Monday, March 17, 2014

More humane by comparison

Jackson Lears, reviewing Doris Kearns Goodwin's most recent book, finds it "thoroughly mediocre," adding later "She provides no new interpretation and no new information, covering a lot of ground well tilled already by political historians and biographers. Plowing through her undistinguished prose, one is tempted to ask: why was this lumbering production unleashed upon the world?" The book is The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Whatever the merits of the book, Lears' review is one of those long-form essays that is an education in itself about a period in American history. Although Lears' main concern is criticizing from the left Goodwin's faulty and inadequate characterization of Progressivism, conservatives who read the review will find much with which to agree — particularly with respect to Roosevelt and Taft.
.... Taft and Roosevelt were linked by their elite backgrounds.... But there the resemblance ended. Taft was cautious, judicious, fair, generous, kind, slow to anger, eager to overlook slights; his enormous heft, topping out at 332 pounds, reinforced the impression that he was a man given to sustained deliberation. Roosevelt, by contrast, was restless and rarely still—“pure Act,” in Henry Adams’s words. He was also opportunistic, convinced of his own righteousness, manipulative toward people who could advance his interests, and vindictive toward actual and imagined enemies. Above all, he despised indecision and inaction as signs of weakness. For Roosevelt, doing something—even something mistaken and destructive—was always better than doing nothing. ...Taft comes across as a more humane leader and a more companionable character. ....

According to Archie Butt, who served in both presidencies, Taft was “in many ways...the best man I have ever known, too honest for the Presidency, possibly, and possibly too good-natured or too trusting or too something on which it is hard just now for a contemporary to put his finger....” The tactical problem, as Taft recognized, was that Roosevelt had declared war on Taft, and “in a war,” as Baker observed, “the chief thing is to fight.” ....

Even his old friend Elihu Root admitted that [Roosevelt] "is essentially a fighter, and when he gets into a fight he is completely dominated by the desire to destroy.” When the fight was over, his friendship with Taft was in shreds, though they managed to meet and reconcile in 1918. It is somehow fitting that Roosevelt spent his last years railing against Woodrow Wilson’s timidity while Taft became chief justice of the Supreme Court. Both men stayed in character to the end. .... [more]