Brace of rivals: Theodore Roosevelt and his vice-president William Howard Taft. Photo: Getty.
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A presidential bromance: Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft

The long association of two rock-ribbed Republicans was a political friendship that defined an era of American political history.
The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Viking, 928pp, £20
 

There he is, the third from the left, tucked into a cleft between Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, carved into the granite of Mount Rushmore. No one today doubts his right to be there. His reputation and popularity are undimmed by a century’s passing. He was the youngest man to assume the American presidency. He was a cowboy, a swimmer, an asthmatic. He had a dazzling smile, with teeth like pieces of Chiclets gum. He fought in Cuba, leading a charge up San Juan Hill to give the Spanish a licking. A 50-page wad of speech notes in his pocket once saved him from an assassin’s bullet. He turned the Grand Canyon into a national monument. He built the Panama Canal. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a Republican but a mortal enemy of giant corporations. The teddy bear was named after him.

He also gave Doris Kearns Goodwin the perfect title. In 1909, he declared that the White House was a “bully pulpit”, the finest means of getting his message out to his people – at home, the “square deal” (protecting citizens and curbing plutocracy); abroad, the “big stick” (“Speak softly and carry a big stick”). Goodwin, now accepted as the publicly anointed biographer of great American statesmen, no doubt had more than enough material to load several shelves with the tumultuous story of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th US president. But wisely, over the seven years of her project, she decided to weave into the fabric of this robust, endearing life two further threads, each equally important, making this a vastly more important work, a masterpiece of modern American history.

One thread, noted in the subtitle of the book, concerns the role played by journalism and by a manner of writing that, during Roosevelt’s governance, displayed an excellence that has been seldom matched since. Samuel Sidney McClure’s eponymous monthly magazine, which gave voice to writers such as Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, marked an all too brief period of literary glory. It also enabled Roosevelt, who had a canny and trusting appreciation for the muckraking press, to employ the industry for, as he saw it, the greater public good.

“By sharing the full context of each decision and appointment before it became public,” Goodwin writes of her subject’s time as state governor of New York, “Roosevelt trusted that Steffens would credit and document the complex, pragmatic manoeuvring behind an ethical and effective approach to leadership.”

Cynics might suggest that, as president, he had journalists such as Steffens in the palm of his hand and may ascribe his enduring popularity to his excellent personal PR. Yet more thoughtful analysts (Goodwin among them) would argue otherwise: that in a climate markedly more trusting than today’s, good relations between press and government could be made to work to universal advantage – provided that the muckrakers did indeed rake much muck, as Tarbell and her colleagues consistently did.

The other thread that Goodwin weaves into this story – and that forms an important component of the book’s US subtitle but is puzzlingly overlooked in Viking’s British edition – concerns a most poignant counterpoint to Roosevelt’s generally triumphant life: the melancholy fate of his long-time friend, protégé and successor as president, William Howard Taft.

The sorry tale of Taft deserves to be remembered if only because of its many parallels with what appears to be happening in Washington today. Just like Barack Obama, Taft began his public career as a man suffused with promise and optimism. He was born of a solid Cincinnati family a year before Roosevelt. He went to Yale; Roosevelt went to Harvard. Both became lawyers.

The men first met when they were near neighbours in Washington, as they were beginning their very different climbs to the high ranges of power. Their philosophies were at the time markedly similar, yet quite out of tune with the times, in that both were superficially rock-ribbed Republicans but aflame with progressive principles. They were fiscally conservative, born into fortunes; they were, however, socially liberal and infused with populist beliefs. Each was an unalloyed admirer of the benefits of capital; but each wished for an end to the era’s fondness for cronyism and corruption. Each was a firm believer in American exceptionalism; each saw it as the duty of America to export its benefits to the world.

For a while, however, their paths diverged. Roosevelt went to Albany as governor of New York and then became William McKinley’s running mate in his successful 1900 election. Taft, meanwhile, was far off in Manila as the governor general of the newly colonised Philippines.

In 1901, McKinley was assassinated – an event that gave Roosevelt, quite unexpectedly, the presidency. One of his first acts was to bring his old friend Taft smartly back from the tropics, instal him in Washington as secretary of war and groom him to be an eventual successor, the keeper, as he saw it, of the progressive flame. Roosevelt intended to serve two terms and then hand his torch to Taft.

