Tag Archives: Theodore Roosevelt

The Bullies Pulpit

From Politico:

More than 100 years ago a Republican president worried that America wasn’t doing enough to protect its most treasured wild and sacred places from over-development, mining and drilling. So Congress passed and President Teddy Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, giving presidents the authority to preserve imperiled mountains, forests, cultural treasures and other public lands. Roosevelt condemned the “land grabbers” and “great special interests” who threatened the national lands he protected. “The rights of the public to the [nation’s] natural resources outweigh private rights and must be given its first consideration,” Roosevelt proclaimed. “Our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever.”

Today another Republican president is indicating he is ready to give in to the pressures of corporations and complicit state officials urging the administration to open these protected public lands to mining, drilling and other commercial exploitation. That would deprive future generations of Americans of irreplaceable treasures, both in the beauty of the landscapes that would be scarred and the birds and other wildlife that depend on those protected places for survival.

Whether it’s a good idea for Trump to revoke the protected status of lands designated as national moments is up for debate. (I’m against it.) But what interested me about this op-ed was its comparison of Trump to Theodore Roosevelt. It was negative in this case, but in Robert Merry’s forthcoming biography of William McKinley, Roosevelt comes across as much more Trump-like than TR fans like me would care to acknowledge.

TR is one of my certified History Crushes™. Anyone who reads Edmund Morris’ trilogy on the man’s brief but crowded life can’t help but admire him in some way. But there’s no getting around the fact that Roosevelt was an attention whore. Many others have noted the similarities between the two New Yorkers, but here’s Merry:

The biggest contributor to McKinley’s standing in history was Theodore Roosevelt, whose leadership style could not have been further removed from that of McKinley. Impetuous, voluble, amusing, grandiose, prone to marking his territory with political defiance, Roosevelt stirred the imagination of the American people as McKinley never had. To [McKinley]’s solidity, safety, and caution, the Rough Rider offered a mind that moved “by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,” as William Allen White described it. He took the American people on a political roller-coaster ride, and to many it was thrilling.

But the New Yorker was never one to share the credit with others. His theatrical self-importance led even his children to acknowledge that he wanted to be “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” It wasn’t surprising that soon he was denigrating the man whose presidency he had extolled through thousands of miles of political campaigning on his way to national power.

“A mind that moved by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,” “theatrical self-importance,” “prone to marking his territory with political defiance”—a little eerie, right? And the public denigration of his predecessor (and successor—poor Taft) certainly aligns with Trump’s modus operandi.

The bull moose-sized caveat here is that Roosevelt was far more qualified for the job and did soooo much more—and so much more good—in his 60 years of life than Trump has (including actually wanting to be president). Ditto that other Trumpish president, Andrew Jackson. To put Trump in their league simply because they were all blustery fellows would be an insult to the presidency and even to other blustery fellows who are otherwise good dudes.

Nevertheless, it’s good to remember that historical analogies are rarely clean, that we can’t disregard unpleasant characteristics of beloved historical figures out of convenience, and that Roosevelt single-handedly chased down and captured three outlaws in Dakota who stole his riverboat and escorted them back overland in a forty-hour marathon with no sleep while finishing a Tolstoy novel.

Ten Books

In the Filmspotting tradition of naming lists after what you know will be on everyone’s list so should be removed from consideration, I’m going to name this the To Kill A Mockingbird Memorial List of Ten Books That Have Stuck With Me For Some Reason. Acknowledging the usual disclaimers of making lists (it’s not binding, it could change tomorrow, etc.), here are ten titles I’d think of right away if someone asked for a great book recommendation.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
 by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Essential reading, for American citizens especially.

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
Ostensibly a compact history of the Titanic disaster, it reads like a thrilling and expertly written novel. Though dated, the prose is solid yet so smooth, steadily pressing the narrative on like the doomed steamer it documents. 

