, he governed like he was shot from a gun.”

His interest and passion for Civil Service reform would again surface in the Governor’s mansion and then the White House. In New York City, it was the police force; in Albany, it was the New York State civil service; in the White House it was the nation.

“He had demanded accountability from corporations when he was governor of New York, when they overvalued stock, watered stock, and fooled investors with corrupt practices, and he would take his battle against what he called ‘bad’ trusts to the larger playing field.”

TR’s anti-trust tendencies also led him to make one of his most significant contributions to American politics and society: the appointment of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., to the Supreme Court.

“The high court was antilabor, probusiness, laissez-faire to the extreme, and prohibited most union activity. In doing so, it put private property above individual or community rights, which Roosevelt thought was wrong.”

Holmes promised to give America a more Rooseveltian Supreme Court. Holmes would, however, side against TR in the first major anti-trust case. Holmes would eventually go on to become a progressive high court judge, in tune with many of TR’s policies and preferences.

“Roosevelt was probably too hasty in his judgement of Holmes, whose promise developed slowly. The president’s instinct was true, but his patience was limited.”

Donald provides us with an excellent, broad account of TR’s foreign policy, and his plans to extend McKinley’s more modest policies. From Hawaii, Cuba and the Philippines to his addition of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, the author provides detailed, well-structured accounts of the policy process. TR’s work on conservation is also detailed and explained, as his continued activity and political and progressive activism post-presidency.

If I have one criticism, it is that more could have been made of TR’s friendship with Henry Cabot Lodge, which (thanks most recently to The War Lovers) we know was an exceptionally close partnership, and one that provided not only a great deal of comfort for both men, but also many political victories. [I should note, at this point, that I am a great fan of Henry Cabot Lodge, and feel he is a man long over-due his own proper biography. Perhaps I should write one...]

The main themes running throughout the book are TR’s progressivism and his character. The former informed all of his political decisions and policies (proposed, rejected and implemented). The latter is what gives the book its great flavour and style – Donald utilises many words and phrases that have a distinctly ‘TR-feel’ to them, matching his brio and eccentricities perfectly. Frequent passages about TR’s devotion to his family, his pastimes and interests help round out a positive portrait of an energetic, charismatic family-man. It is also interesting to note how at odds TR’s policies and wishes are with the contemporary Republican Party – who, it should be pointed out, frequently lay claim to TR, despite their considerable and stark differences in ideology (the same can be said for the GOP’s ownership claim of Abraham Lincoln).

A delight to read, Lion in the White House is both engaging and informative. It kept me awake reading well into the night in two long sittings – something non-fiction works rarely do (Evan Thomas’s The War Lovers – also TR-related – being the only other recent work of history to do this). Donald’s brisk pacing and historian’s authorial skill allows for a quick read that does not skimp on details while avoiding the pitfalls of over-detailing.

Lion in the White House is the best short biography of Theodore Roosevelt I’ve come across. It is insightful, detailed yet not overly so; an enjoyable read, written in a fresh pace and style. If you only read one book on TR, I would strongly recommend it be this one. I thoroughly enjoyed Lion in the White House, and can’t recommend it enough.


Also try: Evan Thomas, The War Lovers (2010); Louis Auchincloss, Theodore Roosevelt (2002); H.W. Brands, TR: The Last Romantic (1998) Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979), Theodore Rex (2001) & Colonel Roosevelt (2010); Theodore Roosevelt, The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt (numerous editions); David McCullough, Mornings on Horseback (1982); Douglas Brinkley, The Wilderness Warrior (2010); Edward Kohn, Hot Time in the Old Town (2010)

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