The Article: Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy by Gore Vidal via Random House.
The Text: In Washington, D.C., there is–or was–a place where Rock Creek crosses the main road and makes a ford which horses and, later, cars could cross if the creek was not in flood. Half a hundred years ago, I lived with my grandparents on a wooded hill not far from the ford. On summer days, my grandmother and I would walk down to the creek, careful to avoid the poison ivy that grew so luxuriously amid the crowded laurel. We would then walk beside the creek, looking out for crayfish and salamanders. When we came to the ford, I would ask her to tell me, yet again, what happened when the old President Roosevelt– not the current President Roosevelt–had come riding out of the woods on a huge horse just as two ladies on slow nags had begun a slow crossing of the ford.
“Well, suddenly, Mr. Roosevelt screamed at them, ‘Out of my way!’” My grandmother imitated the president’s harsh falsetto. “Stand to one side, women. I am the President.” What happened next? I’d ask, delighted “Oh, they were both soaked to the skin by his horse’s splashing all over them. But then, the very next year,” she would say with some satisfaction, “nice Mr. Taft was the president.” Plainly, there was a link in her mind between the Event at the Ford and the change in the presidency. Perhaps there was. In those stately pre-personal days you did not call ladies women.
The attic of the Rock Creek house was filled with thousands of books on undusted shelves while newspapers, clippings, copies of the Congressional Record were strewn about the floor. My grandmother was not a zealous housekeeper. There was never a time when rolled-up Persian rugs did not lie at the edge of the drawing room, like crocodiles dozing. In 1907, the last year but one of Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, my grandfather came to the Senate. I don’t think that they had much to do with each other. I found only one reference to TR–as he was always known–on the attic floor. In 1908, when Senator Gore nominated William Jennings Bryan for president, he made an alliterative aside, “I much prefer the strenuosity of Roosevelt to the sinuosity of Taft.”
Years later I asked him why he had supported Bryan, a man who had never, in my grandfather’s own words, “developed. He was too famous too young. He just stopped in his thirties.” So why had he nominated Bryan for president? Well, at the time there were reasons: he was vague. Then, suddenly, the pale face grew mischievous and the thin, straight Roman mouth broke into a crooked grin. “After I nominated him at Denver, we rode back to the hotel in the same carriage and he turned to me and said, ‘You know, I base my political success on just three things.’” The old man paused for dramatic effect. What were they? I asked. “I’ve completely forgotten,” he said. “But I do remember wondering why he thought he was a success.”
In 1936, Theodore Roosevelt’s sinuous cousin Franklin brought an end to my grandfather’s career in the Senate. But the old man stayed on in Rock Creek Park and lived to a Nestorian age, convinced that FDR, as he was always known, was our republic’s Caesar while his wife, Eleanor, Theodore’s niece, was a revolutionary. The old man despised the whole family except Theodore’s daughter Alice Longworth.
Alice gave pleasure to three generations of our family. She was as witty–and as reactionary–as Senator Gore; she was also deeply resentful of her distant cousin Franklin’s success while the canonization of her own first cousin Eleanor filled her with horror. “Isn’t Eleanor no-ble,” she would say, breaking the word into two syllables, each hummed reverently. “So very, very good!” Then she would imitate Eleanor’s buck teeth which were not so very unlike her own quite prominent choppers. But Alice did have occasional, rare fits of fairness. She realized that what she felt for her cousins was “Simply envy. We were the President Roosevelt family. But then along came the Feather Duster,” as she habitually referred to Franklin, “and we were forgotten.” But she was exaggerating, as a number of new books attest, not to mention that once beautiful Dakota cliff defaced by the somber Gutzon Borglum with the faces of dead pols.
It is hard for Americans today to realize what a power the Roosevelts exerted not only in our politics but in the public’s imagination. There had been nothing like them since the entirely different Adamses and there has been nothing like them since–the sad story of the Kennedys bears about as much resemblance to the Roosevelts as the admittedly entertaining and cautionary television series Dallas does to Shakespeare’s chronicle plays.
From the moment in 1898 when TR raced up Kettle Hill (incorrectly known as San Juan) to April 12,1945, when Franklin Roosevelt died, the Roosevelts were at the republic’s center stage. Also, for nearly half that fifty-year period, a Roosevelt had been president. Then, as poignant coda, Eleanor Roosevelt, now quite alone, acted for seventeen years as conscience to a world very different from that of her uncle TR or even of FDR, her cousin-husband.