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
Like Fellowship of the Ring, this book is really a stand-in for the sublime trilogy it begins, yet is also the best book in the saga. Most of what we know and love about TR comes from his presidential and post-POTUS years — the Bull Moose, the assassination survival, the Amazon pioneering — but the man who would do these things was forged in the 42 years before becoming president, which are chronicled in this book. He seized his days with unadulterated vim, relentlessly stacking his resume and making the rest of us look bad. I hope “Bully!” makes a comeback.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
Haven’t read this since high school so perhaps my feelings will change with a reread, but this was my first exposure to media criticism and it hit me like a bag of bricks. It was shocking to read about how Sesame Street was ruining education and that our dependence on distracting technologies would doom us to a Huxleyan dystopia of dumbness. These were his (admittedly cranky) opinions, but they rang true to me. And their prescience was and continues to be sadly undeniable. 

Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey
Hard to decide between this and Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace?, but I went with the more recent read. Yancey profiles thirteen prominent figures who helped restore his crumbling faith, among them Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Leo Tolstoy, G.K. Chesterton, and Annie Dillard. As faith falls out of fashion, books like this remind me that religion can be richer and more reasonable than our culture of unbelief realizes.

The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson
“Should you be lucky enough to be moving across a calm surface with mirrored clouds, you may have the sensation of suspension between heaven and earth, of paddling not on the water but through the skies themselves.” And: “Standing there alone, I felt alive, more aware and receptive than ever before. A shout or a movement would have destroyed the spell. This was a time for silence, for being in pace with ancient rhythms and timelessness, the breathing of the lake, the slow growth of living things. Here the cosmos could be felt and the true meaning of attunement.” And so on.

The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck
I probably wouldn’t have liked it when it came out in 1978, given that it was a mega-bestseller and cultural phenomenon. But its plainspoken style and challenging yet attainable standards on discipline and spiritual development were a revelation to me. Peck’s four pillars of discipline — dedication to truth, delaying gratification, acceptance of responsibility, balancing — are all noble and necessary goals for self-improvement I think about, and fail to achieve, often. And when they are paired with his perspectives on love and grace, it makes for a great roadmap for life. (Hat-tip to my sister for the initial recommendation.)

Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen Ambrose
I love a broad history as much as anybody, but I also enjoy when a writer takes an angle on something. In this case, it’s Ambrose profiling the oddly parallel lives of Crazy Horse and George Custer, which converge tragically and infamously at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Like most other Ambrose books it’s a smooth read with an emphasis on good storytelling and capturing his subjects’ humanity. People who struggle with reading history would do well to start with anything by Ambrose.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
Here’s where I admit that I have a strong bent toward irreverence in life generally, but in the arts specifically. Pious readers may frown upon this fantastical take on Jesus’s youth and adolescence, but I found it funny, humane, and ultimately honoring of the spirit of Jesus. Like an Anne Lamott book, Lamb walks the line between reverence and irreverence like Philippe Petit on a high-wire: effortlessly and therefore beautifully.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
First read in high school, then again in college. It was even better the second time around (which begat a critical essay for a U.S. history class). “On the Rainy River” remains of my all-time favorite pieces of writing. 

A Rather Bookish Manifesto

Like most people who know anything about the man, I want to be like Theodore Roosevelt. But since I’m never going to be president, blaze the unchartered Amazon, or lead a cavalry charge up San Juan Hill, I’ll have to make do with something less exciting but no less important that Roosevelt had: a corollary.

Defined as a proposition appended to one that already exists, this corollary was an extension of the famous 1823 Monroe Doctrine (by President James Monroe), which urged those pesky European imperialists to stay out of the Western hemisphere. Roosevelt’s corollary in 1904 took that even further, warning the same European powers that the United States would intervene in the Caribbean and Latin America if they got the urge to recolonize the Old World. Stay out, it said, this is ours now.

Why the history lesson? Because I encountered a modern (though much less political) doctrine that I’ve felt compelled to add my own corollary to: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, made this plain yet meaty declaration concerning best food practices in a 2007 article called “Unhappy Meals” for The New York Times Magazine. It has resonated with me since I read it recently. Deceptively simple, each sentence contains multitudes of implications about food and eating habits that Pollan explains further into his article. This Pollan Doctrine (as I’ve dubbed it) has inspired my own literary interpretation that can serve as the basis for what I see as best reading practices.

