Saturday, May 14, 2016

Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

In 1910, after Theodore Roosevelt finished his second term as president of the United States, he went on a world-wide tour, where he was seen by all the heads of state in Europe and hailed as the most famous man in the world. That’s where this, Edmund Morris’s third of three volumes of biography, begins.

Surrounded by flunkeys, guarded wherever he went, Roosevelt was screened off from the extraordinary changes occurring at lower levels of Viennese society--changes more radical than anywhere else in Europe, and coincident with Austria-Hungary’s thrust into the Balkans. He did not see the pornographic nudes of Klimt and Schiele, Kokoschka’s explosive studies of angst-filled burghers, the rectilinear architecture of the Secessionists. He was deaf to the atonality of Schonberg and the warnings of local poets and playwrights that an apocalypse was coming.

And in this paragraph, I discovered another one of those PhD theses I would have written in another life. Does the content and style of progressive art in one era accurately predict the historical events and conflicts of the next?

It’s an interesting question--made all the more interesting when, 200 pages and three years later, after losing his bid for an unprecedented third term as president, and on his rival Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration day, Roosevelt finally gets a glimpse of some of that progressive art (decidedly American, not European) at a “Futurists Exhibition” at the Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory in midtown Manhattan.

Here’s how Edmund Morris, as graceful a writer as you’re ever likely to meet, conveys the scene and Roosevelt’s reaction to it all.

Moving on through five more galleries of contemporary American art, Roosevelt saw nothing by Saint-Gaudens, Frederick MacMonnies, William Merritt Chase, and other favorites of his presidency. He did not miss them. They had had too long a reign, with their effete laurel wreaths and Grecian profiles. It was clear that the show’s organizers, headed by the symbolist painter Arthur B. Davies, intended to eradicate the beaux arts style from the national memory. Even Sargent was shunned, in favor of young American artists of powerful, if not yet radical originality: George Bellows, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, and dozens of women willing to portray their sex without prettification.

This is art history as well as biography, Morris in this one paragraph and the few that follow easily capturing the essence of the changes coming to American society in the early 20th century. And Roosevelt?

Roosevelt was taken with Ethel Myers’s plastilene group “Fifth Avenue Gossips,”

whose perambulatory togetherness reminded him of the fifteenth idyll of Theocritus. He liked the social realism of John Sloan’s “Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair”

and George Luks’s camera quick sketches of animal activity at the Bronx Zoo.

Leon Kroll’s “Terminal Yards” impressed him,

although it represented the kind of desecration of the Hudson Palisades that he and George Perkins had worked to curtail. From a vertiginous, snowcapped height, the artist’s eagle eye looked down on railroad sidings and heaps of slag. Drifting vapor softened the ugliness and made it mysteriously poetic.

Note that, like all of us, Roosevelt is only able to experience art through the prism of his own philosophical and political sensibilities. Read on.

What pleased Roosevelt about the work of these “Ashcan” painters, and indeed the entire American showing as he wandered on, was the lack of “simpering, self-satisfied conventionality.” All his life he had deplored the deference his countrymen tended to extend toward the art and aristocracy of the Old World. Sloan was a social realist as unsentimental as Daumier, but bigger of heart. Walt Kuhn’s joyful “Morning”

had the explosive energy of a Van Gogh landscape, minus the neurosis. Hartley’s foreflattened “Still Life No. 1”

was the work of a stateside Cezanne, its Indian rug and tapestries projecting a geometry unseen in Provence.

Roosevelt responded to what he saw as American art, unsaddled from the conventions of Europe and its artistic schools. And yet…

His enjoyment did not diminish when he found himself among the works of European moderns loosely catalogued as “post-impressionist.” He was blind to a piece of pure abstraction by Wassily Kandinsky, but responded happily to the dreamy fantasies of Odilon Redon and the virtuoso draftsmanship of Augustus John, as well as to Whistler, Monet, Cezanne, and other acknowledged revolutionaries.

For this was Roosevelt, too. Welcomed in the salons of the European capitals, enjoying their luxuries and their deep historical weight, but always wistful, even when there, for the open American horizon--what he sought to tame both in the West and in Washington, DC.


Then came the slap in the face that was Matisse. More vituperation had been directed at this painter, in reviews of the show so far, than at any other “Cubist”--a term that actually did not apply to him, but nevertheless was used as an epithet. Roosevelt gazed at his “Joaquina”

And found its cartoony angularity simply absurd. Beyond loomed a kneeling nude by Wilhelm Lehmbruck.