In the age of the condominium and fast foods, the family has declined not only as a fact but as a concept. Although there are, presumably, just as many Roosevelts alive today as there were a century ago, they are now like everyone else, scattered about, no longer tribal or even all of the same class. Americans can now change class almost as fast–downward, at least–as they shift from city to city or job to job. A century ago, a member of the patriciate was not allowed to drop out of his class no matter how little money he had. He might be allowed to retire from the world, like TR’s alcoholic brother Elliott, in order to cultivate his vices, but even Elliott remained very much a part of the family until death–not his own kind–declassed him.
As a descendant of Theodore Roosevelt said to David McCullough, author of Mornings on Horseback, “No writer seems to have understood the degree to which [TR] was part of a clan.” A clan that was on the rise, socially and financially, in nineteenth-century New York City. In three generations the Roosevelts had gone from hardware to plate glass to land development and banking (Chemical). By and large, the Roosevelts of that era were a solemn, hardworking, uninspired lot who, according to the New York World, had a tendency “to cling to the fixed and the venerable.” Then, suddenly, out of this clan of solid burghers erupted the restless Theodore and his interesting siblings. How did this happen? Cherchez la mère is the usual key to the unexpected–for good or ill–in a family’s history.
During Winston Churchill’s last government, a minister found him in the Cabinet room, staring at a newspaper headline: one of his daughters had been arrested, yet again, for drunkenness. The minister said something consoling. Churchill grunted. The minister was then inspired to ask: “How is it possible that a Churchill could end up like this?” To which the old man replied: “Do you realize just what there was between the first Duke of Marlborough and me?” Plainly, a genetic disaster area had been altered, in Winston’s case, by an American mother, Jennie Jerome, and in Theodore Roosevelt’s case by a southern mother, named Mittie Bulloch, a beautiful, somewhat eccentric woman whom everyone delighted in even though she was not, to say the least, old New York. Rather, she was proudly southern and told her sons exciting stories of what their swashbuckling southern kin had done on land and sea. In later life, everyone agreed that Theodore was more Bulloch than Roosevelt just as his cousin Franklin was more Delano–or at least Sara Delano–than Roosevelt.
Mr. McCullough’s book belongs to a new and welcome genre: the biographical sketch. Edmund Wilson in Patriotic Gore and Richard Hofstadter in The American Political Tradition were somewhat specialized practitioners of this art but, by and large, from Plutarch to Strachey, it has been more of a European than an American genre. Lately, American biography has fallen more and more into the hands not of writers but of academics. That some academics write very well indeed is, of course, perfectly true and, of course, perfectly rare. When it comes to any one of the glorious founders of our imperial republic, the ten-volume hagiography is now the rule. Under the direction of a tenured Capo, squads of graduate students spend years assembling every known fact, legend, statistic. The Capo then factors everything into the text, like sand into a cement mixer. The result is, literally, monumental, and unreadable. Even such minor figures as Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis have been accorded huge volumes in which every letter, telegram, drunken quarrel is memorialized at random. “Would you read this sort of book?” I asked Mark Schorer, holding up his thick life of Sinclair Lewis. He blinked, slightly startled by my bad manners. “Well,” he said mildly, politely, “I must say I never really liked Lewis’s work all that much.”
Now, as bright footnotes to the academic texts, we are offered such books as Otto Friedrich’s Clover and Jean Strouse’s Alice James. These sketches seem to me to belong to literature in a way that Schorer’s Sinclair Lewis or Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time do not–the first simply a journeyman compilation, the second a banal hagiography (with, admittedly, extremely valuable footnotes). In a sense, the reader of Malone et al. is obliged to make his own text out of the unshaped raw material while the reader of Strouse or Friedrich is given a finished work of literature that supplies the reader with an idiosyncratic view of the subject. To this genre Mornings on Horseback belongs: a sketch of Theodore Roosevelt’s parents, brothers and sisters, wife, and self until the age of twenty-eight. Mr. McCullough has done a good swift job of sketching this family group.
