Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

My relationship with Theodore Roosevelt is a bit complicated. His legacy, after all, is complicated. On a personal level, I identified a little with him from the first time I read a kids’ biography of him. We both were sickly kids who worked to become stronger through exercise and outdoor activity. Even today, I have a bit of a “damn the torpedos” approach to life. If I waited until I had no allergies to do things, for example, I’d never get out. I am not, however, reckless, which TR tended to be. 

Likewise, his public legacy is complicated. There is no doubt that he was prejudiced, particularly as a young man. His statements about Indigenous people are painfully awful. (Although, to be fair, there is evidence that he changed his mind about the worst of his beliefs as he got older - something rather the opposite from my experience with a lot of my parents’ generation, who seem to have gotten increasingly xenophobic over the last decade.) He was, alas, a product of his time, an era in which the supremacy of white people was taken for granted by most white people around the world. 

There were some good parts to his legacy, however. His distrust of big business led to the first real regulations on corporations and trusts - he is correctly considered the founder of the Progressive movement in the United States. In fact, while he was generally liked by conservatives during my childhood, as the American Right has veered strongly to the far right, he is now being disowned as a “communist” by a surprising number of people I know on the Right. These days, seeking the common good is controversial, it seems. For his time, TR was a reformer, and many of his ideas remain core parts of the progressive legacy. 

One thing that remains true about him is that those who knew and worked with him generally respected and liked him. As the book points out, in person he was a tremendously hard worker, generous with everyone, full of good humor, and self-sacrificing as a leader. And that goes for how he treated least powerful people as much as the best. The native Brazilians who did much of the hard labor during the trip this book describes were assisted by TR and his son Kermit, and TR gave away his own food, often to his own detriment. So, again, a complex, imperfect person, but someone who genuinely tried to be moral and generous. 

The River of Doubt is the story of a lesser-known escapade in Theodore Roosevelt’s life. As is better known, Roosevelt left office after a term and a half as president (he took over when William McKinley was assassinated), assuming that President Taft would continue the progressive agenda. When Taft instead started supporting corporate interests, TR was furious, founded his own political party (the Progressive Party, colloquially called the “Bull Moose” party after its founder.) This, unfortunately for TR, was a failure. He took a bullet, making a speech with the bullet still in his body (dude was a badass), but failed to win. With a split vote, Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats won the election. 

Nursing his bruised pride, TR decided to do what he usually did after a disappointment: find an adventure. What started as a tour of South America with a little moderate river exploration thrown in turned into an attempt to map an unknown and dangerous tributary of the Amazon. At age 55, no less.

The way all this came about is a bit of a shitshow of incompetence. Roosevelt was in contact with Father Zahm, a bit of an amateur naturalist who wanted to explore. Zahm enlisted Anthony Fiala, whose big claim to fame was nearly dying along with his expedition to the Arctic - in part due to Fiala’s disastrously incompetent leadership - to plan their supplies. This probably would not have been a big deal had they stuck with the original plan. A cruise of a known Amazon tributary to collect biological specimens would have been easy enough to accomplish, and the often bizarre packing decisions made by Fiala would have been merely amusing rather than life-threatening. 

Instead, the government of Brazil suggested that TR join Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon (perhaps the rare person even more badass than TR) in exploring and mapping the River of Doubt, an unknown river believed to drain to the Amazon via the Aripuana and the Madeira rivers. 

 Partway down, after the drowning of one of their number. I am not certain who the two on the left are, but from there (l-r):
Theodore Roosevelt, Candido Rondon, Kermit Roosevelt.

Even to get there required hundreds of miles of travel on land (with dirt tracks as the only road), followed by the descent of the river in dugout canoes. During the land transit, it became clear that supplies were grossly inadequate. As a result, the party was split in two, with Zahm and Fiala, among others, sent to descend a known - and much easier - river. It was left to Rondon, TR, his son Kermit, and 16 others to attempt the River of Doubt. (Now renamed the Roosevelt River.) 

