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 French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.