Unfortunately, he follows in the wake not of the usual dull, ten-volume academic biography of the twenty-sixth president but of the first volume of Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. This is bad luck for Mr. McCullough. Morris’s work is not only splendid but covers the same period as Mr. McCullough, ending some years later with the death of McKinley. Where Mr. McCullough scores is in the portrait of the family, particularly during Theodore’s youth. Fortunately, there can never be too much of a good thing. Since Morris’s work has a different, longer rhythm, he does not examine at all closely those lesser lives which shaped–and explain, somewhat–the principal character.
Theodore Roosevelt, Senior, was a man of good works; unlike his wife Mittie. “She played no part in his good works, and those speculations on life in the hereafter or the status of one’s soul, speculations that appear in Theodore’s correspondence… are not to be found in what she wrote. She was not an agnostic exactly,” writes McCullough, but at a time when the church was central to organized society she seems more than slightly indifferent or, as her own mother wrote, “If she was only a Christian, I think I could feel more satisfied.”
Mittie’s lack of religion was to have a lasting effect on her granddaughter Eleanor, the future Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1870 Mittie placed her eldest child, Anna–known as Bamie–in Les Ruches, a girls’ school at Fountainebleau. The school’s creator was Mlle. Marie Souvestre, “a woman of singular poise and great culture, but also an outspoken agnostic . . . as brief as Bamie’s time there would be, Mlle. Souvestre’s influence would carry far.” Indeed it did. In the next generation Bamie’s niece Eleanor was also sent to school with Mlle. Souvestre, now removed to Allenwood in England. One of Mlle. Souvestre’s teachers was Dorothy Bussy, a sister of Lytton Strachey and the pseudonymous as well as eponymous author of Olivia by Olivia, a story of amities particuliéeres in a girls’ school.
Bamie was not to marry until she was forty, while Eleanor’s dislike of heterosexuality was lifelong (“They think of nothing else,” she once said to me, grimly–and somewhat vaguely, for she never really said exactly who “they” were); it would seem that Mlle. Souvestre and her school deserve a proper study–before M. Roger Peyrefitte gets to it. Certainly, Eleanor had learned Mlle. Souvestre’s lesson well: this world is the one that we must deal with and, if possible, improve. Eleanor had no patience with the other-worldly. Neither had her uncle TR. In a letter to Bamie, the future president says that he is marrying for a second time–the first wife had died. As a highly moral man, he is disgusted with himself. So much so that “were I sure there were a heaven my one prayer would be I might never go there, lest I should meet those I loved on earth who are dead.”
A recurrent theme in this family chronicle is ill health. Bamie had a disfiguring curvature of the spine. Elliott had what sounds like epileptic fits. Then, at thirty-four, he was dead of alcoholism, in West 102nd Street, looked after by a mistress. Theodore, Junior’s general physical fragility was made intolerable by asthma. Mr. McCullough has done a good deal of research into asthma, that most debilitating and frightening of nervous afflictions. “Asthma is repeatedly described as a ‘suppressed cry for the mother’–a cry of rage as well as a cry for help.” Asthmatics live in constant terror of the next attack, which will always seem to be–if indeed it is not–terminal.
Parenthetically, I ran into the Wise Hack not long ago–in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Where else? He is now very old, very rich: he owns a lot of Encino. Although he will no longer watch a movie made after 1945, he still keeps an eye on “the product.” He knows all the deals. “One funny thing,” he said, wheezing from emphysema–not asthma. “You know, all these hotshot young directors they got now? Well, every last one of them is a fat sissy who likes guns. And every last one of them has those thick glasses and the asthma.” But before I could get him to give me the essential data, as Mrs. Wharton used to say, he had been swept into the Polo Lounge by the former managing editor of Liberty.
I must say that I thought of the Wise Hack’s gnomic words as I read Mr. McCullough’s account of TR’s asthma attacks, which usually took place on a Sunday “which in the Victorian era was still the Lord’s day… the one day of the week when the head of the household was home from work….” Sunday also involved getting dressed up and going to church, something TR did not like. On the other hand, he enjoyed everyone’s attention once the attacks had ended. Eventually, father and son came under the spell of a Dr Salter, who had written that “organs are made for action, not existence; they are made to work, not to be; and when they work well, they can be well.” You must change your life, said Rilke’s Apollo. And that is what the young TR did: he went to a gymnasium, became an outdoorsman, built up his fragile body. At Harvard he was five foot eight inches tall and weighed one hundred twenty-five pounds. In later life, he was no taller but he came to weigh more than two hundred pounds; he was definitely a butterball type, though a vigorous one. He also wore thick glasses; liked guns.