After a few days, it became obvious that the dugouts were far from ideal, and would not be able to safely traverse rapids. Thus, portages were made necessary. This slowed everything down, and left the party badly short on food. It was by a combination of luck and grit that they made it out at all. By the end, one man had drowned, one had been murdered (and the murderer abandoned to the jungle), everyone except Rondon was gravely ill with malaria, dysentery, or something else, and TR was near death with both malaria and an infected leg. 

One could say, I suppose, that the expedition was a “success” in the sense that they made it out with most of them alive, and the river mapped. On the other, it was a disaster, and but for some really good luck (and the fact that the native peoples decided to leave them alone), it would have been deadly for all involved. 

For Roosevelt, it was particularly catastrophic in the long run. In an era before antibiotics, he never fully recovered from his illness, and was dead in less than five years later. Kermit, too, seemed haunted by the experience and the early death of his father, and struggled with depression and alcoholism for years afterward, before committing suicide during deployment in World War II. 

[Side note here: this is Kermit Sr. The legacy of Kermit Jr. is problematic for rather different reasons. He was the “mastermind” behind the CIA-engineered coup that destroyed moderate democracy in Iran. That’s a mistake that we are still paying for today.]  

In a weird twist of fate, Roosevelt returned from his trip to accusations that he had faked the whole thing - from respected naturalists and explorers, no less. So, barely able to walk and speak, the still ill TR made a series of presentations on the trip. These did serve to restore his reputation, but probably contributed to further ill health. 

Later, in 1927, George Miller Dyott settled things for good, when he made the trip himself and confirmed that Roosevelt and Rondon’s descriptions of plants, animals, and geographic features were indeed accurate. In 1992, a third expedition further confirmed the accuracy - and shot all but one of the rapids using modern equipment. 

This is the second book I have read by Candice Millard. (The first was The Destiny ofthe Republic, about the assassination of President Garfield - also a good read.) I like Millard’s writing. She avoids hagiography, presenting the complexities of the politics and culture of the time. Both books draw heavily from primary sources, but are written in a compelling prose style that makes them hard to put down. In both books, she presents the less heroic episodes in the lives of her subjects, which makes for an interesting look at complex figures. 

I figured I would end with a mention of the speech that Roosevelt gave after being shot, because it is phenomenal. You can read the whole thing here. In it, he lays out the case for progressivism. 

“Our creed is one that bids to be just to all, to feel sympathy for all, and to strive for an understanding of the needs of all. Our purpose is to smite down wrong.”

Roosevelt correctly notes that when the poor suffer, society is at risk. At risk of violent revolution, at a minimum. And this needed to be prevented now, by enacting legislation that addressed inequality and oppressive employment practices. 

“Now, friends, what we who are in this movement are endeavoring to do is to forestall any such movement by making this a movement for justice now - a movement in which we ask all just men of generous hearts to join with the men who feel in their souls that lift upward which bids them refuse to be satisfied themselves while their countrymen and countrywomen suffer from avoidable misery.”

The speech is pro-union. It is pro-regulation. It vehemently opposes child labor and long work hours for the most vulnerable (he specifically mentions 16-hour days for female industrial workers.) It calls for a uniform Federal policy to prevent states having a “race to the bottom” in terms of regulation. It addresses policy without making personal attacks. 

And it would be considered flaming Communist propaganda by today’s GOP. 

Times have changed. The GOP of Eisenhower is in many ways to the left of the Democratic party today. And the GOP is...not conservative at all. It is radically reactionary, viciously social darwinist, and on the payroll of the plutocrats. Historian Heather Cox Richardson lays it out pretty well here. And now we get to 2020, and we are literally hearing that the hoi polloi should be willing to sacrifice millions of their lives to keep the stock market high. Roosevelt was right: unless significant changes are made, this will not end well. 

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