“Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy” by Dan Abrams and David Fisher. Toronto: Hanover Square Press, 2019. 379 pages, $18 (hardcover).
Corruption in American politics is not a new issue, and presidents, like average Americans, have derided its influence since the founding generation. What is less common is a former president of the United States being accused of libel for publishing accusations of corruption against another politician.
In “Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save his Legacy,” Dan Abrams and David Fisher provide a detailed account of the 1915 libel trial that pitted William Barnes against Roosevelt. Accused by Roosevelt of benefiting from an ill-gotten government printing contract and influencing the votes of New York Republican officials, Barnes sought to rehabilitate his reputation by destroying Roosevelt’s. To Roosevelt, legally forbidding an American citizen from bringing corruption to light meant that the very future of representative democracy was at stake. What neither Barnes nor Roosevelt would admit was that their honor was at stake and had to remain intact for their political careers to continue.
Readers will see Roosevelt attempting to charm jurors with his smile and boisterous attitude, and Barnes’ attorney, William Ivins, skillfully keeping the audience enraptured with his scathing attacks on the former president. As a backdrop to the courtroom drama the history of libel law in America is chronicled. From the trials of John Peter Zenger and Harry Croswell, readers learn that truth was not always a valid defense.
Barnes v. Roosevelt occurred in an era before New York Times v. Sullivan, where the decision of the jury, not the truth of the libel, determined victory. To win, Roosevelt knew he would have to rely on his reputation as a defender of the common man, while Ivins and Barnes knew their victory depended on casting Roosevelt as a corrupt politician who paid lip service to progressive ideals. To prove their cases, both sides relied on an array of witnesses, including Franklin Roosevelt, who affirmed that Barnes was involved in a corrupt bargain with New York Democratic leader Charles Murphy to prevent independent Democrats from gaining office. Through the day-by-day courtroom testimony readers are invited into a past where the larger than life figure of Theodore Roosevelt looms large, yet one replete with the same back-and-forth legal repartee that can be seen in modern courtrooms.
The greatest strength of “Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense” is the detailed play-by-play account of the trial. All of Roosevelt’s charm and bluster is on display, as is the impressive legal maneuvering of attorneys John Bowers and William Ivins. However, that strength becomes an albatross that nearly drags the entire book down during a prolonged discussion of the New York printing business. The minutiae of the cost of printing per page, and the shares that Barnes held in the Lyon Printing Co. disrupt the flow of the book. Once the discussion of the printing business ends, the courtroom drama resumes in ways that may have some readers questioning whether the book takes place in 1915 or 2019. Collusion between Barnes and Murphy to elect a favored candidate to office, accusations of tax evasion and corrupt business practices are just a few of the topics discussed.
When Franklin Roosevelt takes the stand to provide testimony that Barnes and Murphy colluded to prevent an independent Democrat from taking office, it seems to affirm the worst-held suspicions of the jurors: that elected officials seek only to protect their own power. The role of celebrity in shaping the outcome of a trial is also on full display. Jurors laugh at witticisms that Roosevelt throws out and are enraptured by his energy and gesticulations during testimony, a marked contrast to the subdued reaction that Barnes receives. That Roosevelt won the case can in part be explained by his status as a living American icon, and less, as Abrams and Fisher note, by the truth of his arguments that Barnes was corrupt.
An unstated irony of “Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense” is the inherent contradiction between accepting the pervasive existence of corruption in American politics, and that proving its influence can end political careers. The press deemed Barnes’ defeat a victory for the First Amendment, but for the former Republican political boss it was a political death sentence. Roosevelt was accused of using his influence as president to sway votes in Congress, but his victory in court meant his reputation remained intact. Today, Americans continue to accept that corruption exists, but only demand punishment for the perpetrator, rather than pursuing a systemic assault against political corruption, a practice akin to putting a Band-aid on a gunshot wound.
Despite failing to fully explicate modern-day parallels and the overuse of printing business testimony, Abrams and Fisher have succeeded in their goal of reestablishing the importance of Barnes v. Roosevelt in American jurisprudence. Due to the authors’ efforts, this largely forgotten case joins the likes of the Zenger, Croswell and Sullivan cases in demonstrating the evolution of both libel law and the First Amendment protections afforded the press. Students of American legal history and general audiences with an interest in learning more about Theodore Roosevelt will both find “Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense” an engaging read. The role of courtroom battles in shaping the freedoms that Americans enjoy cannot be overstated and “Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense” joins other treatises in American legal history in demonstrating just that.
– Reviewed by Tom Burden of Centertown.