Thus, the Comello Corollary: “Read books. Often. Mostly print.” Chew on it, dislike it, but don’t forget it.

Read books.

We need to eat to live. But Pollan doesn’t just say Eat. He says Eat food. The difference to him is between “whole fresh foods” and “processed food products,” the latter being “edible food-like substances” from the supermarket that will fill your stomach but won’t make you healthy. Likewise, to be head-healthy we need to read, but not only that: we need to read books. We can read listicles and news items and celebrity profiles (and boy do we), but that alone is not healthy. I love to consume high-quality television and cinema and podcasts, but they are not enough either. They are, to extend the metaphor, the fruit and juice and pastries that make the meal tasty, but they are not going to keep you full. They are the parts of a complete breakfast, a meal that hinges on the oatmeal or the eggs on whole wheat bread.

This didn’t used to be a problem. Before the Internet, television, film, radio, or recorded music, people had few of the intellectually stimulating activities we take for granted today. The theater was an option, depending on your wealth or circumstance, but other than that and perhaps a roving minstrel band, books were it. We have so many options now, so books are increasingly being relegated to the back of the queue. It must not be so.

I’ve come to view books as arboretums. They are worlds within in the larger world, ecosystems shielded from the chaotic flea-market world of the Internet yet also in debate with it. Every page is a tree, its paragraphs and sentences the branches and vines that stack and intertwine to compose its part of the story. Our senses engage with the created world before us: the smell of the paper like the smell of the buds; the songs of the birds and the dialogue we narrate in our head; the characters we imagine in our head like the colorful trees that align and clash and have backstories of their own. With arboretums as with books, each of us see the same thing yet something altogether different.

We all need to get outside and deeply breathe in the fresh air. Literally, we can do this by escaping to arboretums, but literarily we do it with books.

Often.

I remember the beginning distinctly. I had graduated from college but was still working in my school’s admission office over the summer before I departed for Colombia, where I lived that fall. The week after commencement, with no more classes or papers or textbooks consuming my time, I picked up a book I wanted to read and read it for fun. It was The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I liked it, didn’t love it, but that wasn’t the point. The point was dominion over what I read no longer rested with my professors. I was free, in the windows-down Tom Petty sort of way, and it felt great.

Four years later, I’ve had what amounts to another college education’s worth of free reading in topics that fit my fancy. Except during the two-year detour to grad school when my reading once again became more regimented, I have read what I have wanted to read and I have read a lot. On the train, on the bus, during my lunch break, in bed before sleep: I almost always have a book with me that I can whip out when the moment is right.

This is incredibly invigorating for me. There are so many books out there I want to read, to input into my byzantine repository of a brain. Sometimes the sheer infinities of books I could and want to read overwhelm me. (Bunny trail: while working at the library one night I’d just finished a book and tried to decide what to read next. Novel or biography? Classic or contemporary? Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain or Wilson’s Angel in the Architecture or Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic? Ahhh! … I debated for way too long about it and then fifteen minutes before closing, my eye found Mark Harris’ new Five Came Back and I knew immediately I wanted that one. The heart wants what it wants.)

I learned a lot from the books I read in high school and college, but I have gained just as much from what I have read on my own—especially so from the books I grabbed almost impulsively, because I just wanted to read it. No other reason. I know I will never be able to read all the books I want to read, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.

Mostly print.

Bibliophiles will often speak of the allure of the book itself: the smell of the freshly opened pages, the comforting and colorful order of the library stacks, the textile pleasures of a book in hand. I find joy in those things too. But they alone are not why I read printed books, mostly from the library, almost exclusively. I do so because reading should be hard.

As our smartphones get smarter and more intuitive, as our online reading gets lighter and more listicled, we need something that will challenge us. By reading printed books and reading them deeply, we challenge our brains to resist the Twitter-fueled “fear of missing out,” our nagging impulse to check our phones, our tendency to skim online articles before quickly clicking a link to the next one, and our penchant for immediate gratification.

