Top critical review
Yogi, meet Theodore.
Reviewed in the United States on July 28, 2019
This is not a book about the trial for libel filed by Albany Republican party boss William Barnes against the former President of the United States and hero of the Spanish-American war, Theodore Roosevelt, commonly referred to at this stage in his career and life simply as Colonel. This IS the trial, laid out in all of its painful, often confusing, and, infrequently, semi-humorous detail.
If not the trial of the century, it ranked right up there with the most important trials of American history. At its core was the very definition of what American democracy was and should be. Roosevelt, in an article that became widely published and was at the heart of the claim of libel, claimed that the party bosses, elected by no one and accountable only to the moneyed class that gave them power and wealth (given to both parties by the same people, as remains the current custom), colluded to deny the interests of the citizens at large in favor of their own power and fortune.
That, however, by definition, would seem to suggest, despite Roosevelt ultimately being found innocent, to deny the trial the status of a turning point in American jurisprudence or political history. For, it is obvious to even the most casual observer, nothing has really changed. The bosses of the era may have morphed into the politicians, the lobbyists, and the rich themselves (”This brought to the courtroom an unpleasant truth about American politics; the moneyed interests used their money to protect those interests.”), but there is little question that money is what makes the wheels of government turn and they turn primarily, if not exclusively, to protect the interests of the moneyed class that once supported the bosses and their machines and now protect the politicians – without shame, for the most part - openly and without apology or embarrassment.
Theodore Roosevelt was a fascinating man and in this book, Dan Abrams brings out both the greatness and the humanity; the virtue and the contradictions. And like his distant cousin and in-law who would occupy the oval office at an equally crucial time in American history, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I do believe that the Colonel had the best interests of the common man in his heart in everything he did. Oh how I wish we could somehow bring him back, desperate as we are for such willingness to put the ideals of our nation above the individual thirst for power.
Beyond its value as a book of legal and political history, this is a book about language. Language, after all, does not occur naturally, like oxygen or the rivers. It is of human origin, an artificial convention created to make communication more efficient and effective. As a result, however, language is, by definition, highly imprecise, which is why we have lawyers and courtrooms – and poets. The plaintiff, the defendant, and all of the lawyers who represent them, in addition to the judge himself, are all gifted in the art of language and its power. And that, itself, to me, was both fascinating and entertaining. I adore and respect language. (Which is one of the reasons I write so many reviews, of course.)
There is a lot of history here. I grew up very close to Syracuse, where the trial took place, and learned a great many things about the trial and the area that I had never known before. In the end, however, I gave it a three as a kind of trigger warning, as much as I don’t believe in that concept in general.
If you are a lawyer you should read this book to hone your skills. If you are a historian you should read this book for its well-written insight into an important man and an important period (pre-World War I) in American history. And if you are a law student ordered to read this by your professor, well, it doesn’t matter, you have to read it.
If, however, you are just looking for a light, entertaining read; say, a mystery or a love story, you will not find it here. But you must decide who you are and why you read.
I will tell you this. As an author myself, I long ago committed to seeing every book I begin to read through to the finish. I believe we owe it to the author for their hard work and there are many a book which makes its mark in the final chapters. And I did fulfill my commitment to that pledge in this case (and I didn’t skim) and am glad I did.
If only the world had really changed and money no longer compromised (i.e. COMPROMISED) our politics to the extent it does. Rest in Peace, Colonel.