Although obviously mammalian, it was not especially human; the “lyric grace” that had made it the sensation of a recent exhibition in Cologne reminded him more of a praying mantis.

A phrase he had recently tried out on Henry Cabot Lodge, in a letter complaining about political extremists, came to mind: lunatic fringe. It seemed even more applicable to the French radicals who now proceeded to insult his intelligence, as if he and not they were insane: Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, Maillol. He boggled at Marcel Duchamp’s Nu descendant un escalier,

a shuttery flutter of cinematic movement propelled by the kind of arcs that American comic artists drew to telegraph punches, or baseball swings. If this was Cubism, or Futurism, or Near-Impressionism, or whatever jargon-term the theorists of modern art wanted to apply to it, he believed he had seen it before, in a Navajo rug.

To our modern eyes, the stylistic progression from the works Roosevelt appreciated to the ones that shocked his sensibilities is neither dramatic nor difficult to discern. But even for Roosevelt, a man who straddled two centuries perhaps better than any American before or after, Cubism was clearly a bridge too far. After deconstructing European formalism to create something uniquely American, he evidently wasn’t ready to deconstruct that American ideal, even for the chance of transcending it to something greater.

Which brings me back to the dissertation idea I started with. In Europe in 1910, he was screened-off from the extraordinary changes occurring in society. In America in 1913, he was blind to them.

The Aging Progressive

Which is a bit of a surprise.

After the crush and his loss in the 1912 presidential campaign, Roosevelt turned more of his attention to his literary pursuits, accepting remuneration for writing essays of his own choosing for several popular magazines. His disagreements with Sonya Levein--a Russian-born radical whom he called “Little Miss Anarchist” and, who served as his editor for the Metropolitan--are equally revealing of the increasing distance the progressivism of the age was putting on the aging ex-president.

She saw that Roosevelt could not understand the difference between the kind of boredom he complained of on the campaign trail, and the spiritual despair of miners and factory workers who saw nothing ahead of them but brute labor and an unpaid old age. His response to her attempts to enlighten him on that score was invariable: that the life of the working poor could be improved by social legislation, but that ultimately every man’s success or failure depended upon “character.”

It’s an interesting perspective because, of course, Roosevelt, in the vigor of his youth and his presidency, was a progressive. One of things I have always found fascinating about him is the way he tried to balance the conservatism of America’s origin myths with the emerging progressiveness of an interventionist government. Unlike many of the politicians of his day (and today) he was both an individualist and a collectivist, mixing the two philosophies together in what he deemed to be the right mixture for American prosperity and exceptionalism. In this way he may have been the First Progressive (or the Last Romantic; take your pick), paving the way for collectivist excesses of Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, their assimilation into a broad political consensus safeguarded by Truman and Eisenhower, then fractured by Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan, and its ultimate degeneration into the polar opposite political camps we endure today.

I believe Theodore Roosevelt can be viewed as the first link in this chain, the opening chapter in the long history of the American political climate in the 20th century.

Want an example of this progressiveness? As Morris details in the first half of his book, long before Roosevelt came under Levien’s editorial rancor, he went through a period of being very disturbed and distressed about no longer being the president of the United States. As a result, he quickly re-entered politics, first as a public speaker, then to stump for other Republican candidates, and finally to campaign for a then-unprecedented third term as president.

And this must have been a time when he felt his progressive legacy most poignantly. Here’s a revealing couple of paragraphs from Morris’s summary of one of those early public speeches in Colorado.

It was a looming third crisis he wished to discuss--one utterly modern, yet still subject to the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. The Emancipator had advocated harnessing a universal dynamic, whose power derived from the struggle between those who produced, and those who profited. Roosevelt quoted Lincoln’s famous maxim, Labor is the superior of capital, and joked, “If that remark was original with me, I should be even more strongly denounced as a communist agitator than I shall be anyhow.”

Nevertheless, he was willing to go further in insisting that property rights must henceforth be secondary to those of the common welfare. A maturing civilization should work to destroy unmerited social status. “The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been … to take from some one man or class the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows.”

America’s corporate elite, Roosevelt said, was fortifying itself with the compliance of political bosses. He revived one of his favorite catchphrases: “I stand for the square deal.” Granting that even monopolistic corporations were entitled to justice, he denied them any right to influence it, or to assume that they could buy votes in Congress.

