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An American Sissy

Mornings on Horseback

by David McCullough
Simon and Schuster, 445 pp., $17.95

I

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 forgotten,” he said. “But I do remember wondering why he thought he was a success.”

In 1936, Theodore Roosevelt’s sinuous cousin Franklin brought an end to my grandfather’s career in the Senate. But the old man stayed on in Rock Creek Park and lived to a Nestorian age, convinced that FDR, as he was always known, was our republic’s Caesar while his wife, Eleanor, Theodore’s niece, was a revolutionary. The old man despised the whole family except Theodore’s daughter Alice Longworth.

Alice gave pleasure to three generations of our family. She was as witty—and as reactionary—as Senator Gore; she was also deeply resentful of her distant cousin Franklin’s success while the canonization of her own first cousin Eleanor filled her with horror. “Isn’t Eleanor no-ble,” she would say, breaking the word into two syllables, each hummed reverently. “So very, very good!” Then she would imitate Eleanor’s buck teeth which were not so very unlike her own quite prominent choppers. But Alice did have occasional, rare fits of fairness. She realized that what she felt for her cousins was “Simply envy. We were the President Roosevelt family. But then along came the Feather Duster,” as she habitually referred to Franklin, “and we were forgotten.” But she was exaggerating, as a number of new books attest, not to mention that once beautiful Dakota cliff defaced by the dread Gutzon Borglum with the faces of dead pols.

It is hard for Americans today to realize what a power the Roosevelts exerted not only in our politics but in the public’s imagination. There had been nothing like them since the entirely different Adamses and there has been nothing like them since—the sad story of the Kennedys bears about as much resemblance to the Roosevelts as the admittedly entertaining and cautionary television series Dallas does to Shakespeare’s chronicle plays.

From the moment in 1898 when TR raced up Kettle Hill (incorrectly known as San Juan) to April 12, 1945, when Franklin Roosevelt died, the Roosevelts were at the republic’s center stage. Also, for nearly half that fifty-year period, a Roosevelt had been president. Then, as poignant coda, Eleanor Roosevelt, now quite alone, acted for seventeen years as conscience to a world very different from that of her uncle TR or even of FDR, her cousin-husband.

In the age of the condominium and fast foods, the family has declined not only as a fact but as a concept. Although there are, presumably, just as many Roosevelts alive today as there were a century ago, they are now like everyone else, scattered about, no longer tribal or even all of the same class. Americans can now change class almost as fast—downward, at least—as they shift from city to city or job to job. A century ago, a member of the patriciate was not allowed to drop out of his class no matter how little money he had. He might be allowed to retire from the world, like TR’s alcoholic brother Elliott, in order to cultivate his vices, but even Elliott remained very much a part of the family until death—not his own kind—declassed him.

As a descendant of Theodore Roosevelt said to David McCullough, author of Mornings on Horseback, “No writer seems to have understood the degree to which [TR] was part of a clan.” A clan that was on the rise, socially and financially, in nineteenth-century New York City. In three generations the Roosevelts had gone from hardware to plate glass to land development and banking (Chemical). By and large, the Roosevelts of that era were a solemn, hard-working, uninspired lot who, according to the New York World, had a tendency “to cling to the fixed and the venerable.” Then, suddenly, out of this clan of solid burghers erupted the restless Theodore and his interesting siblings. How did this happen? Cherchez la mère is the usual key to the unexpected—for good or ill—in a family’s history.

During Winston Churchill’s last government, a minister found him in the Cabinet room, staring at a newspaper headline: one of his daughters had been arrested, yet again, for drunkenness. The minister said something consoling. Churchill grunted. The minister was then inspired to ask: “How is it possible that a Churchill could end up like this?” To which the old man replied: “Do you realize just what there was between the first Duke of Marlborough and me?” Plainly, a genetic disaster area had been altered, in Winston’s case, by an American mother, Jennie Jerome, and in Theodore Roosevelt’s case by a Southern mother, named Mittie Bulloch, a beautiful, somewhat eccentric woman whom everyone delighted in even though she was not, to say the least, old New York. Rather, she was proudly Southern and told her sons exciting stories of what their swashbuckling Southern kin had done on land and sea. In later life, everyone agreed that Theodore was more Bulloch than Roosevelt just as his cousin Franklin was more Delano—or at least Sara Delano—than Roosevelt.

Mr. McCullough’s book belongs to a new and welcome genre: the biographical sketch. Edmund Wilson in Patriotic Gore and Richard Hofstadter in The American Political Tradition were somewhat specialized practitioners of this art but, by and large, from Plutarch to Strachey, it has been more of a European than an American genre. Lately, American biography has fallen more and more into the hands not of writers but of academics—that some academics write very well indeed is, of course, perfectly true and, of course, perfectly rare. When it comes to any one of the glorious founders of our imperial republic, the ten-volume hagiography is now the rule. Under the direction of a tenured Capo, squads of graduate students spend years assembling every known fact, legend, statistic. The Capo then factors everything into the text, like sand into a cement mixer. The result is, literally, monumental, and unreadable. Even such minor figures as Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis have been accorded huge volumes in which every letter, telegram, drunken quarrel are memorialized at random. “Would you read this sort of book?” I asked Mark Schorer, holding up his thick life of Sinclair Lewis. He blinked, slightly startled by my bad manners. “Well,” he said mildly, politely, “I must say I never really liked Lewis’s work all that much.”

Now, as bright footnotes to the academic texts, we are offered such books as Otto Friedrich’s Clover and Jean Strouse’s Alice James. These sketches seem to me to belong to literature in a way that Schorer’s Sinclair Lewis or Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time do not—the first simply a journeyman compilation, the second a banal hagiography (with, admittedly, extremely valuable footnotes). In a sense, the reader of Malone et al. is obliged to make his own text out of the unshaped raw material while the reader of Strouse or Friedrich is given a finished work of literature that supplies the reader with an idiosyncratic view of the subject. To this genre Mornings on Horseback belongs: a sketch of Theodore Roosevelt’s parents, brothers and sisters, wife, and self until the age of twenty-eight. Mr. McCullough has done a good swift job of sketching this family group.

Unfortunately, he follows in the wake not of the usual dull, ten-volume academic biography of the twenty-sixth president but of the first volume of Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. This is bad luck for Mr. McCullough. Morris’s work is not only splendid but covers the same period as Mr. McCullough’s, ending some years later with the death of McKinley. Where Mr. McCullough scores is in the portrait of the family, particularly during Theodore’s youth. Fortunately, there can never be too much of a good thing. Since Morris’s work has a different, longer rhythm, he does not examine at all closely those lesser lives which shaped—and explain, somewhat—the principal character.

Theodore Roosevelt, Senior, was a man of good works; unlike his wife Mittie. “She played no part in his good works, and those speculations on life in the hereafter or the status of one’s soul, speculations that appear in Theodore’s correspondence…are not to be found in what she wrote. She was not an agnostic exactly,” writes McCullough, but at a time when the church was central to organized society she seems more than slightly indifferent or, as her own mother wrote, “If she was only a Christian, I think I could feel more satisfied.”

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