Monday, 23 May 2016

The nature of tragedy: a political illustration

Tragedy is most visible in the individual, not the mass.

Imagine a larger-than-life figure, impetuous, courageous, strong – though he fought for that strength, having been an invalid in childhood – who won the acclaim of his nation when, with no previous military experience, he led US civilian levies known as the Rough Riders up a Cuban hill under intense Spanish fire.

That was Theodore Roosevelt. 

Despite being an enthusiastic, even voracious, hunter he once spared the life of an undersized bear that was offered up to him as a victim. That left a legacy that we still feel today: the Teddy Bear, created to commemorate the event.
The event that gave us the Teddy Bear
One of his closest friends was William Howard Taft, a man who gave up his cherished position as a judge to become Governor-General of the Philippines, a US protectorate as a result of the same war with Spain in which Roosevelt took part in Cuba. In time, Roosevelt became President and decided he couldn’t do without the support of his friend. He recalled Taft to Washington to be his Secretary of War.

Roosevelt, who’d originally assumed the presidency following the assassination of his predecessor, William McKinley, won re-election handsomely in 1904. But on learning of his victory, he made a mistake he would later regret: he announced he would not stand for a third term (legally possible then), believing like Washington, Jefferson or Jackson, that no one should hold that office for more than two.

He did have someone to hand the Presidency on to: his close friend and confidant Taft. Roosevelt groomed him for the office, overcoming his own growing desire to stand after all. But he stuck to his word, stood back, endorsed Taft and helped him win the nomination and then the election.

This was the last time that their party, the Republican Party, held a strongly liberal position. Both Roosevelt and Taft were committed to what Teddy called a “square deal” for the little man. They would fight huge, over-powerful corporations, or equally overbearing unions, breaking up their easy or even corrupt relationships with politicians, in the hope of making US government serve the many and not just a few.

It’s hard to believe that this is the same party whose presumptive nominee for President today is Donald Trump.

As well as their reliance on each other, both men also depended on a less well-known figure. This was Archie Butt, military adviser to Roosevelt. He became an intimate of the President and his family; he also developed a close relationship with the President’s other confidant, Taft.

When Taft became President himself, he asked Archie Butt to stay on. Butt, after some minor difficulties in adjusting to the much slower and more prudent pace at which Taft worked, became increasingly close to his new boss. It was, it seems, hard not to like Taft, with his transparent honesty and deep loyalty. To be fair, he also got a lot more done than one might expect from his relatively quiet style.

Taft suffered three serious blows while President.

The first was when his wife, Nellie, suffered a stroke within a few months of their moving into the White House. That deprived Taft of the constant support and guiding hand which had moulded his career over many years. Indeed, she now needed help and support herself, as she struggled to learn to speak again, and to play again some role as First Lady.

It was hard on Taft, but he soldiered on.

Archie Butt helped Nellie assiduously. He found her if she wandered off in a crowd, helped her out in conversations with people, generally made sure she was properly looked after.

The second blow came when Roosevelt returned from a year’s big game hunting in Africa. He had not at all given up on politics, and it quickly emerged that he strongly disapproved of many of Taft’s actions. From a supporter of his old friend, he began to turn into an adversary. Finally, as the Republican Party set out to select a candidate for the 1912 Presidential election, Roosevelt became the first former president to challenge for the nomination and, what’s more, to do it against a sitting president of his own party. The old friends had become bitter enemies.

Again, Taft fought on.

The antagonism between two men he admired was tough on Butt. Who would we side with? It was a question Roosevelt wanted answered too, and he sent his daughter Alice to tell Butt “to get out of his present job.”

Butt didn’t. The First Lady needed him. So did the President. As Roosevelt began to make inroads into Taft’s popularity, Butt shared his depression and strain. Indeed, it eventually became so bad that when Butt offered to cancel a planned holiday in Europe, Taft told him he wouldn’t think of it. He must go, and at once, to recover during the short time before the start of the primaries, still a new institution then.

So Butt left.

Taft took beating after beating in primaries that left Roosevelt firmly as front runner for the nomination. Butt, following the results, decided the President needed his support. So he cut his vacation short and booked a place on the newest, fasted ship returning across the Atlantic.

That was the Titanic.

The third and tragic blow to hit Taft was the loss of Archie Butt, in the North Atlantic, on 15 April 1912. With 1500 other passengers on that ill-fated ship.

Then the President wept.

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