“The Constitution guarantees protections to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation. The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being.”

Despite being a Republican, these views did not belong in the Republican party of Roosevelt’s day, much less the Republican party of our day. And in them, I think it’s plain to see, many of the controversies and differences of opinion that Republicans and Democrats are still debating to this day. Property rights must henceforth be secondary to those of the common welfare? Supreme Court justices are appointed or rejected based on their view on this question. And the paragraph about corporations being given the right to vote, about becoming the masters of the people who created them, brings to mind the recent controversies over Citizens United and Hobby Lobby. What, one wonders, would Teddy Roosevelt have made of those decisions?

The Will of the People

Another way that Roosevelt was different from most modern politicians is that he honored the proud Jeffersonian tradition of not publicly seeking an office he desperately craved.

Within two days of the opening of his national headquarters in Chicago, the pressure on Roosevelt to declare had increased to such a point that he decided to yield--but only to a petition that made clear his reluctance to run. He asked the four Republican governors who were most energetically championing him (Chase Osborn of Michigan, Robert P. Bass of New Hampshire, William E. Glasscock of West Virginia, and Walter R. Stubbs of Kansas) to send him a written appeal for his candidacy. If they would argue that they were acting on behalf of the “plain people” who had elected them, he would feel “in honor bound” to say yes.

Here we see the ulitmate hypocrisy of political ambition writ large.

Roosevelt maintained for the rest of the month that he was not a candidate. “Do not for one moment think that I shall be President next year,” he cautioned Joseph Bucklin Bishop, one of his most obsequious acolytes. “I write you, confidentially, that my own reading of the situation is that while there are a great many people in this country who are devoted to me, they do not form more than a substantial minority of the ten or fifteen millions of voters. … Unless I am greatly mistaken, the people have made up their mind that they wish some new instrument, that they do not wish me; and if I know myself, I am sincere when I tell you that this does not cause one least little particle of regret to me.”

Of course, Roosevelt is only setting the stage here. Telling one of his acolytes (wink, confidentially) that he does not believe he will be offered nor will he seek the nomination for president, knowing full well that soon his secretly-asked-for petition will arrive. Me? he will likely exclaim in tones devoid of any political ambition. The country wants me?

A fascinating subject, and perhaps worthy of another PhD thesis, would be trying to determine if Roosevelt actually believed this. His ensuing rhetoric on the campaign trail, following the arrival of his manufactured “people’s petition,” is enough to make one think he might be self-deluded on this very point.

Roosevelt’s sharp voice scratched every sentence into the receptivity of his listeners, and his habit of throwing sheet after sheet of manuscript to the floor seemed to mime points raised and dealt with. His peroration brought even [Republican boss William] Barnes to his feet in applause:

“The leader for the time being, whoever he may be, is but an instrument, to be used until broken and then to be cast aside; and if he is worth his salt he will care no more when he is broken than a soldier cares when he is sent where his life is forfeit in order that the victory may be won. In the long fight for righteousness the watchword for all of us is “Spend and be spent.”

Here is the true emblem of leadership--for the cause, not for myself--delivered so persuasively that even hardened political bosses are brought to their feet. And when learning of some distressing early primary defeats:

“They are stealing the primary elections from us,” [Roosevelt] said. “All I ask is a square deal. … I cannot and will not stand by while the opinion of the people is being suppressed and their will thwarted.”

It is a slight not against Roosevelt the candidate, but against the “will of the people.”

I don’t buy it. I think Roosevelt was a skilled enough politician to dose his subterfuge with sincerity, while being smart enough to convince everyone except himself. And, evidently, I wasn’t the only one. There were plenty of people in Roosevelt’s age who saw through the calculation, who saw the hubris that boiled away beneath the humility.

As Roosevelt continued to rack up primary wins, trumpeting each victory as a personal triumph, [Harper’s Weekly cartoonist E. W.] Kemble began a savage series of caricatures portraying him as a self-obsessed spoiler. Grinning toothily, “Theodosus the Great” crowned himself with laurels; he toted a tar-bucket of abuse and splattered it, black and dripping, across the Constitution, Supreme Court, and White House. He emboldened every capital I in a screed reading:

I am the will of the
people I am the leader
I chose myself to be
leader it is MY
right to do so. Down with
the courts, the bosses
and every confounded thing that opposes
do you get me?
I will have as many terms
in office as I
desire. Sabe!