Unlike the sissies who now make violent movies celebrating those who kill others, Theodore was a sissy who did not know that he was one until he was able to do something about it. For one thing, none of the Roosevelt children was sent to school. They were tutored at home. The boys seemed not to have had a great deal to do with other boys outside their own tribe. When Theodore went to Harvard, he was on his own for the first time in his life. But even at Harvard, Mittie would not allow him to room with other boys. He had an apartment in a private house; and a manservant. At first, he was probably surprised to find that he was unpopular with the other students; but then he was not used to dealing with those he did not know. He was very much a prig. “I had a headache,” he writes in his diary, aged eleven, “and Conie and Ellie made a tremendous noise playing at my expense and rather laughed when I remonstrated.”
At Harvard, he was very conscious of who was and who was not a gentleman. “I stand 19th in the class…. Only one gentleman stands ahead of me.” He did not smoke; he got drunk on only one occasion– when he joined the Porcellian Club; he remained “pure” sexually. He was a lively, energetic youth who spoke rapidly, biting off his words as if afraid there would not be enough breath for him to say what he wanted to say. Properly bespectacled and gunned since the age of thirteen, he shot and killed every bird and animal that he could; he was also a fair taxidermist. Toward the end of his Harvard career, he was accepted as what he was, a not unattractive New York noble who was also rich; his income was $8,000 a year, about $80,000 in today’s money. In his last two years at Harvard “clothes and club dues… added up to $2,400, a sum the average American family could have lived on for six years.”
In later years, Theodore was remembered by a classmate as “a joke… active and enthusiastic and that was all,” while a girl of his generation said “he was not the sort to appeal at first.” Harvard’s President Eliot, who prided himself on knowing no one, remembered Theodore as “feeble” and rather shallow. According to Mr. McCullough, he made “no lasting male friendships” at Harvard, but then, like so many men of power, he had few attachments outside his own family. During the early part of his life he had only one friend–Henry Cabot (known as La-de-dah) Lodge, a Boston aristo-sissy much like himself.
The death of his father was a shattering experience; and the family grew even closer to one another than before. Then Theodore fell in love and added a new member to the clan. When TR met Alice Lee, she was seventeen and he was nineteen. “See that girl,” he said to Mrs. Robert Bacon at a party. “I am going to marry her. She won’t have me, but I am going to have her.” Have her he did. “Alice,” said Mrs. Bacon years later, “did not want to marry him, but she did.” They were married October 27, 1880, on Theodore’s twenty-second birthday. They lived happily ever after–for four years. Alice died of Bright’s disease, shortly after giving birth to their daughter; a few hours earlier, in the same house, Mittie had died of typhoid fever. The double blow entirely changed Theodore’s life. He went west to become a rancher, leaving little Alice with his sister Bamie. That same year Elliott also became a father when his wife, Anna Hall, gave birth to Eleanor.
In 1876, as General Grant’s second administration fell apart in a storm of scandal and the winds of reform gathered force, New York State’s great lord of corruption, Senator Roscoe Conkling, observed with characteristic sour wit: “When Dr. Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel, he ignored the enormous possibilities of the word reform.” Since good Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt, Senior, could not endure what was happening to their party and country, they joined together to cleanse party, country.
As a member of the New York delegation to the Republican convention at Cincinnati, Theodore, Senior, helped deny both Conkling and James G. Blaine, another lord of corruption, the nomination for president. After a good deal of confusion the dim but blameless Rutherford B. Hayes was nominated. Although Hayes was not exactly elected president, he became the president as a result of the Republican Party’s continued mastery of corruption at every level of the republic.
The new president then offered Theodore, Senior, the Collectorship of the Port of New York, a powerhouse of patronage and loot that had been for some years within Conkling’s gift. And so it remained: thanks to Conkling’s efforts in the Senate, Theodore, Senior, was denied the Collectorship. A week after this rejection, he wrote his son at Harvard
to say that, all in all, he was relieved that he was not to be obliged to “purify our Customhouse.” Nevertheless, he was glad that he had fought the good fight against the “machine politicians” who “think of nothing higher than their own interests. I fear for your future. We cannot stand so corrupt a government for any great length of time.” This was the last letter from father to son. Two months later Theodore, Senior, was dead of cancer, at the age of forty-six.
