Barbara Boland, foreign policy and national security reporter: Dan Abrams’ Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy covers the sensational and suspenseful 1915 defamation trial against Teddy Roosevelt. Abrams and David Fisher use court transcripts and news reports to tell the fascinating and nearly forgotten story of what happened when the former president was accused of libeling the Albany GOP party boss in a scathing op-ed that excoriated corruption. Incensed that Roosevelt had called out the party chiefs for working together to the detriment of the American people, boss William Barnes decided to sue the former president. Many of the issues raised in the trial—including blind partisanship, the effect of money on politicians, and corporate greed and political contributions—sound as if they were ripped from the pages of today’s news.
By necessity, due to the subject, the book also delves into libel and slander laws and explains how American law evolved differently than British common law. Abrams is the chief legal analyst for ABC News, so he gives a very in-depth and researched look at the history of legal procedure in America. Since I am not a lawyer, I felt at times like the book dragged a little in its coverage of the back-and-forth between the lawyers and the judge over various objections and the legal strategies employed. Nevertheless, it’s still a real page-turner. It keeps you in suspense about the verdict of the five-week trial until the very last pages. And the stakes could not have been higher for the reputations of the men involved: this was the trial of the century in 1915, and the courtroom was packed as Americans held onto every word.
Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense also offers a fascinating portrayal of Roosevelt himself, gregarious and ebullient on the witness stand. During his eight days of testimony, he had an opportunity to speak about his exploits, his role in the Spanish-American War, his charge up San Juan Hill, Cuba, his reward of the governorship of New York, his Smithsonian expedition as a naturalist, his writings, and his time as assistant secretary of the navy under President McKinley. His personality comes alive, as he relishes the chance to expose the wiles of the party bosses, defend his reputation, and skewer his opponents. On the witness stand, he offered a fierce affirmation of the rightness and honesty of his political positions. His testimony provides a window into the soul and motivations of the 26th president in a way that few biographies have been able to capture.
Abrams’ and Fisher’s book is a reminder that Theodore Roosevelt was a larger than life figure and a president who was already legendary in his own time.