And, as nauseating as the hypocrisy is, it might be refreshing for some of our modern politicians to take a similar tack. But perhaps, just as our modern politicians are creatures of their own age, perhaps Roosevelt (and Jefferson) were just creatures of theirs. Was there a time in American history when people whowanted to be president could not say that they desired the position or the power, since that, above all, would turn the electorate against them? It is only when others say they want someone else to be president, even over that person’s initial objections, that we believe the person in question might have the character to be president?

Maybe things haven’t changed so much after all. I’ve noticed that as my mind becomes more and more politically aware--or politically cynical, as I’m sure many who know me would say--I see more and more parallels to our modern world in the political machinations of the past.

President Taft told Archie Butt that Roosevelt was delusional if he thought he could control the forces of anarchy he had unleashed. “He will either be a hopeless failure if elected or else destroy his own reputation by becoming a socialist, being swept there by the force of circumstances just as the leaders of the French Revolution were swept on and on.”

A fairly inconspicuous paragraph. Advice from the sitting president back to his predecessor, political mentor, and possible successor. But in it I see a penetrating commentary on the political extremism of today’s candidates. I’m writing at the end of February 2016, although this will probably post sometime in May, and there are extremists currently leading in the presidential nomination process for both the Republican and Democratic parties. Should either be elected, I wonder, in Taft’s words, where their extremism will “sweep” them. One preaches isolationist-know-nothing-ism and the other is an avowed socialist, and they both have vocal prescriptions for our country whose popularity only seems to benefit from their impracticability. Just as Taft feared that Roosevelt would not be able to control the forces of “anarchy” he was tampering with, I fear the opposite forces of populism these candidates are tampering with, and I question whether either of them will be able to control these forces once elected and the campaign promise checks start coming due.

Cavalry Charges vs. Mustard Gas

But just as Roosevelt was a kind of visionary when it came to progressive politics, he was, in my opinion, a kind of regressive romantic when it came to his views on war. Morris summarizes it well.

Like many men of martial instinct, the Colonel claimed to be peaceable. But it was plain to everybody that he loved war and thought of it as a catharsis. War purged the fat and ill humors of a sedentary society whose values had been corrupted by getting and spending. Waged for a righteous cause, it reawakened moral fervor, intensified love and loyalty, concentrated the mind on fundamental truths, strengthened the body both personal and political. It was, in short, good for man, good for man’s country, and often as not, good for the vanquished too. In celebrating its terrible beauty, Roosevelt often came near the sentimentality he despised among pacifists--so much so that some of his most affectionate friends felt their gorges rise when he romanticized death in battle.

War as catharsis. It’s a quaint idea. For the great men of history, perhaps, it is a catharsis. But for its millions of other victims, names unknown? And for its billions of victors and vanquished, generations of them, that must live in the world that war has shattered?

People like Sonya Levien saw this regressivism for what it was--a relic of an old way of life that could no longer meet this challenges of an increasingly modern world. In the years after Woodrow Wilson’s election as president, as American involvement in World War I became more and more inevitable, Roosevelt still nurtured these quaint ideas.

He had not forgotten his dream of leading a force of super-Rough Riders into battle, and took it for granted that the War Department would allow him to do so as a major-general. The plan sounded old, even antiquated, when he spelled it out to General Frank Ross McCoy on 10 July [1915]. “My hope is, if we are to be drawn into this European war, to get Congress to authorize me to raise a Cavalry Division, which would consist of four cavalry brigades each of two regiments, and a brigade of Horse Artillery of two regiments, with a pioneer battalion or better still, two pioneer battalions, and a field battalion of signal troops in addition to a supply train and a sanitary train.”

Roosevelt vaguely explained that he meant motor trains, “and I would also like a regiment or battalion of machine guns.” But it was obvious he still thought the quickest path to military glory was the cavalry charge--ignoring the fact that modern Maxim-gun fire had proved it to be an amazingly effective form of group suicide. And he also chose to forget that the last time he had tried to haul his heavy body onto a horse, at Sagamore Hill in May, he had ended up on the ground with two broken ribs.

There are few other appropriate words than “delusional” for this line of thinking. In his day, charging up San Juan Hill was certainly dangerous and brave. But, by 1915, the meatgrinder of machine guns and trench warfare was upon the world, and any military leader worth his salt would have been required to change not only his tactics but his outlook as well. On San Juan Hill, war turned boys into men. At Verdun it turned them into hamburger.

