Monday, October 31, 2016

Story of Two Presidents

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of JournalismThe Bully Pulpit: 
Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, 
and the Golden Age of Journalism 

by Doris Kearns Goodwin

“Why bother with fictional characters and plots when the world was full of more marvelous stories that were true, with characters so fresh, so powerful, so new, that they stepped from into the narratives under their own power?”   ― Doris Kearns Goodwin

For any historian, bringing the past to life is a most difficult task, and it is to the credit of Doris Kearns Goodwin that she has succeeded to such a marked degree with her successive assessments of powerful leaders. I first encountered her work when I read No Ordinary Time, a history of the relationship of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. Subsequently I enjoyed her book, Team of Rivals, about Lincoln and his cabinet.

This work explores the lives and times of former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, creating an image of the past that captures emotions as well as events, with an entertaining account of that bitter 1912 political convention that marked the crumbling of a great friendship as well as of a political party. In this work she draws a comparison between the currently widening gap between the rich and poor and the chasm that was one aspect of the path to reform in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, in spite of her immensely readable prose, she provides a slanted view of history that treats the progressivism of Roosevelt and the muckraking journalists of the era in an all too hagiographic fashion.

She makes a comparison with the challenges faced by today’s leaders when she discusses the use of the “bully pulpit,” that famous phrase coined by Theodore Roosevelt to summarize the power that a president can wield to mobilize and galvanize the public mind. The times were such that “muckraking” was applied to the more extreme journalists; noting the influence of the press on the presidency and its connections to Roosevelt. These connections included an alliance with Sam McClure, editor of McClure’s Magazine, where there were gathered what became a legendary group of journalists: William Allen White, crime reporter Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker and a woman, Ida Tarbell.

Goodwin's research is demonstrated by her use of such vital material as more than 400 letters written between Roosevelt and Taft in their 30s, which made it all the more poignant that their friendship was destroyed by the political rivalry launched by Roosevelt in 1912. Taft is seen as a failure as a public leader, seeing his political success impeded by the genuine skills of his judicial career, which left him too convinced of his own rectitude. His lack of passion for politics ultimately left him unable to emulate Roosevelt in using the press to carry the legislative message of the president. Taft even conceded after leaving office that he had failed to use the “bully pulpit” to achieve his goals. According to Ms. Kearns Goodwin, Taft was “temperamentally unsuited” to make use of that bully pulpit that contributed so substantially to Roosevelt’s success.

The author underlines her insight into the characters of the two men by framing their family background and their emotional attachments. She writes sensitively of Roosevelt’s devastation at the death of his first wife, Alice, to the point that he could not bring himself to address their daughter by the given name of Alice, calling her instead “Baby Lee.” When he does remarry, his second wife, Edith, who was his true first love, was devoted to her husband despite being more restrained in her links to the world beyond her home. Roosevelt’s character could be summed up by a visiting British viscount who commented that he encountered “two tremendous works of nature in America — Mr. Roosevelt and Niagara Falls.”
Ironically, the differences between Roosevelt and his friend Taft were pointed up by their similarities. Taft was an amiable, kindly man who excelled in all high office except one. He was, the author observes, “an excellent number two man,” yet he lacked the necessary political acumen required in a president. He was not a true progressive in the way that Roosevelt was. His wife, Nellie, gave essential encouragement to her husband as a judge and as president, relishing the role of first lady. It was she who brought cherry trees to the capital, created parks and lobbied for higher wages for workers.

Goodwin concludes the history of the Roosevelt-Taft era with her account of the 1912 election when Roosevelt broke his promise not to seek a third term and embarked on a brutal campaign against the man who was once his closest friend and who also lacked the ferocity for a bloody election battle. It was ironic that even in the White House, Taft apparently realized that he was best suited for the bench — and indeed he became chief justice of the Supreme Court after leaving the presidency.

An eloquent epilogue describes the brief reconciliation of Roosevelt and Taft. As a result of this when Taft attended Roosevelt’s funeral, he commented, “Had he died in a hostile state of mind toward me, I would have mourned the fact all my life. I loved him always and cherish his memory.” The statement said a great deal about both men.

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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Confusion in Love

All Mixed Up
A comedy about love, betrayal, trust, 
and the things that keep us apart
by John J. Enright

What appeal can a play about a lesbian couple who are expecting a baby have for a single white male in his sixties?  A lot more than I expected as it turns out.  Last Sunday I experienced this mixture of Humour and Drama from the pen of John J. Enright.  And I found it is appropriately titled "All Mixed Up".  Considering the playwright's not inconsequential experience writing Romantic Comedies (see "O'Brien and O'Brian") any question I might have had seems upon reflection to be, shall we say, questionable.

