Monday, August 19, 2019

ecce homines, pars IX

Continuing my three-volumes-at-a-time survey of the American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. This installment covers the presidencies of 1901-1921.

These three presidents go together. They were, as discussed in detail in the books, the three presidents of the Progressive Era. They were all born within a span of 22 months, the closest cluster of so many presidents until quite recently. And they mark an interesting generational shift: the last presidents born before the Civil War, and the first too young to have fought in it.

Louis Auchincloss on Theodore Roosevelt is a curiously disconnected book, consisting more of a series of vignettes than a connected biography. TR's accession as president sneaks in behind your back in this book (the book on McKinley doesn't discuss his assassination either), and his break with his successor Taft is told in the most disjointed form of anything in this series to date. (First we're told it will have something to do with Gifford Pinchot, then we get a whole chapter on the background of TR's association with Pinchot which stops when TR leaves office, then there's a whole interjected chapter of quotes from TR's letters in office, which serve only to prove that he was anything but pithy and that he concerned himself with a lot of trivial matters, then we go into his post-presidential activities before eventually getting back to the topic which Auchincloss deliberately brought to the forefront.) There's no sense of the verve or energy or delight of TR in this book, but the frequent quotes manage to depict him as a chauvinistic blowhard. Was that the intent? Auchincloss was a lawyer, novelist, and popular historian; I haven't read his other books but I wonder if this was his style.

Jeffrey Rosen on William Howard Taft is a dense but coherently argued book focused on explaining Taft's governmental philosophy in a biographical context. Although Rosen (a law professor and public intellectual) doesn't make this comparison, Taft reminds me of John Quincy Adams, in that he comes into office with an idealized view of how to be the perfect president, and runs up against the political practicalities of office, a topic he has neither interest in nor patience for. Taft in fact made a principle out of not addressing politics or explaining himself to the larger populace, so he could hardly have been surprised at failing to win re-election. His principle was to be an active administrator within the strict bounds of his conservative view of the Constitution's limitations on presidential power. This led to the real reason for his break with TR: though they shared views on reining in trusts, TR was willing to cut legal corners to do it and Taft wasn't. But it also led to Taft's success as Chief Justice: he approached this office the same way he approached being president, and this approach being more suited to the non-political office, it worked well. Rosen even skillfully incorporates discussion of Taft's famous weight problem into the context of his political fortunes. The only goof I saw is when he describes the free-trade deal with Canada as "reject[ed by] the Canadian people in a Brexit-style referendum" (p. 90); it was nothing of the sort, but a parliamentary general election in which the treaty was the main issue.

H.W. Brands on Woodrow Wilson is again a portrait of the subject's philosophy in biographical format, less densely argued than Rosen though Brands is an academic historian. Where TR and Taft, as Rosen and even Auchincloss make clear, wished to police trust misbehavior, they had no objection to big business if it behaved itself, whereas Wilson had the traditional Democratic mistrust of all such large combinations, and Brands skillfully traces Wilson's rise from academia into politics and his early creation of institutions like the Federal Reserve to help control the economy. Another continuing theme is Wilson's faith in the power of words, which led him to resume giving the State of the Union to Congress in person (discontinued by Jefferson, who hated nothing more than giving speeches) and later to his disastrous attempt to sell the League of Nations to the American people. How the US got sucked into WW1 and what Wilson was aiming at to end it are presented with great clarity. Brands acknowledges Wilson's flaws but is largely sympathetic; his account of the Mexican intervention doesn't convey how truly disastrous that was, for instance. Though he begins by noting that Wilson grew up in the Confederacy during the Civil War, he says the war largely passed Wilson by, and not until the very end (p. 133) does he mention Wilson's segregationist policies as president. The administration's draconian authoritarianism is blamed on Attorneys General Gregory and Palmer (but who appointed them and approved their actions?), and the toxic James McReynolds isn't mentioned at all. So the book is a bit of an apologia.

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