Mornings on Horseback
by David McCullough
Simon and Schuster, 445 pp., $17.95
In Washington, DC there is—or was—a place where Rock Creek crosses the main road and makes a ford which horses and, later, cars could cross if the creek was not in flood. Half a hundred years ago, I lived with my grandparents on a wooded hill not far from the ford. On summer days, my grandmother and I would walk down to the creek, careful to avoid the poison ivy that grew so luxuriously amid the crowded laurel. We would then walk beside the creek, looking out for crayfish and salamanders. When we came to the ford, I would ask her to tell me, yet again, what happened when the old President Roosevelt—not the current President Roosevelt—had come riding out of the woods on a huge horse just as two ladies on slow nags had begun a slow crossing of the ford.
“Well, suddenly, Mr. Roosevelt screamed at them, ‘Out of my way!’ ” My grandmother imitated the president’s harsh falsetto. “Stand to one side, women. I am the President!” What happened next? I’d ask, delighted. “Oh, they were both soaked to the skin by his horse’s splashing all over them. But then, the very next year,” she would say with some satisfaction, “nice Mr. Taft was the president.” Plainly, there was a link in her mind between the Event at the Ford and the change in the presidency. Perhaps there was. In those stately pre-personal days you did not call ladies women.
The attic of the Rock Creek house was filled with thousands of books on undusted shelves while newspapers, clippings, copies of the Congressional Record were strewn about the floor. My grandmother was not a zealous housekeeper. There was never a time when rolled-up Persian rugs did not lie at the edge of the drawing room, like crocodiles dozing. In 1907, the last year but one of Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, my grandfather came to the Senate. I don’t think they had much to do with each other. I found only one reference to TR—as he was always known—on the attic floor. In 1908, when Senator Gore nominated William Jennings Bryan for president, he made an alliterative aside, “I much prefer the strenuosity of Roosevelt to the sinuosity of Taft.”
Years later I asked him why he had supported Bryan, a man who had never, in my grandfather’s own words, “developed.” “He was too famous too young. He just stopped in his thirties.” So why had he nominated Bryan for president? Well, at the time there were reasons: he was vague. Then, suddenly, the pale face grew mischievous and the thin, straight Roman mouth broke into a crooked grin. “After I nominated him at Denver, we rode back to the hotel in the same carriage and he turned to me and said, ‘You know, I base my political success on just three things.’ ” The old man paused for dramatic effect. What were they? I asked. “I’ve completely …