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Book Review: Taking on Theodore Roosevelt

By (January 13, 2015) No Comment

Taking on Theodore Roosevelt:taking on

How One Senator Defied the President on Brownsville and Shook American Politics

by Harry Lembeck

Prometheus Books, 2015

The center of Harry Lembeck’s scholarly and immensely persuasive new book, Taking on Theodore Roosevelt: How One Senator Defied the President on Brownsville and Shook American Politics, is the Brownsville Incident mentioned in the book’s garrulous sub-title, a disgraceful 1906 incident in which the residents of Brownsville, Texas accused several black soldiers of going on “a lawless rampage” in August that left one man dead and another wounded. In response to the ensuing outrage, President Theodore Roosevelt summarily discharged without honor all 167 members of the regiment, depriving the men of their pensions and barring them from all future civil employment. Lembeck builds his narrative not only on the most energetic and detailed retelling of the incident yet written in a popular history but also on telling, for the first time, the tale of the resulting battle of wills between Roosevelt and his most vocal critic, Senator Joseph Foraker of Ohio.

Foraker’s complicated, prickly personality has never been captured better than in Lembeck’s pages, but even so, he’s just one character in a wonderful gallery of great portraits painted in these pages, from relatively minor characters like a flamboyant Texas Ranger who walks into the scandal in its early days:

Enter Captain William “Bill” McDonald of the Texas Rangers, who arrived in Brownsville with the anger, bitterness, and aggressiveness that led south Texans to say he would charge hell with one bucket of water. And with no sense. Bill McDonald brought to Brownsville, its mayor, and the army a “good deal of trouble.” Of all the rabble-rousers in the Brownsville Incident, none was more dangerous than Ranger McDonald, who came to town to show the locals how Negroes should be dealt with and, possibly only incidentally, to prove the black soldiers were guilty.

… to some of the most prominent figures of the day, including the book’s two champion grandstanders, Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington:

Both men achieved much while they were young. Neither lived to see old age (Washington died at fifty-nine; Roosevelt barely two months after he turned sixty). Both men knew how to get what they wanted and, for a time, defend what they had. Both died with their influence a thing of the past.

Although Lembeck’s book is determinedly even-handed, it nevertheless has a villain in Theodore Roosevelt, whose decisiveness here looks like malevolence, and whose famous charisma, in Lembeck’s handling, becomes a carefully-orchestrated facade dating all the way back to Roosevelt’s time as New York police commissioner:

Roosevelt took to patrolling the city’s streets late at night – he called them midnight rambles – to catch the police loafing. [His old friend New York Sun reporter Jacob] Riis often went with him and nudged him to detour into slum apartments to see how the other half lived. He would take what he saw to the White House, and it prompted many of his Progressive Era programs. “For two years we were brothers on Mulberry Street,” Riis wrote in 1904, when Roosevelt was running for the White House, in a book called Theodore Roosevelt: The Citizen. Readers were told Roosevelt was always cordial, gracious, gentle, and approachable. The book showcased Roosevelt’s leadership. Riis’s laudatory biography was Roosevelt’s public relations at its best. No president before Roosevelt did it so well.

As Lembeck writes, “cyclone of astonishment followed President Roosevelt’s discharge order,” and in his narrative, that astonishment gradually concentrates in the figure of Foraker, whose railing against the leader of his own political party clearly strikes a personal chord in the President. The results could be pyrotechnic, as in a scene Lembeck dramatizes from a Gridiron Club dinner in 1906:

Roosevelt turned his face straight ahead at Foraker. When he again spoke, he was “extremely strenuous in a vocal and gesticulatory way.” Just who did the senators think they were, presuming to question a decision of the army’s commander in chief, he asked Foraker. It was none of their business, because “all” power in the matter was constitutionally his and only his. He could discharge the soldiers if he wished, and no one could review his actions. The Senate could discuss it all it wanted to, but “it served no good purpose, could have no result, was purely ‘academic,'” and suggested Foraker’s motives were political. He went on like this for almost half an hour before taking his seat. The Gridiron Club had never heard anything like it.

Thanks to Lembeck’s knowing, sardonic narration (and the wince-inducing casual racism of the day) none of his characters escapes with an unbesmirched reputation, although the half-dozen fans of Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, will perhaps cheer that he consistently shows greater moral rectitude than anybody else in the story (including Foraker, whose feet of clay Lembeck dutifully reports), at one point suspending Roosevelt’s order while the President is out of the country only to draw a heated telegram whose anger, Lembeck astutely writes, “almost bleeds through the paper.”

As far as I can recall, Taking on Theodore Roosevelt is Lembeck’s debut – an incredible and joyful detail if true, since this book is hugely readable and accomplished, the sure-handed work of a historian who loves good stories but isn’t for a moment hoodwinked by them. It’s a thumpingly good start to 2015’s roll of history volumes – and an essential addition to any inquiry into the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.