Kenneth (kensmind) wrote in potus_geeks,

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Potus Geeks Book Review: Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense by Dan Abrams and David Fisher

By 1915 Theodore Roosevelt had amassed an impressive resume: as a past President and former Governor of his home state of New York, and previously as the hero of Kettle Hill in the Spanish-American War, as well as a third party candidate in the 1912 Presidential election in which he survived an assassination attempt, heroically completing a speech with a bullet lodged in his chest. Following that supreme act of political independence, Roosevelt's populist appeal had incurred the wrath of the political establishment. While most machine politicians felt that Roosevelt was best ignored, New York Republican "boss" William Barnes Jr. thought otherwise. He sued Roosevelt for libel after the ex-president labelled Barnes as "corrupt" in a newspaper article he authored. This led to what authors Dan Abrams and David Fisher term "the trial of the century", in their recent book Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy.

1915 was a pivotal time for Roosevelt, who still harbored aspirations of another term as President. He had upset the establishment in the Republican Party when he ran as a populist third party candidate, splitting the GOP vote and enabling Woodrow Wilson to be elected president. Progressives loved him for it, but conservatives held a great resentment towards him. Knowing that his only chance at securing his party's nomination would be directly from the people, Roosevelt raged against the machine bosses that ran both parties. Most of those he criticized as corrupt felt that what Roosevelt hated most was to be ignored, so they adopted this strategy. But Republican boss William Barnes Jr. had personal political aspirations of his own and he believed that the only way to rehabilitate his own personal chances for a career as an elected politician was to best Roosevelt in court. It was a risky strategy.

The authors have meticulously researched the trial of Barnes v. Roosevelt, held in Syracuse following a motion for a change of venue. They have relied heavily on contemporary news reports, correspondence, and especially on trial transcripts. They give a detailed account of what took place during the five week trial, introducing the reader to the litigants, the lawyers, the trial judge, the jury and the witnesses, among the latter group including the defendant's cousin, future President Franklin Roosevelt. They also set the mood in the community at the time as well as in the nation, which had not yet entered the ongoing world war that was raging overseas.

The authors also carefully explain the legal nuances of the trial process, including the history behind the rules of evidence and procedure, as well as substantive law in cases of libel. They also discuss the legal and political strategies that intersected at the trial, as well as how the presiding judge sought to keep the jury from letting their personal allegiances (political and ancestral) cause them to stray from their sworn duty to follow the law. The trial contained some very technical legal issues, including what use the jury could and couldn't make of certain pieces of evidence about sketchy dealings on the part of the plaintiff Barnes. It was a trial filled to the brim with objections and with some of the witnesses called to the stand more than once. The authors work very hard to provide the reader with a play-by-play of not only what took place, buy why as well.

A libel trial does not have the same sense of drama as a criminal trial, and for this reason parts of the book seem to lag as the authors maintain their fidelity to providing a description of what took place, including the mundane as well as the exciting. They excel in painting a picture of the litigants: the energetic Roosevelt struggling to contain his exuberance while remaining at the center of attention, and the smug and crafty Barnes, whose cross-examination was likened to trying to nail jello to a wall.

This is a book that will especially appeal to those with an interest in trials and in courtroom proceedings. It is a tale of egos and politics, of populism and the political establishment. A minor criticism is that the authors constantly refer to the ex-president as "Teddy", a moniker that Roosevelt detested and that those close to him never used. That small nit-picking aside, this book's appeal will be stronger to some readers than to others, but it is certainly a worthwhile read for those with an interest in the life and times of Theodore Roosevelt.
Tags: book review, theodore roosevelt, woodrow wilson
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