Although TR worshipped his father, he does not seem to have been particularly interested in the politics of reform. During the Collectorship battle, he had wanted to be a naturalist; later he thought of writing, and began to compose what proved to be, or so one is told, a magisterial study of the early years of the American navy, The Naval War of 1812. He also attended Columbia Law School until 1881, when he got himself elected to the New York State Assembly. He was twenty-three years old; as lively and bumptious as ever.
Much had been made of what a startling and original and noble thing it was for a rich young aristo to enter the sordid politics of New York State. Actually, quite a number of young men of the ruling class were going into politics, often inspired by fathers who had felt, like Theodore, Senior, that the republic could not survive so much corruption. In fact, no less a grandee than the young William Waldorf Astor had been elected to the Assembly (1877) while, right in the family, TR’s Uncle Rob had served in Congress, as a Democrat. There is no evidence that Theodore went into politics with any other notion than to have an exciting time and to rise to the top. He had no theory of government. He was, simply, loyal to his class–or what he called, approvingly, “our kind.” He found the Tammany politicians repellent on physical and social as well as political grounds.
To TR’s credit, he made no effort at all to be one of the boys; quite the contrary. He played the city dude to the hilt. In Albany, he arrived at his first Republican caucus, according to an eyewitness, “as if he had been ejected by a catapult. He had on an enormous great ulster… and he pulled off his coat; he was dressed in full dress, he had been to dinner somewhere….” Even then, his high-pitched voice and upper-class accent proved to be a joy for imitators, just as his niece Eleanor’s voice–so very like his–was a staple of mimics for fifty years. To the press, he was known, variously, as a “Jane-Dandy,” “his Lordship,” “Oscar Wilde,” “the exquisite Mr. Roosevelt.” He sailed above these epithets. He was in a hurry to… do what?
Mr. McCullough quotes Henry James’s description of a similar character in The Bostonians (published five years after Theodore’s entry into politics): “He was full of purpose to live… and with a high success; to become great, in order not to be obscure, and powerful not to be useless.” In politics, it is character rather than ideas that makes for success; and the right sort of character combined with high energy can be fairly irresistible. Although TR was the most literary of our post-Civil War presidents, he had a mind that was more alert to fact than to theory. Like his father, he was against corruption and machine politicians, and that was pretty much that–until he met Samuel Gompers, a rising young trade unionist. Gompers took the dude around the tenements of New York City; showed him how immigrants were forced to live, doing such sweated labor as making cigars for wealthy firms. TR had planned to oppose a bill that the Cigarmaker’s Union had sponsored, outlawing the manufacture of cigars “at home.” After all, TR was a laissez-faire man; he had already opposed a minimum wage of $2.00 a day for municipal workers. But the tour of the tenements so shocked the dude that he supported the Cigar Bill.
TR also began to understand just how the United States was governed. Predictably, he found the unsavory Jay Gould at the center of a web that involved not only financiers but judges and newspaper proprietors and, to his horror, people that he knew socially. He describes how a kindly friend of the family, someone whom he referred to as a “member of a prominent law firm,” explained the facts of life to him. Since everyone, more or less openly, did business with the likes of Jay Gould, TR was advised to give up “the reform play” and settle down as a representative member of the city’s ruling–as opposed to governing–class. This was the sort of advice that was guaranteed to set him furiously in motion. He had found, at last, the Horatio-at-the-bridge role that he had been looking for. He took on the powers that be; and he coined a famous phrase, “the wealthy criminal class.” Needless to say, he got nowhere in this particular battle, but by the time he was twenty-six he had made a national name for himself, the object of the exercise. He had also proven yet again that he could take it, was no sissy, had what Mark Sullivan was to call “a trait of ruthless righteousness.”
In 1884, TR was a delegate to the Republican convention where, once again, James G. Blaine was a candidate. Like his father before him, TR joined the reformers; and together they fought to eliminate Blaine; but this time the gorgeous old trickster finally got the nomination, only to lose the election to Grover Cleveland. But by the time Cleveland was elected, the young widower and ex-assemblyman was playing cowboy in the Dakota Badlands. Just before TR disappeared into the wilderness, he made what was to be the most important decision of his career. In 1884 the reform Republicans deserted Blaine much as the antiwar Democrats were to abandon Hubert Humphrey in 1968. But TR had already made up his mind that he was going to have a major political career and so, cold-bloodedly, he endorsed Blaine: “I have been called a reformer but I am a Republican.” For this show of solidarity with the Grand Old Party, he lost the decent opinion of the reformers and gained the presidency. He might have achieved both, but that would have required moral courage, something he had not been told about.