So when Roosevelt made public statements about the Great War, statements like this...

“I have always wanted to be with Mrs. Roosevelt and my children, and now with my grandchildren. I’m not a brawler. I detest war. But if war came I’d have to go, and my four boys would go, too, because we have ideals in this family.” has to wonder if he truly grasped the price those ideals would cost him and his family.

When American forces advanced through the tiny village of Chamery, in the Marne province of France, they came upon a cross-shaped fragment of a Nieuport fighter sticking out of a field just east of the road to Coulonges. Some German soldier had taken a knife and scratched on it the words ROOSEVELT. It marked [the grave of Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin], and a few yards away the rest of his plane lay wrecked. … The autopsy performed by the Germans before Quentin’s burial indicated that he had been killed before he crashed. Two bullets had passed through his brain. He had been thrown out on impact, and photographed where he fell.

It was an event that might have shattered Roosevelt’s war spirit, to make him finally come to embrace the abject futility of war that the machines, like Quentin’s own Nieuport fighter, had created--if he himself would not be dead within six short months.

But in November 1916, campaigning against Wilson’s re-election, that anger had not yet been slaked. Quite the reverse, it was stoked to white-hot intensity by the deaths of other innocents.

A sense spread through the audience that Roosevelt was going to let rip, as he had when he jumped onto a table in Atlanta in 1912. But nothing he had said then, or since, compared with the attack on Woodrow Wilson that now rasped into every corner of the hall.

“During the last three years and a half, hundreds of American men, women, and children have been murdered on the high seas and in Mexico. Mr. Wilson has not dared to stand up for them. … He wrote Germany that he would hold her to ‘strict accountability’ if an American lost his life on an American or neutral ship by her submarine warfare. Forthwith the Arabic and the Gulflight were sunk. But Mr. Wilson dared not take any action. … Germany despised him; and the Lusitania was sunk in consequence. Thirteen hundred and ninety-four people were drowned, one hundred and three of them babies under two years of age. Two days later, when the dead mothers with their dead babies in their arms lay by the scores in the Queenstown morgue, Mr. Wilson selected the moment as opportune to utter his famous sentence about being ‘too proud to fight.’”

Roosevelt threw his speech script to the floor and continued in near absolute silence.

“Mr. Wilson now dwells at Shadow Lawn. There should be shadows enough at Shadow Lawn: the shadows of men, women, and children who have risen from the ooze of the ocean bottom and from graves in foreign lands; the shadows of the helpless whom Mr. Wilson did not dare protect lest he might have to face danger; the shadows of babies gasping pitifully as they sank under the waves; the shadows of women outraged and slain by bandits; the shadows of … troopers who lay in the Mexican desert, the black blood crusted round their mouths, and their dim eyes looking upward, because President Wilson had sent them to do a task, and then shamefully abandoned them to the mercy of foes who knew no mercy.

“Those are the shadows proper for Shadow Lawn: the shadows of deeds that were never done; the shadows of lofty words that were followed by no action; the shadows of the tortured dead.”

The note I scribbled in the margin beside this remarkable passage is short and simple. Wow. We might well imagine politicians of today uttering words like these against their rivals, but in 1916 it must have been unthinkable. And indeed, Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican candidate that Roosevelt had been stumping for, lost the election a few days later to Woodrow Wilson.

But then returns from late-counting states showed that Republicans and former Progressives had deserted Hughes in the Midwest, canceling out his early gains elsewhere. The great bulk of those desertions could be ascribed to Roosevelt’s warlike rhetoric, which had made Hughes’s candidacy seem more pro-intervention that it actually was. In the end, after two days of statistical swings, the normally Republican state of California reelected Wilson by a margin of only 3,773 votes. Hughes was so angry in defeat that he did not concede until 22 November.

“I hope you are ashamed of Mr. Roosevelt,” Alice Hooper wrote Frederick Jackson Turner. “If one man was responsible for Mr. Wilson he was the man--thus perhaps Mr. Roosevelt ought to see the Shadows of Shadow Lawn and the dead babies in the ooze of the Sea!”

This, to me, is the most remarkable aspect of this episode. In 1916, it was saber-rattling that lost elections--something Wilson clearly understood as he “dared not take any action.” A hundred years later, in 2016, it sometimes feels like saber-rattling is the surest way to win an election.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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