By reading print books, we can enjoy a better reading experience while also confronting the oppressive ubiquity of screens. This secondary effect should not be overlooked. I could quite easily, and quite accidentally, go nary a minute during an average day without fixing my eyes upon the radiant glow of a computer or phone or TV screen. Indeed I have lived that day many more times than I would have liked—such is the reach of the invisible android hand upon the market of our attention. But at the end of such a digitized day, my eyes wearied by the spastic technicolor of the internet, I have often taken solace in the decidedly unilluminated grayscale of the printed page, where the words stay in one place, darn it, and don’t link anywhere else except in my imagination.

This is not to proclaim the objective superiority of paper as a reading format (even though I prefer it), nor to condemn e-books (whose accessibility and convenience are in fact a great catalysts for increased reading). I simply mean to say that with a deficit of attention and a surplus of distractions, we benefit greatly from the challenge and joy of locking ourselves inside the safe and friendly confines of a printed book. Ultimately, reading is better than not reading. Read whatever and however you’d like and you’ll be better for it. But my recipe has nourished me well, and as is true with any good meal I want to share it with others.

Rutherford B. Hazy (In History)

Rutherford B(eardly) Hayes.

Rutherford B(eardly) Hayes.

Marching onward in my quest to read a biography of every U.S. president, I finally made it through Ari Hoogenboom’s  Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President. I confess to having held the same vague notions of Hayes that Hoogenboom writes he’s commonly known for: that he won the disputed 1876 presidential election, ending Reconstruction, and that he was just another forgettable (yet unforgettably bearded) president who fell through the cracks between Abraham Lincoln and the twentieth century.

But Rud, as he was known, is a perfect exemplar of the purpose of my biblio-presidential journey: to fill in the gaps of my U.S. history knowledge and give the lesser-known figures a fairer shake than high school textbooks give them. In the end I found Hayes to be a fascinating figure, whose presidency was as bland as his pre- and post-presidency years were compelling.

Hayes was raised in Ohio by a widowed mother and a strong-willed sister who both felt very protective of him. When twentysomething Rud was in Boston attending Harvard Law School, both women would constantly needle him about studying and finding a woman. I’m sure he was glad he took his time looking for a mate because the woman he married, Lucy Webb (the first First Lady to graduate from college), helped sway him away from his social-issue indifference toward support for abolition, temperance, and Christianity (though he could only latch onto very liberal Christian orthodoxy).

His newfound moralism continued into the Civil War, which he entered as a major in the Ohio 23rd infantry (fighting alongside future president William McKinley, who was a private in the 23rd, and James Garfield, a brigadier general and another eventual POTUS). In the Battle of South Mountain, Hayes led a charge and got shot in the left arm, fracturing his bone, but in a total Teddy Roosevelt move he stanched the wound and continued on in battle, eventually getting stranded between the lines. Seeing the end, he left notes for his family with wounded Confederate soldier nearby, only to be scooped up by his troops and brought to the hospital. Later in the war, Hayes earned plaudits from General Ulysses Grant that Hayes would brag about for the rest of his life: “His conduct on the field was marked by conspicuous gallantry as well as the display of qualities of a higher order than that of mere personal daring.”

After the war, Rud served in Congress and then as Ohio governor for two non-consecutive terms, the later of which he parlayed into the Republican nomination for president in 1876. Support of the 14th and 15th amendments and reform of the civil service/appointments system were Rud’s bread and butter during the campaign, which culminated in the “Compromise of 1877,” a.k.a. the most controversial election before 2000. The compromise boiled down to this: If Hayes were awarded the disputed presidency, he would agree to remove all remaining federal troops from the former Confederacy, thereby abandoning the fledgling Republican state governments in the South to the reemergent (erstwhile Confederate) Democrats. In exchange, the Democrats wouldn’t violently storm the inauguration in protest. Some deal. However, Hayes and the Republicans chose the presidency over the already withering GOP governments in the South and have earned scorn for ending Reconstruction ever since.