Give a sissy a gun and he will kill everything in sight. TR’s slaughter of the animals in the Badlands outdoes in spades the butcheries of that sissy of a later era, Ernest Hemingway. Elks, grizzly bears, blacktail bucks are killed joyously while a bear cub is shot, TR reports proudly, “clean through . . . from end to end” (the Teddy bear was yet to be invented). “By Godfrey, but this is fun!” TR was still very much the prig, at least in speech: “He immortalized himself along the Little Missouri by calling to one of his cowboys, ‘Hasten forward quickly here!’” Years later he wrote: “There were all kinds of things of which I was afraid at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gunfighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”
There is something strangely infantile in this obsession with dice-loaded physical courage when the only courage that matters in political or even “real” life is moral. Although TR was often reckless and always domineering in politics, he never showed much real courage, and despite some trust-busting, he never took on the great ring of corruption that ruled and rules in this republic. But then, he was born a part of it. At best, he was just a dude with the reform play. Fortunately, foreign affairs would bring him glory. As Lincoln was the Bismarck of the American states, Theodore Roosevelt was the Kaiser Wilhelm II, a more fortunate and intelligent figure than the Kaiser but every bit as bellicose and conceited. Edith Wharton described with what pride TR showed her a photograph of himself and the Kaiser with the Kaiser’s inscription: “President Roosevelt shows the Emperor of Germany how to command an attack.”
I once asked Alice Longworth just why her father was such a war-lover. She denied that he was. I quoted her father’s dictum: “No triumph of peace is quite as great as the supreme triumph of war.” A sentiment to be echoed by yet another sissy in the next generation: “Meglio un giorno da leone che cento anni da pecora.” “Oh, well,” she said, “that’s the way they all sounded in those days.” But they did not all sound that way. Certainly Theodore, Senior, would have been appalled, and I doubt if Eleanor really approved of Uncle Teddy’s war-mongering.
As president, TR spoke loudly and carried a fair-sized stick. When Colombia wouldn’t give him the land that he needed for a canal, he helped invent Panama out of a piece of Colombia; and got his canal. He also installed the United States as the policeman of the Western Hemisphere. In order to establish an American hegemony in the Pacific, TR presided over the tail-end of the slaughter of more than half a million Filipinos who had been under the illusion that after the Spanish-American War they would be free to set up an independent republic under the leadership of Emilio Aguinaldo. But TR had other plans for the Philippines. Nice Mr. Taft was made the governor-general and one thousand American teachers of English were sent to the islands to teach the natives the sovereign’s language.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, TR’s “open-door policy” to China had its ups and downs. In 1905 the Chinese boycotted American goods because of American immigration policies, but the United States was still able to establish the sort of beachhead on the mainland of Asia that was bound to lead to what TR would have regarded as a bully fine war with Japan. Those of us who were involved in that war did not like it all that much.
In 1905, the world-famous Henry James came, in triumph, to Washington. He was a friend of Secretary of State John Hay and of Henry Adams. “Theodore Rex,” as James called the president, felt obliged to invite the Master to the White House even though TR had denounced James as “effete” and a “miserable little snob”–it takes one to know one–while James thought of TR as “a dangerous and ominous Jingo.” But the dinner was a success. James described the president as a “wonderful little machine . . . quite exciting to see. But it’s really like something behind a great plate-glass window on Broadway.” TR continued to loathe “the tone of satirical cynicism” of Henry James and Henry Adams while the Master finally dismissed the president as “the mere monstrous embodiment of unprecedented and resounding noise.”
Alice Longworth used to boast that she and her father’s viceroy Taft were the last Westerners to be received by the Dowager Empress of China. “We went to Peking. To the Forbidden City. And there we were taken to see this strange little old lady standing at the end of a room. Well, there was no bowing or scraping for us. So we marched down the room just behind the chamberlain, a eunuch, like one of those in that book of yours, Justinian, who slithered on his belly toward her. After he had announced us, she gave him a kick and he rolled over like a dog and slithered out.” What had they talked about? She couldn’t recall. I had my impression that she rather liked the way the empress treated her officials.