As Goodwin recounts with flair and sympathy, the torch was soon extinguished. Taft, who generally scorned the press and followed the letter of the law with pedantry and a wholesale lack of imagination, turned out to be something of a dud in the Oval Office (which he built). With one dithering decision after another, he managed to vex and disappoint all of his supporters, much as the beleaguered President Obama appears to be doing today. In the end he fell out with his old friend Roosevelt, who became for many years a political enemy – Roosevelt fought against him in the 1912 election, splitting the Republican vote and giving the White House to Woodrow Wilson.

And yet, politics aside, both were wise and decent men and they eventually buried the hatchet. In one of the more moving passages of this lively and very human book, Goodwin recounts their celebrated meeting in 1918 in the dining room of a Washington hotel. Taft heard that his old friend was alone and “spotted the colonel at a small table by the corner window. ‘Theodore!’ he exclaimed. ‘I am glad to see you.’ Roosevelt rose from his seat and grasped Taft’s shoulders. ‘Well, I am indeed delighted to see you. Won’t you sit down?’ All across the room, customers rose from their dinners and the wait-staff paused . . . Suddenly the chamber erupted into applause.”

Roosevelt died soon afterwards but there was still much life left in Taft, who, after a period at Yale, became chief justice of the Supreme Court – he remains the only man to have held both of these highest offices of the republic. To some extent, Taft recovered from the disappointments of his presidency.

We can only wonder whether Obama will manage to do the same. One thing is certain: neither will receive the Mount Rushmore treatment, even if there were another cleft in the granite.

 

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The war on poaching

More than 1,100 rhinos were killed for their horns in Africa in 2016. Quasi-military conservation units are trying to stop the slaughter.

The Savé Valley Conservancy, 900 square miles of pristine wilderness in the Lowveld of south-eastern Zimbabwe, seems like a paradise.

Drive along its dirt tracks, past flat-topped acacias and vast-trunked baobab trees, and you scatter zebras and warthogs, impalas and wildebeest, kudus and waterbuck. Elephants lumber through the bush, leaving destruction in their wake. Giraffes placidly return your stares. Baboons cavort in the trees. A crowned eagle flies overhead with a rock rabbit in its talons. A pack of exquisitely patterned wild dogs lie on the warm red earth. There are lions and leopards, too, but out of sight.

My guide and I meet Bryce Clemence, the stocky, bearded outdoorsman who heads the conservancy’s Special Species Protection Unit (SSPU), by a muddy waterhole so that he can show us the most special of those species. He and a couple of his armed men lead us a few hundred yards into the bush before silently motioning us to stop. We wait, move on, stop again. Clemence points. Thirty yards away stands a two-tonne rhinoceros, a 15-year-old bull. It cannot see us, for rhinos have poor eyesight. It cannot smell us because we are downwind. But it senses our presence. Its ears revolve like miniature satellite dishes.

As we study this magnificent, primeval beast through our binoculars, one thing quickly becomes apparent. It has no horns. Normally it would have two, weighing seven kilos or more, but they have been removed in an effort to protect it. Rhino horn fetches around $60,000 a kilo in China and other east Asian countries, where it is considered an aphrodisiac and a cure for diverse ailments. This animal’s horns would have been worth more than $400,000 – a fortune in Zimbabwe, where the average household income is $62 a month and unemployment exceeds 90 per cent.

Sadly, not even de-horning works. Poachers will kill de-horned rhinos for any residual horn. In February 2015 they shot a six-month-old calf for just 30 grams of horn, Clemence tells me.

Savé Valley may look idyllic, but it is a front line in a war against rhino-poaching. More than 1,100 of the animals were killed across Africa in 2016, leaving barely 20,000 white rhinos, classified as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and 5,000 “critically endangered” black rhinos. What distinguishes Savé Valley is that it has begun to turn the tide, but only because it has access to the sort of funding that most African national parks can only dream of.

Clemence’s quasi-military operation consists of 35 highly trained men, all expert trackers, supremely fit and equipped with semi-automatic rifles and radios. Working in pairs, they do ten-day stints in the bush, monitoring the conservancy’s 168 rhinos from dawn to dark and endlessly searching for human tracks – or “spoor”.

