Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mornings on Horseback, by David McCullough

Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt, by David McCullough

Writing about Presidents is nothing new for McCullough, but where John Adams and Truman cover their subject’s lives from cradle to grave, Mornings on Horseback only tracks Teddy Roosevelt from 1869 when he was ten to 1886 as he fully commits to a career in politics. This abbreviated look is somewhat disappointing, as Roosevelt comes across as a man of integrity (exactly the kind of person I’d like to see in office but I no longer think is electable in our society) and I would like to have learned more about his Presidency here. Besides a fierce integrity, he also possessed high intelligence and a focused drive that was truly remarkable: “There were all kinds of things of which I was afraid at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gunfighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.” Willing away fear is something out of comic books, not history books!

It is often said that history repeats itself; one story related here brings this home in spades. In 1875, Rutherford B. Hayes won the presidency by a single, hotly contested electoral vote. Much like the race in 2000 the previous administration was prone to scandal and Hayes’ opponent Tilden won the popular vote. One huge difference: “Like peaceable men of both parties [Roosevelt] breathed a sigh of relief at Tilden’s refusal to contest the decision.” Politics has always been a cutthroat game, but at least through history’s lens it seems that things have become more vicious today. Roosevelt at the time believed the Republican party, “for all its failings, its scandals and fallen idols, was still the party of Lincoln, the party that saved the Union, freed the slaves, restored the national credit.” While technically still true, I find it difficult to maintain this sort of adoration for the Republican party that exists today. A century ago we were governed by individuals; now the party system has control—and this is not a change for the better.

Soapbox aside, Theodore Roosevelt is considered one of the better Presidents in our history, and Mornings on Horseback shows he was a truly remarkable boy as well. Along with family photos, many of his letters and diary pages are included; these unedited words give us a glimpse of his personality which makes a nice complement to the facts and stories. Both inspiring and educational, McCullough has written another enthralling book.

First Sentence:
In the year 1869, when the population of New York City had reached nearly a million, the occupants of 28 East 20th Street, a five-story brownstone, numbered six, exclusive of the servants.

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