The play opens with a couple who's expecting and facing turbulent doubts about both the nature and the direction of their joint endeavor.  We meet Beth in the lobby of a hotel where Carrie, a white lawyer, who has a bit of attitude joins her.  Beth is a Black woman in the latter days of pregnancy, who is nervous about aspects of the endeavor that she has not shared with her partner.  We find out that they are engaged, but Beth is no longer wearing her ring and the trust that led to the engagement seems to have evaporated.  The play adds to this couple a somewhat officious Security Guard and the baby's daddy. The mix-ups that ensue for this quartet provide more than a little humour as further tensions abound.

I was impressed with the acting of both Taylor Mason X as Beth as she brought a believable combination of nervous energy alternating with a stressed out tiredness. Her difficulty in sharing the secrets she kept from her partner seemed to emanate from an uncertainty about the relationship that was visceral.  Her partner Carrie was a demanding and difficult character that Paige Taylor handled well.  Both Eric D. Fisher and Jillian Leff in the other roles proved more than able to contribute to the mixed up action.

I was most impressed by the way the plot made the title of the play clear in multiple ways. The direction of Denise Smolarek complemented this to yield a successful production. With the playwright's signature wit ever present and a realistic portrayal of difficult relationships evident the play was thought-provoking while providing ample measure of laughter.  Any question about the potential entertainment value of this play for myself had evaporated early in the first act as I enjoyed a moving and often mirth-filled evening of theater.  

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Solitude Above the Human Race

Reveries of the Solitary WalkerReveries of the Solitary Walker 
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Entirely taken up by the present, I could remember nothing; I had no distinct notion of myself as a person, nor had I the least idea of what had just happened to me. I did not know who I was, nor where I was; I felt neither pain, fear, nor anxiety. I watched my blood flowing as I might have watched a stream, without even thinking that the blood had anything to do with me. I felt throughout my whole being such a wonderful calm, that whenever I recall this feeling I can find nothing to compare with it in all the pleasures that stir our lives.”   ― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker

Hyperbole*, thy name is Rousseau. In the last work by Jean-Jacques Rousseau he created a memoir like none of his other works. Autobiographical in style, it differs from the Confessions, the Dialogues, and several letters. It has no goal nor any chronological order; indeed, the ten "walks" into which it is divided provide a record of his inner feelings, a sort of barometer of his "soul".

The theme of the walks, if one exists, seems to center on Rousseau's alleged solitude - an isolation from society that is not deserved by such a great man. He spends his days contemplating himself as evidenced by this comment near the end of the First Walk: "But I, detached from them and from everything, what am I?". 
His investigation of himself, as the walks continue, appears to be sentimental - one that focuses on feeling rather than ideas (perhaps his taste for ideas had declined since the days of his early essays and great Social Contract). He ponders the nature of happiness in the Fifth Walk, however does not identify his own personal happiness with contemplation (as Aristotle or other classical thinkers might). In fact, he considers thinking a chore for him in the Seventh Walk; it is a task he used to perform fro the sake of others so that he could explain the world to them and show them how to live in it correctly (perhaps they could not hear him or were just not listening).

Rousseau's high appreciation of himself is evident from the opening sentence of the First Walk when he sets himself apart from humankind with these words: "I am now alone on earth, no longer having any brother, neighbor, friend, or society other than myself." He goes on to portray himself as the "most sociable and the most loving of humans". Overall the investigation of self in which he is engaged is so clearly and consistently directed at Rousseau's own enlightenment that the problem of why he is in this unusual condition does not arise. The final and tenth walk occurs on on Palm Sunday in 1778. He ends his reveries with a short chapter bemoaning the short period of happiness he had with a woman decades before; unsure of himself or his feelings he commits to reforming so as to be able to love. It seems that will be a losing battle.

language that describes something as better or worse than it really is.

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Saturday, October 01, 2016

For the Constitution

The Federalist PapersThe Federalist Papers 
by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, & John Jay

“Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power.”   
― James Madison

The arguments of Hamilton, Madison and Jay are just as relevant today as they were more than two hundred years ago. The authors of The Federalist Papers wanted to influence the vote in favor of ratifying the Constitution. However, the authors of the Federalist papers also had a greater plan in mind. According to Federalist 1:
"It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force."

They argue for improvements in the science of politics and the restraint of faction while invoking Montesquieu's idea of a confederate republic. Madison argues in Number 10 that a republic is superior to democracy and deals with the problem of factions. Hamilton is persuasive in his arguments that the confederation was inadequate to preserve the Union. He catalogs "public misfortunes" the result of "the great and radical vice of Confederation," namely, "the political monster of an imperium in imperio". He continues to argue that the Union needs the power of national defense, the power to tax, and others to avoid anarchy.

They present positive arguments for the ratification of the Constitution and, as Madison says in Paper No. 37, "They solicit the attention of those only who add to a sincere zeal for the happiness of their country,". What a thought and temperament, that zeal for happiness. One thing that impressed me on reading the papers was the classical education demonstrated by the authors with their articles filled with references to Cicero, Rome and Greece. Enlightenment thinkers were also evident with Montesquieu being a notable example. Certainly this is a book worth rereading with the current importance of the constitution in our political life.

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