July Books 42) Presidents I’ve Known and Two Near Presidents

42) Presidents I’ve Known and Two Near Presidents, by Charles Willis Thompson

I got this for a while back, and have taken the opportunity to raid it from his bookshelves.

Thompson was the Washington correspondent of the New York Times and the New York World, and wrote this book in 1929, about the presidents of the previous thirty years – McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding and Coolidge (all but Wilson were Republicans). He also throws in a lot of material about Mark Hanna, the power behind the throne of McKinley’s presidency, and even more about three-times Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan (they being the two “near presidents” of the title).

This is a brilliant book, and I hope that Project Gutenberg have their eye on it (it is probably in the public domain, and will certainly be so by 2016). In those days, the relationship between president and press corps seems to have been a lot more intimate than it is now; these seven character sketches (it should be eight, but he claims it is impossible to describe McKinley) are tremendously instructive about the way in which each man operated, and take pains to demolish the conventional wisdom about each with examples drawn from his own experience.

So, for instance, we have a chapter with the intriguing title “Bryan’s Dark Secret” – which turns out to be that he was very witty and had a great sense of humour, but felt that his political career would be demolished if he ever allowed that side of his character to show in public. Thompson then gives other examples of potentially great politicians let down by their sense of humour (nobody I had heard of, but I suppose that was his point). He add that he thinks a reputation for wit is a particular disadvantage in American politics; I don’t agree that this is necessarily an American phenomenon.

Theodore Roosevelt, clearly Thompson’s favourite of the subjects of the book (120 pages of 380), has the reputation of a brash, impulsive, domineering character. Thompson shows how carefully Roosevelt prepared his public utterances, totally contra his reputation for spontaneity (a habit which possibly saved his life when he was shot in the chest while campaigning in 1912; the assassin’s bullet was crucially slowed by passing through the pages of Roosevelt’s speech in his pocket). He also gives numerous examples of Roosevelt’s personal kindness and loyalty to his friends.

The book is also fascinating on Woodrow Wilson, who gets 70 pages, though Thompson clearly did not like him much. He explains Wilson’s failures of foreign policy as driven by an unwillingness to listen to any information he did not want to hear; he gives numerous examples of Wilson’s volcanic temper, which is at odds with his reputation for glacial intellectualism. He tries to be fair, though; he argues that Wilson had constructed his aloof personality just as consciously as Roosevelt is known to have constructed his own effervescent physical public persona, and gives a charming portrait of Wilson on the campaign trail.

He is less good on Coolidge, whose term had only just ended when the book was published, but makes convincing claims that Coolidge’s reputation as a public speaker is undeservedly low. His short analysis of Harding is devastating (as indeed any fair analysis of any length must be), an he admits he never liked the man; but he also gives a tremendously sympathetic picture of Harding at home in Marion, Ohio, and makes the reader feel sorry that he was plucked from his natural environment and raised to the Presidency, an office for which he was unsuited and which basically killed him.

Of the presidents described, I’m most interested in Taft (who appointed my great-great-uncle as his attorney-general), though here Thompson’s portrait differs least from the conventional wisdom (his most original point being that Taft was not as obese as people think he was). Still, the awful story of Taft’s failure as president is an instructive one, and especially entertaining when told by an eye-witness. Thompson gives numerous examples of Taft simply saying the wrong thing, through inexperience rather than malice; he reckons the rot set in with Roosevelt the day after the 1908 election, when Taft thanked his predecessor, telling him, “I am bound to say that I owe my election more to you than to anybody else, except my brother Charley.” As Thompson points out,

This gives a measure of Taft’s inability to judge how his remarks would sound to a hearer, but it was in private conversation. Now, for four years, his conversations were to be with the people of the United States, and he was to demonstrate the same quality in public that he had often shown in private; and now the effect was to be calamitous, for he was talking to millions who did not know him and would make no allowances.

It takes a special kind of talent to run for re-election in a two-party system and come third, and Thompson illuminates this very well. A really good book, but you would need to know a bit about US history of the period first.

One thought on “July Books 42) Presidents I’ve Known and Two Near Presidents

Comments are closed.