Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book Review: ALL THE GREAT PRIZES by John Taliaferro (Simon and Schuster, 2013)

If an award for "The Most Interesting Man in the World" had existed circa 1900, then John Hay would surely have been a candidate for the honor.  Along with John Nicolay, he was at Abraham Lincoln's side during the Civil War, serving as a secretary and gathering the information that would ultimately lead to a legendary 10-volume biography of the great President.  He served with considerable distinction as a diplomat in several important European posts, including France and Spain.  He was an eminence grise and a conscience of the Republican Party during its first 50 years, when the party dominated the national government.  In the last several years of his life, he served William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt as Secretary of State, in which post he proposed the famous "Open Door" policy towards China and negotiated various treaties that led to the construction of the Panama Canal.  Socially, he was an eternally popular guest and raconteur; like our present-day "Most Interesting Man," he might even have been the life of parties he never actually attended. 

Remarkably, Taliaferro's major biography of Hay is the first such effort in some 70 years, and the result is an extremely entertaining read, albeit one that resembles a canoe with oarsmen in the bow and the stern and a small load in between the two of them.  Meaning, there's plenty of material at the beginning and the end of the book, but Taliaferro has to strain a bit to fill the middle of the tome.  Not that Hay didn't perform some useful services during that middle period, but, when an author has to devote paragraph upon paragraph to an infatuation and/or relationship that Hay may or may not have had with the beautiful wife of a rather dull Senator, the reader gets the sense that the author is "reaching" just a tad.

Refreshingly, Taliaferro sticks mostly to the facts, avoiding crude "presentism" about some of Hay's decisions and influences.  The "Open Door," meant to preserve Chinese territorial integrity during a period in which the European colonial powers would have been more than happy to simply carve up the rapidly decaying Empire as opposed to being granted fair dealings in one another's "spheres of influence," was an example of enlightened imperialism, but it was imperialism, nonetheless.  Likewise, the establishment of the Republic of Panama in 1903, which allowed the U.S. to start digging the canal there, involved some skullduggery that even "The Sharpie of the Culebra Cut" might have looked at with some disdain.  Taliaferro simply lays out what happened and basically leaves it to the reader to form his or her own conclusions about the consequences.

What I like about Hay is that, while he was a consummate cosmopolite, fluent in several languages and at home in the capitals of Europe, he never forgot his roots in Midwest America.  In that respect, he had much in common with a number of the expatriates who came to Paris during the 19th century.  Spending so much time with Lincoln surely gave Hay a sense of moral sureness and a respect for common American wisdom that he never lost, no matter how far afield he traveled.

ALL THE GREAT PRIZES is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in American history... or even just a very interesting man.

No comments: