Theodore Roosevelt and an Historian’s Obsessions

Tell someone you want to be a history teacher and you’re likely to get an old joke: if you’ve studied it once, you don’t need to study it again. History, after all, doesn’t change.

If only.

When Trumpets CallWhen you really dig into a historical subject, start to obsess about it, write about it and argue it, you see it in new ways. You don’t tire of it and instead, re-interpretation and re-re-reinterpretation becomes natural. Interest leads to curiosity, which in turn catalyzes ever more curiosity. It’s a strange feeling and a good one, too – humbling.

I had that sensation when doing graduate research on the early part of the twentieth century in American politics. It emerged slowly, over years of work. Reading primary sources complemented secondary sources, which in turn gave me insight into different primary sources. I read and read and read, to the point when I was working on my dissertation that I dreamed of living in the early 1900s. Reading newspaper from the period again and again will do that. Even though today I do not teach or write history, I find myself pulled to that period out of interest and familiarity. It has become part of me.

Recently I finished When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House – another biography of Theodore Roosevelt. There are many biographies of the man. The broad outlines of Roosevelt’s life are well-known, as is his over the top personality, and his emergence as a popular culture icon. It’s no accident that Robin Williams played a touching TR in the Night at the Museum movies.

Roosevelt is a fascinating figure to study and there is much to admire in his early years. His post-presidency rhetoric, though, and his strident militarism can make for a difficult subject. O’Toole – a writer, not a professional historian – renders him with patience and deep appreciation. Her research was with direct sources, so her reading of Roosevelt’s correspondence and those of his colleagues helps to flesh out the man’s complexities. She is a skilled author. O’Toole is able to add drama and impact to the history.

That said, O’Toole does not add anything really new to the study of the man. This is no closely argued academic tome. She comes to the subject with no broad argument, no ax to grind, and no key thesis to prove. She writes for understanding and to sell books. In these goals, she succeeds.

What is missing from the book is the sort of deep appreciation and understanding of a trained historian. She writes history without an historian’s passion. And somehow I doubt that she dreams about what it was like in the summer of 1912, in Chicago, as the Republican Party tore itself apart trying to find a candidate and consensus. As I said, I’m a little bit obsessed.

David Potash

To Get an International Job Done

Amid partisan wrangling, international conflict, and the quantification of risk, is it possible today to do something grand on the international scale? A war, perhaps, but what about project with global implications? And can anything be done in the Middle East? To answer just that question I recently read Zachary Karabell’s Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal.

Karabell is a twenty-first century Renaissance man. He is an economist and money manager, has overseen mutual funds, and has his own firm looking at economic and political trends. He is also a Harvard educated historian with extensive knowledge of global economic development and the author of several books. Most importantly, Karabell has the background, training and perspective to explain one of the most daunting construction projects of the nineteenth century: the building of the Suez Canal.

The waterway, which connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas, was a massive engineering feat when first completed in 1869. It did not, though, require all that much by way of innovation or cutting edge technology. What made the building of the Suez Canal such an extraordinary undertaking was the politics and the people involved. This is the focus on Karabell’s thoughtfully written study.

Many since the time of the Pharaohs recognized the value of connecting the two seas through canals. Ptolemy led one such project. The earlier efforts silted up, however, and it was not until Napoleon invaded Egypt that the idea gained traction. Numerous studies were undertaking, but none had a clear champion the vision, perseverance, connections and will to bring the idea forward. Until Ferdinand de Lesseps, a well-connected diplomat whose career derailed due to French politics in 1849, took up the cause.

Karabell patiently explains the conditions and leadership of Egypt at the time. He makes clear that while de Lesseps may take the hero’s role in the tale, Egypt’s Khedive, Sa’id Pasha, was essential in creating the political environment for the Canal’s success.  De Lesseps knew Sa’id Pasha as young man, and as Karabell regularly notes, de Lesseps multinational connections were invaluable. Not only did Egypt have to approve the Canal and provide the labor to dig the waterway, de Lesseps sought international funding of the company, as well as the support of France, England, the Ottoman Empire, and other European leaders.

Through incessant effort and skillful political management, de Lesseps increasingly engaged French government in the project. He parlayed cultural fascination with things Egyptian into support. Karabell has a firm understanding of French culture in the 1800s and regularly connects the colonial exoticism of Egypt with the domestic politics of France. The creation of the Canal basically came about through a France – Egypt partnership under de Lesseps driving vision. Opposed to the project, England may have benefited the most from the increased opportunities for world trade and maritime power.

Ultimately, as Karabell makes evident, the Suez Canal provided significant benefit at significant cost. One senses the author’s identification – with the key players in the story of the Suez Canal – and also with his admiration for the success of the project. It truly took an international vision with international expertise. And it would be an equally daunting task today.

Popular and Unpopular History

Professional historians tend to be snobs about popular history. While a well-reviewed and discussed book is a boon, historians who consistently sell books that might make it to the non-academic press carry a taint of suspicion. Only a few can manage the jump to the for-profit presses, and when they do they are rarely read in graduate seminars or referenced in conferences. And the very unusual historian who can crank out best sellers is usually cast off the island to swim in different waters.

Take Steven Ambrose, for example, whose ethical lapses validated the exclusiveness of the mandarins. With some early strong biographies on Eisenhower and Nixon, he parlayed an extraordinarily effective writing style into an industry. The scuttlebutt was that he was too prolific and cut corners. Undeterred, Ambrose cranked out a wide range of books on World War II, aviation, Lewis and Clark, and much more. He was executive producer of HBO’s A Band of Brothers. And with the success came scrutiny and the realization that Ambrose serially lifted prose from others and inserted it into his own. The man was, in fact, a fibber – something handy in storytelling but a liability in the historian’s pursuit of the truth.

But being popular does not mean that one has to lie, cheat or steal. A select number of historians are able to serve Cleo faithfully and expand the knowledge of multiple readers. Middlebrow is what the genre used to be called and it’s essential for an educated society. And when historians do not reach out and make their topics appetizing, journalists and writers do it for them.

From that larger context, a few thoughts about Evan Thomas‘s The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898. It is a well-written a timely book telling the “story” of America’s entry into the Spanish-American War in 1898 through the respective biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst. All three men’s trajectories are brought together in an almost tragic-comedic recounting of the battles in Cuba. Weighing heavily on the narrative and the structure are Iraq and contemporary international politics; the connections are almost inescapable.

For readers who know little of the Spanish-American War, who have forgotten the Maine, the book is a helpful but narrow introduction. For those that know of the conflict and have dipped into the popular history of Roosevelt, the book provides a slightly cynical take and a useful corrective. Above all, it is an entertaining read. But when it comes to historical understanding, the book falls short.

Popular history often gains readership through reducing the complex to the simple, providing clear reasons for causality. Thomas does it in the War Lovers, capturing the connections between personal ambition and national expansion, or nationalism, in the key protagonists. It is a good argument and an important factor. Missing, though, is an awareness of the larger world and the forces of imperialism shaping the globe. Economic concerns are absent and the push and pull of partisan politics is downplayed. The foolishness of the Spanish receives little attention. In fact, reducing complicated international conflicts to comparative biography can lead one down a path of simply getting history wrong. One of the fascinating things about the broad sweep of history is that it is always – always – greater than the reach of any one individual.

Thomas does not get it wrong. His reading of Lodge is good and his characterizations of Hearst and Roosevelt, two extremely interesting figures, is not far off. Thomas provides a solid account. A good historian, though, if so inclined could provided a richer, more interesting account.