Rud’s presidency continued on, mostly filled with drama over Hayes’ attempted reform of how political appointments were dolled out — Hayes: The president should make appointments instead of Congress! Congress: No. — and more drama over returning to the gold standard, in addition to the drama over the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. (Two fun bits of trivia: Lucy Hayes hosted the first White House Easter Egg Roll in 1878 after Congress banished it from the Capitol grounds, and Rud hosted the 30-year-old Thomas Edison and his new phonograph.) But why the flippancy over Hayes’ single term? Because what he did after it was way more interesting.

In a nod to the third act of John Quincy Adams’ storied career, Hayes unleashed his very progressive views on race, education, and big business and became social justice crusader way before it was trendy. Among other things, he advocated for universal education as a means to ensure the suffrage and advancement of the recently freed yet woefully unsupported slaves. He served on the National Prison Reform Association board with the young New York state assemblyman Teddy Roosevelt and railed against  income disparity and the plight of the poor that corrupt monopolies exacerbated. He was a trustee of Ohio State University (a school he helped to found as Ohio governor) and endorsed the 24-year-old W.E.B. DuBois for an educational scholarship.

Judged strictly on his presidential tenure, Hayes doesn’t inspire much praise. He came about during a time when the party bosses held as much if not more political power and  control than the presidents did. I don’t think all forgotten presidents deserve to have their low reputation reconsidered (I’m coming for you, John Tyler), but viewed holistically I’d say Hayes deserves more than the middling (and slowly dropping) rank he often gets.

Data Dumped: On The Freedom Of Forgetting

Do we have the right to forget the past, and to be forgotten?

That’s the key question in this article from The Guardian by Kate Connolly, which part of a larger series on internet privacy. Connolly talks with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance at Oxford Internet Institute, who describes himself as the “midwife” of the idea that people have the legal, moral, and technological right to be forgotten, especially as it relates to the internet’s memory.

In order to make decisions about the present and the future, Mayer-Schönberger claims, our brain necessarily forgets things, which allows us to think in the present:

Our brains reconstruct the past based on our present values. Take the diary you wrote 15 years ago, and you see how your values have changed. There is a cognitive dissonance between now and then. The brain reconstructs the memory and deletes certain things. It is how we construct ourselves as human beings, rather than flagellating ourselves about things we’ve done.

But digital memories will only remind us of the failures of our past, so that we have no ability to forget or reconstruct our past. Knowledge is based on forgetting. If we want to abstract things we need to forget the details to be able to see the forest and not the trees. If you have digital memories, you can only see the trees.

One of his ideas to combat the negative effects of the permanence of data is to implement an “expiration date” for all data — akin to the “Use By” date on perishable food items — so that it can be deleted once it has served its primary purpose. “Otherwise companies and governments will hold on to it for ever,” he claims.

A counter-argument for this right-to-be-forgotten strategy is that it could be impossible to implement due to the many back-ups that are made of the same data; if the data exists somewhere, then you’re technically not forgotten. But Mayer-Schönberger pushes back on this, saying even if Google has a back-up somewhere, if you search for the data and “99% of the population don’t have access to it you have effectively been deleted.”

What’s unclear about his “expiration date” idea is whether it would include a self-destructing mechanism embedded within the data, like how e-books rented from libraries disappear after a predetermined time period, or whether the data’s user could choose to ignore its “Delete By” date. If the data holders are not legally or technologically compelled or obligated in some way to delete the data permanently after an agreed upon time, then this “right to be forgotten” becomes a lot weaker.

As an aspiring archivist, tech enthusiast, and history buff, I can see where something like this could be detrimental to historians, information managers, and culture heritage caretakers. One of the Internet’s strengths is its ability to hold a vast amount of easily transmittable information, much more than any era before ours could, so to effectively neuter this ability would hinder present and future historians and archivists in their quest to accurately document the past. A historian studying late-1700s American history has only select diaries, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera of deteriorating quality from which to cull contextual information and interpret that time period for modern audiences. Researchers studying the present day, however, have millions of gigabytes of data available to them on the Internet – way too much information for even the Internet Archive or Library of Congress to adequately archive, let alone make sense of.

