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A Yankee Notebook

June 4, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Just 100 year ago this month, in Chicago, the nominating convention of the Republican National Committee was in full cry. Then, as now, the party of Lincoln was, to the delight of the Democrats, pulling itself apart. With three candidates to choose from – the massive, almost somnolent incumbent President William Howard Taft; “Fighting Bob” La Follette of Wisconsin (who had the year before led a fierce campaign defending the right of workers to organize that was the mirror image of Governor Scott Walker’s campaign to eliminate them exactly 100 years later); and the feisty former President Theodore Roosevelt – the party was in a fervor.


The dispute today is between the GOP conservatives and its newborn radicals. In Teddy’s time it raged between the National Committee, comprising the wealthy conservative wing of the Grand Old Party –committed, albeit unenthusiastically, to the reelection of Taft – and the progressive element, exemplified by La Follette and Roosevelt. The committee had refused to recognize the credentials of many progressive delegates chosen in primaries, in favor of delegates loyal to and appointed by regional party bosses. Tempers were running high. The stage at the Chicago Auditorium had been raised to shoulder height and was protected by barbed wire in front, a 12-foot-deep dry moat behind, and a detachment of security guards and Chicago cops.

A friend recently lent me a 24-hour-long talking book: Edmund Morris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Colonel Roosevelt. I played it in my truck as I drove. It covers the period of Teddy Roosevelt’s life from the end of his second term in 1909 to his death only nine years later at the age of sixty. Two impressions emerge from listening to actor Mark Deakins read the book. The first is that, for better or worse, they just don’t make ‘em like Teddy anymore; that he probably was the most interesting American who ever lived: in his cousin Franklin’s words, “the greatest man I ever knew.” The second is that I spend a lot more time in my truck than I’d ever suspected.

Most schoolchildren know the story of Roosevelt’s childhood: how, asthmatic and severely nearsighted, he managed to build himself into a sturdy, aggressive bullet of a young man by vigorous outdoor activity. He was often held up as a model for us by our parents when they felt we were spending too much time indoors reading. One of my favorite books as a child was Roosevelt’s magnificently illustrated African Game Trails. I read my father’s copy till the spine disintegrated and the pages fell out. To this day I can see the tawny lion charging Teddy and his frightened gun-bearers, and recall part of the caption beneath the painting: “...uttering terrific coughing grunts.” The former President dispatched it with a final bullet to the middle of its chest. He dispatched quite a few other animals, as well, a fact that didn’t bother me as much then as it does now. Nor did his description of killing a charging rhinoceros just in time, “as it clearly meant mischief.” I shouldn’t wonder it did; it had several large bullet holes in its hide.

Then there were the Battle of San Juan Hill with the Roughriders; the appropriation of the Isthmus of Panama in order to consolidate our two oceans of influence; and the bear cub that he didn’t kill, which inspired the Teddy bear. But other than his tales of African big game hunting, few of us knew of the two other great adventures between his leaving office and finally succumbing, worn out and rheumatic, to a pulmonary embolism in his bedroom at Sagamore Hill.

His safari – more of a triumphal tour, really; he was received and feted wherever he went, and had contracts from the Museum of Natural History and a few publishers for animal specimens and stories – followed his retirement from office. With Kermit, one of his four sons, he ranged the Dark Continent, collecting animals (dead) and writing lively and detailed accounts of all he saw. He closed his sojourn by meeting his wife in Khartoum and touring Europe, where he heard clearly the rumblings of the coming martial storm. He dined with royalty and nobility and began to remark the vitiation of societies ruled from the top down by divinely appointed rulers.

Back home, he ran into a storm of enthusiasm for his candidacy, even though his hand-picked successor, Taft, desired and had no reason not to expect a second term. It’s difficult to appreciate in these days of private jets, but Roosevelt traveled all over the country by train, speaking at whistle stops and great gatherings, all without the aid of amplification. For obvious reasons, he was accompanied by a laryngologist. In the end, what he called the “hijacking” of his delegates to the convention led him to help establish the Progressive Party and run as its candidate. Though the party ultimately died a quiet death, it split and doomed the Republicans in 1912 and led to the election of Woodrow Wilson, whose idealistic yearnings for peace in the face of German U-boat attacks – ”There are men too proud to fight.” – drove Roosevelt almost to distraction. The Progressive movement eventually did lead to something: the New Deal that revived the nation during the Great Depression, under another Roosevelt and a different political party.

After a humiliating defeat in 1912, Roosevelt set off for a speaking tour of South America and, almost as an afterthought, mounted an expedition, in company with a Brazilian surveying party, of an unknown river, Rio Dúvida – “River of Doubt.” It had never been explored, and no one knew where it debouched. The story is far too long to tell here. After weeks of strenuous overland travel to the headwaters and more weeks of rapids (in ponderous dugouts, no less), canyons, waterfalls, a death by drowning, another by murder, malaria attacks, and an infection that rendered Roosevelt delirious (and murmuring the first lines of “Xanadu”), they emerged at last on the Amazon. Though his voice and influence continued for five more years, Roosevelt never quite recovered from this last great adventure. He was spent. But it was a bully life fully spent.

Photo by Willem lange