They are supported by a canine unit whose two Belgian Malinois dogs can track at night and over rocks; a substantial network of paid informants in the surrounding communities and beyond; four 4x4 vehicles and 12 motorbikes; and nearly 100 armed scouts employed by the two-dozen private ranches that make up the conservancy.

Even that force is insufficient, Clemence says. The poaching gangs are growing more sophisticated. They now use high-powered hunting rifles with silencers to shoot the rhinos, and AK-47s to ward off the rangers. Sometimes the poachers use AK-47s against rhinos too: in 2014 one was hit 23 times.

They have begun using poison. One poacher was caught after laying oranges and cabbages laced with the pesticide Temik in the path of a rhino – Temik is nicknamed “Two-step” because that is how many steps an animal takes before dying. Another poacher planned to poison a waterhole, but was thwarted by an informer. “Poisoning is disgusting because it’s totally indiscriminate and has the potential to do massive harm,” Clemence says.

He has also caught poachers preparing to use the sedatives ketamine and xylazine. Having darted a rhino, they would then hack off its horns before it woke. They once hacked off the horns of a rhino that had been knocked out by a bullet and it woke with half its head missing. The creature survived for a week before Clemence’s unit found it. Vets had to put it down. “When you catch a poacher you want to beat him to death with a pick handle and very slowly break his bones, but you have to be professional,” says David Goosen, manager of the 230-square-mile Sango ranch, which forms part of the conservancy.

The odds are stacked against the SSPU in other ways, too. The poachers are paid well by the syndicates that run them – perhaps $5,000 each for a kilo of rhino horn. And even if caught, their chances of escaping punishment are high. Thanks to bribery or incompetence, just 3 per cent of prosecutions for rhino poaching in Zimbabwe end in convictions.

“You have to virtually catch them in the field red-handed, and even then they often get away with it,” Goosen says. “As soon as they get to the police station, a well-connected lawyer turns up, which means someone higher up is looking after their interests.” The maximum sentence for intent to kill a rhino is nine years for a first offence – less than for stealing cattle.

The SSPU is prevailing nonetheless. In the first three months of 2012, when Clemence arrived, the conservancy lost 14 rhinos. In 2015 it lost 12, last year three. It has also defeated Zimbabwe’s most notorious rhino-poaching gang.

Tavengwa Mazhongwe learned his craft from his older brother, “Big Sam”, who was killed poaching in 2009. Mazhongwe was responsible for at least 150 rhino killings, including many in Savé Valley. In December 2015 Clemence learned he was planning another attack and put his rangers on alert.

They found the gang’s spoor at 6.30 one morning, and tracked the four armed men in intense heat for nine hours. The gang took great care to cover their tracks, but late in the afternoon the rangers found them resting in a river bed. The rangers opened fire, killing one and seriously wounding a second. Mazhongwe and one other man escaped, but he was arrested near Harare two weeks later and given a record 35-year sentence for multiple offences. A judge had to acquit an officer in Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation who drove the gang to the conservancy in a government vehicle because, he complained, the police did not dare investigate govenment officials. The rangers recovered an AK-47, a Mauser rifle with silencer, an axe, rubber gloves, a medical kit, tinned food and a phone-charger pack.

“You’ll never get to where you say ‘we’ve won’, but we have won in the sense that we’ve brought poaching down to a manageable level,” Clemence says. “We’ve taken out some of the most notorious syndicates. Victory will simply be breeding more than we’re losing and having sustainable numbers to pass to the next generation.” He hopes that the conservancy’s rhino population will reach 200 within two years, enabling it to relocate some animals to other parts of Zimbabwe where the battle is going less well.

The SSPU’s success comes down to skill, motivation, organisation and – above all – resources. The unit costs $400,000 a year, and is funded mainly by foreign NGOs such as Britain’s Tusk Trust. It receives practical support from the conservancy’s private ranches, some of whom – given the dearth of tourism – have to generate the necessary funds by permitting limited elephant and lion hunting for $20,000 an animal.

Zimbabwe’s national parks have no such resources. That is why private conservancies have 80 per cent of the country’s rhinos but 1.5 per cent of its land, while the parks have 15 per cent of the land but 20 per cent of the rhinos. Within a few years most of those parks will have no rhinos at all.

Martin Fletcher’s assignment in Zimbabwe was financed by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting