Book Review: The House of Truth
A Washington Political Salon and the Foundations of American Liberalism
by Brad Snyder
Oxford University Press, 2017
Brad Snyder’s A Well-Paid Slave was a rich and tremendously detailed study of the world and struggle of Major League baseball star Curt Flood, and in his new book The House of Truth, Snyder takes his penchant for industrious research and his dramatist’s sensibilities and approaches a much bigger and broader subject and a more elusive one: the birth, heyday, and influence of the “House of Truth,” a homely row house off Washington DC’s Dupont Circle where a group of intellectuals gathered on and off for decades to debate the pressing issues of the day, from the administration of President Taft to defeat of Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 election through the decades to the electoral victory of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. The House of Truth (as its members semi-sarcastically dubbed it) was prime example of a phenomenon that crops up in the background of a hundred early 20th-century memoirs and biographies but scarcely ever gets its time at the front of the stage: the Washington talking-salon.
Snyder makes the wise decision to give readers a human focal point, in this case the young Felix Frankfurter, seeing the city with a newcomer’s eyes:
In September 1911, Frankfurter arrived in Washington, DC, knowing only a handful of people. Walking the streets of the nation’s capital, the new War Department aide fell in love with the “charming, large, peaceful, equable bit town.” The sidewalks along tree-lined Connecticut Avenue were twice their current width because streetlights had not yet been installed and automobiles were scarce. Most people walked to and from their offices and worked at a leisurely pace … Frankfurter liked Washington because it was not driven by money like New York but by political power and ideas.
As Snyder relates, it didn’t take long for Frankfurter to finagle himself a much-coveted invitation:
On November 27, 1911, Justice and Mrs. Holmes invited Frankfurter to lunch for the first time. “I cam away with the keen relief of having been on Olympus and finding that one’s God did not have feet of clay,” Frankfurter wrote to [his old Boston friend John Chipman] Gray. “There is a brilliance and range in the justice’s conversation … But over and above his keen penetration, his contempt for mere words and formula, and his freshness of outlook, give lasting zest and momentum to one’s groping and toiling.”
Frankfurter would go on to become a Supreme Court justice himself, and Snyder joins the story of his idealistic youth with that of future journalistic taste-maker Walter Lippmann, Holmes and his intellectual circle, and even, bizarrely, Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor now best known as the man who created the faces on Mount Rushmore (the book’s long digression on Mount Rushmore is every bit as entertaining as it is off-topic), and through these many perspectives, The House of Truth dramatizes the momentous political and social events of a generation. It’s the book’s great success that it makes these long-vanished issues and personalities feel vibrantly immediate a century later.
This zest for immediacy can sometimes overcome the narrative’s even-handedness, and, in an echo of many of the House of Truth’s frustrations, the scapegoat is often poor William Howard Taft. When recounting the debate surrounding the nomination of Louis Brandeis for the Supreme Court, for instance, Snyder relates how Taft sneered at Brandeis’s efforts to portray himself as a “representative Jew,” commenting that Taft said Brandeis “has metaphorically been re-circumcised … If it were necessary, I am sure he would have grown a beard to convince them that he was a Jew of Jews.” After which Snyder offers a mealy-mouthed half-accusation that would outrage proponents of Taft if there were any still left in the world:
Scholars have not portrayed Taft as anti-Semitic and have pointed out that the former president was dismayed at anti-Semitic remarks made about Brandeis. Taft’s friend, Gus Karger, was Jewish; Taft had included Brandeis’s former brother-in-law, Charles Nagel, in his cabinet. If not anti-Semitic, however, Taft’s opposition to Brandeis was personal and ideological and strayed into using anti-Semitic stereotypes.
There is nothing pejorative in Taft’s opposition being “personal and ideological,” of course – what other grounds for opposition are there? – and chiding a man who grandstanded about his own Jewishness for grandstanding about his own Jewishness is not “straying into using anti-Semitic stereotypes.” Either a man is anti-Semitic or he isn’t, and Taft wasn’t.
But such over-argumentativeness is, ironically, probably a necessary component of The House of Truth’s passionate empathy; it would be an unimaginative writer indeed who could sift through as much source material as Snyder has (the books Notes and Bibliography run to 200 pages) and not emerge brimming with the sheer thinking and fighting energy of people like Lippmann or Frankfurter, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and especially Justice Holmes himself, who, not surprisingly, commandeers every section of the book in which he appears. In fact, readers coming out of this fantastic book eager to know more about Holmes and Frankfurter are urged to find themselves a copy of the great collection of their correspondence, edited by Robert Mennel and Christine Compston 20 years ago. But read The House of Truth first, for the sheer big-picture enjoyment of the thing.