But as an individual, having the ability to regain a modicum of control over one’s own data is very appealing. Anyone who has ever posted a photo on Facebook they later regretted, or sent an email they wish they hadn’t, or wrote an inflammatory blog post years ago could see great value in data that can be, if not irreparably extirpated, then at least banished from digital civilization. This may lead to a less-complete record of our existence, but given how much more data we’re producing overall today than ever before we will not lack for records anytime soon.

We should all, I believe, have the right to the digital equivalent of burning a letter we don’t want living on in perpetuity, even though this idea runs counter to the impulses of our over-sharing and hyper-connected world. It is also anathema in archives: just think of all the information in that letter we’ve lost forever! I hear you, imaginary archivist, but, to return to Mayer-Schönberger’s analogy, even if a forest loses a tree — from natural death or manmade causes — it will still be a forest. And as Theodore Roosevelt, a great man of nature and of letters, said, “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mysteries, its melancholy and its charms.”

The Internet, like a forest, should allow for mystery. Otherwise, where’s the fun in the searching?

History Crush: Theodore Roosevelt

I recently stumbled upon the National Archives’ “History Crush” series, wherein archivists confess their undying love for certain historical figures like Susan B. Anthony, Charles Sumner, and Alexander Hamilton. This got me thinking about who mine would be. As a certified history nerd, I have many. But with a gun to my head, I’d probably have to say Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt with preservationist John Muir at Yosemite in 1906.

Edmund Morris’ three-volume trilogy (comprising The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt) about the 26th president of the United States is teeming with surreal stories and facts about TR, like how he wrote a best-selling book The Naval War of 1812 during college and became a New York assemblyman at 23; or how in Dakota he single-handedly chased down and captured three outlaws who stole his riverboat and escorted them back overland in a forty-hour marathon with no sleep while finishing a Tolstoy book; or how as NYC police commissioner he patrolled the city at night to shape up the city’s cops and along the way met poor people who would later partly inspire his progressivism; or how he bonded with John Muir at Yosemite and later single-handedly created the national parks system; or how he was shot in the chest while giving a campaign speech in Milwaukee but finished the speech anyway; or how he blazed down the Amazon River, acquiring a deadly amount of abscesses, dysentery, and malaria along the way and lived to write about it.

Of course, so much of the pomp surrounding TR’s legacy was partially created by TR himself – he had an insanely swollen ego that would have gotten him in a lot more in trouble had he not been beloved for most of his life. But I would argue that he earned the acclaim he craved for many reasons, not the least of which being he was brilliant, a voracious reader (a book a day (!) on average—sometimes I can barely muster the energy to read a chapter a night), and renowned historian who wrote constantly and could talk to any dignitary, scholar, or layman about literally any subject.

But the most interesting thing about TR, to me, is he was a walking contradiction. He was a sickly boy with chronic health problems, but basically said Screw it and let his unbounded energy drive himself to a full live but an untimely death. He was a wealthy Harvard aristocrat yet happily fraternized with the poor people whom his buddy Jacob Riis called “the other half” of society. He was an ardent environmentalist before there was such a thing, but had an insatiable lust for battle and killing—yet even when he went on a safari and slaughtered hundreds of wild animals, he donated a lot of them to museums for scientific study. Or he just dissected them himself, having acquired biology and ornithology as hobbies at a very young age. He distrusted and helped break up the big-business monopolies that had close ties to his very own Republican Party. He remade a paltry navy into a world-class fleet, but avoided war during his presidency and even won a Nobel Peace Prize.

Both Democrats and Republicans try to claim TR as their own, but he defies a label. In spite of his weaknesses and failures, he was his own man who made an indelible mark on the presidency and the country. For that, Theodore Roosevelt is one of my history crushes.