Large and in charge: A look at Teddy Roosevelt

Large and in charge: A look at Teddy Roosevelt

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“The Lion and The Journalist: The Unlikely Friendship of Theodore Roosevelt and Joseph Bucklin Bishop” by Chip Bishop. Lyons Press, 320 pp., $25.95. Available at The Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, and Island libraries.

No need to worry about puffery in Chip Bishop’s history of outsized U.S. hero Teddy Roosevelt (T.R.) and the president’s little known chronicler, friend, and advisor, the journalist Joseph Bucklin Bishop, Chip Bishop’s great-grand-uncle.

Joseph Bishop (the elder) was close to T.R., and Chip Bishop’s connection to the journalist is clear, but Mr. Bishop (the younger), though clearly fascinated by the topic, has put his own journalist’s eye to work to yield a revealing look at the relationship between two very different personalities joined by common belief and shared savviness about how the world works.

To learn more, visit the Martha’s Vineyard Museum Thursday, Nov. 10, at 5:30 pm when Chip Bishop will discuss the book.

Teddy Roosevelt was a descendant of the royally rich merchant class in Manhattan’s “silk stocking” neighborhoods. But, he did not behave like a rich man born on third base under the illusion that he’d hit a triple. Teddy fought and scrapped like a street urchin every inch of the way until an embolism killed him, at 60 in 1918.

Joseph Bucklin Bishop was born in 1847 in Seekonk, of farmer stock. His dad’s net worth at his death in 1864 was something over $3,000. Joseph grew up just looking to get on base.

Roosevelt sailed through Harvard on a generous monthly stipend. Mr. Bishop got through Brown University on his own dollar.

The two men — the outsized, bombastic T.R. and the introspective, seething Bishop — were joined by their principles and by ambition. In Chip Bishop’s account, there are no discussions of presidential peccadilloes, if indeed there were any. Both men are presented as gentlemen with public rather than personal agendas and hopelessly outmoded 19th century mindsets, by today’s leadership standards.

Yet both arrived on the stage when we were feeling our national oats. The West had been conquered, the Civil War in the past, and Americans looked beyond their own borders toward expansion or imperialism, depending on your viewpoint.

As we learn from Mr. Bishop’s research, that’s what we wanted, and T.R. was the man for it all. Roosevelt was canny, knew the power of press and publicity. Mr. Bishop shows up as a cynical New York newspaperman, sick of corruption and excesses of the Tammany Hall political machine that ran government as a feeding trough.

He liked what he saw in the upstart blue blood who challenged corruption in the Albany state legislature and in several New York City posts, including a stint as police commissioner, in which the future president walked the mean streets at midnight with legendary anti-corruption reporter Jacob Riis, searching out police malfeasance.

Bishop signed on to that program and began a lifelong relationship of trust and affection with Roosevelt, who asked Bishop to be his eyes and ears on the Panama Canal project as commissioner of the work that had claimed thousands of both French and American lives.

Well done historical chronicles offer opportunities for comparisons and lessons for today, as George Santayana said (somewhat more tidily). We learn from the Roosevelt era that there were fewer rules and that visionary leaders could seize the day if their constituents bought the vision.

Example: Roosevelt’s secretary said he wrote 150,000 letters in his lifetime. Right, 150,000. How many could he have received? A million in a country of 75 million? Numbers that would make Kim Kardashian’s Twitter persona flicker with embarrassment, though there’s little evidence that Ms. Kardashian is acquainted with that emotion.

Mr. Bishop has put a real face on the Roosevelt popular caricature, and he has described, through the words of his forebear, the national life that we were living when America was deciding what it would grow up to be.

Author’s Talk with Chip Bishop, 5:30 pm, Thursday, Nov. 10, M.V. Museum, Edgartown. $12; $8 members. 508-627-4441; frontdesk@mvmuseum.org.

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