Monday, March 23, 2009

This Day in Presidential History (T.R. Goes on African Safari)

March 23, 1909—Less than three weeks after he left the White House he had come to enjoy so much, a wildly appreciative crowd at the New York pier of 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue bade Theodore Roosevelt bon voyage as he left on the S.S. Hamburg for an African safari.

The former President had broached the idea of the trip nine months earlier to Charles D. Walcott, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which ended up co-sponsoring the expedition with the National Geographic Society.

T.R.’s ostensible purpose was scientific: while hunting big game in Africa, he would collect specimens for the Smithsonian. (Three naturalists wound up accompanying the group.) But he also knew that this would also be a good opportunity for his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, to emerge from Roosevelt’s shadow.

Things did not work out quite as planned, in terms of the second objective—partly because Taft alienated the Progressive wing of the GOP, and partly because Roosevelt himself had second thoughts about his rash, public re-election promise in 1904 not to pursue another term.

The ex-President returned nearly 15 months later grimly resolved to throw his hatsin with his Progressive supporters, even if it meant splitting the Republican Party—which is what happened two years later, when Roosevelt, running as a Progressive candidate for President, outpolled Taft but divided the GOP enough to ensure victory for Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson.

Even the scientific aspect of the trip was a mixed bag. True, the Smithsonian got its samples. But it’s dismaying that America’s first great conservation President combined with his son Kermit (the expedition’s official photographer) to bag 512 animals just between the two of them alone (the entire group killed more than 6000 animals), including some of the last remaining white rhinos.

Moreover, the publicity bonanza reaped by the expedition led to a surge in “safari tourism” that has endangered wild game in Africa.

I want to discuss another, more successful, aspect of the trip, however: how it bears on the career of Roosevelt as bibliophile and author. I just had to comment here because of my recent post on the reading habits of Presidents.

As TR followed his itinerary—Nairobi, the vicinity of Mt. Kenja, the Loita Plains, Lake Victoria, Lake Albert, then up the Nicole to Khartoum—he lugged along, in a light, shiny aluminum case, a “pigskin library” given him as a gift by sister Corinne. The collection took its name from the fact that most of its books were bound or rebound in pigskin.

The former President’s subsequent account of his trip, African Game Trails (named a “book of the year” by the New York Times), begins with what sounds to my ears like a distant echo of the famous start to Virgil’s Aeneid: “I speak of Africa and golden joys.”

If classical diction found its way into Roosevelt’s writing style, it wouldn’t be surprising, because his collection of 60 volumes in the “pigskin library” included such past (and, in most cases, future) mainstays of the literary canon as Twain, Scott, Cooper, Thackeray, Dickens, Poe, Browning, Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Bunyon, Macaulay, Milton, The Federalist Papers, and the Bible.

Then as now, the press loves a controversy, and this time it sought to underscore the difference in the Rough Rider’s reading interests with that of President Charles W. Eliot of Roosevelt’s alma mater, Harvard. Eliot and Roosevelt had famously tangled a year before, when the President and his Assistant Secretary of State, Robert Bacon, had objected strenuously when Eliot suspended two members of Harvard’s rowing team on the eve of its big, closely watched match with Yale. The press made sure they highlighted how T.R.'s reading diverged from the "Harvard Classics" championed by Eliot.

Roosevelt’s penchant for lugging his enormous personal literary collection with him into even the most rough-and-ready environments was inherited by son and namesake Theodore Roosevelt Jr. One of the most vivid sections of Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn related how this rumpled brigadier general carried his copies of Bunyan and a history of medieval England with him into fields of distant battle, and how he regaled senior officers in his unit by reciting from memory long passages from Kipling.

Another echo of the President’s trip found its way into the news of his death in 1919 transmitted by his younger son, Archie. When the ex-President--worn down by exertions of “the strenuous life” and by the death of another son, Quentin in WWI--died in his sleep, Archie informed his brothers in far-off France with a one-sentence cable that not only evoked their father’s ferocity but also his African adventure of ten years before: “The old lion is dead.”

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