In the years before World War II, Alice was to be part of a marital rectangle. The heart having its reasons, Alice saw fit to conduct a long affair with the corrupt Senator William Borah, the so-called lion of Idaho, who had once roared, “I’d rather be right than president,” causing my grandfather to murmur, “Of course, he was neither.” In 1940, when the poor and supposedly virtuous Borah died, several hundred thousand dollars were found in his safety deposit box. Where had the money come from? asked the press. “He was my friend,” said Senator Gore, for public consumption, “I do not speculate.” But when I asked him who had paid off Borah, the answer was blunt. “The Nazis. To keep us out of the war.” Meanwhile, Alice’s husband, the Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth, was happily involved with Mrs. Tracy (another Alice) Dows.
Rather late in life, Alice Longworth gave birth to her only child. In The Making of Nicholas Longworth, by Longworth’s sister Clara de Chambrun, there is a touching photograph of Longworth holding in his arms a child whose features are unmistakably those of a lion’s cub. “I should have been a grandmother, not a mother,” Alice used to say of her daughter. But then, she had as little maternal instinct toward her only child as TR had had paternal instinct for her. When Nicholas Longworth died in 1931, Alice Dows told me how well Alice Longworth had behaved. “She asked me to go with her in the private train that took Nick back to Ohio. Oh, it was very moving. Particularly the way Alice treated me, as if I was the widow, which I suppose I was.” She paused; then the handsome, square-jawed face broke into a smile and she used the Edwardian phrase: “Too killing.”
When Alice Dows died she left me a number of her books. Among them was The Making of Nicholas Longworth, which I have just read. It is a loving, quite uninteresting account of what must have been a charming, not very interesting man. On the page where Alice Dows makes her appearance “one evening at Mrs. Tracy Dows’s home…,” she had placed a four-leaf clover–now quite faded: nice emblem for a lucky lot.
In the electronic era, letter-writing has declined while diaries are kept only by those ill-educated, crazed, lone killers who feel obliged to report, in clinical detail, just how crazed and solitary they are as they prepare to assassinate political leaders. Except for Christopher Isherwood, I can think of no contemporary literary figure who has kept, for most of a lifetime, a journal. The Diaries of Anais Nin were, of course, her fiction. Fortunately, the preelectronic Roosevelts and their friends wrote countless letters and journals and books, and Mr. McCullough has done a good job of selection; one is particularly grateful for excerpts from the writings of Elliott Roosevelt, a rather more natural and engaging writer than his industrious but not always felicitous older brother. Mr. McCullough’s own style is easy to the point of incoherence. “The horse he rode so hard day after day that he all but ruined it,” sounds more like idle dictation than written English. But, all in all, he has succeeded in showing us how a certain world, now lost, shaped the young Theodore Roosevelt. I think it worth noting that Simon and Schuster has managed to produce the worst set of bound galleys that I have ever read. There are so many misspellings that one has no sense of TR’s own hit-or-miss approach to spelling, while two pages are entirely blank.
Now that war is once more thinkable among the thoughtless, Theodore Roosevelt should enjoy a revival. Certainly, the New Right will find his jingoism appealing, though his trust-busting will give less pleasure to the Honorable Society of the Invisible Hand. The figure that emerges from the texts of both Mr. McCullough and Mr. Morris is both fascinating and repellent. Theodore Roosevelt was a classic American sissy who overcame–or appeared to overcome–his physical fragility through “manly” activities of which the most exciting and ennobling was war.
As a politician-writer, Theodore Roosevelt most closely resembles Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini. Each was as much a journalist as a politician. Each was a sissy turned showoff. The not unwitty Churchill–the most engaging of the lot–once confessed that if no one had been watching him he could quite easily have run away during a skirmish in the Boer War. Each was a romantic, in love with the nineteenth-century notion of earthly glory, best personified by Napoleon Bonaparte, whose eagerness to do in his biological superiors led to such a slaughter of alpha-males that the average French soldier of 1914 was markedly shorter than the soldier of 1800–pretty good going for a fat little fellow, five foot four inches tall–with, to be fair, no history of asthma.
As our dismal century draws to a close, it is fairly safe to say that no matter what tricks and torments are in store for us, we shall not see their like again. Faceless computer analysts and mindless cue-card readers will preside over our bright noisy terminus.