Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy
“Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense reads like a blow-by-blow radio account of a prizefight between two heavyweights, although the arena is a courtroom, not a boxing ring.”
Civil lawsuits rarely arouse much interest or passion for the public. Certainly not like criminal trials do, with the intrigue and drama glamorized by television and movies. In criminal trials, a “smoking gun” is often just that: a smoking gun. But in civil cases, it is typically just a metaphor and, much like the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy, may not even exist.
But throw a prominent figure into the mix, especially one who cuts a dashing image in the public eye and whose very name excites the imagination, and include claims that challenge that figure’s reputation, and you’ve got a brand new ball game in the civil courts. So take a run-of-the-mill libel case and drench it with a bucket of Theodore Roosevelt, and you’ve got the makings of a bestseller. That’s what Dan Abrams and David Fisher have done with their new courtroom drama Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy.
By 1915 Theodore Roosevelt already experienced enough adventure for any dozen men, but after having been defeated in his run for the presidency just three years earlier as a third-party candidate, he had drifted from the public eye. For a man who still entertained political aspirations, that might have been troubling, but he managed to re-inject himself into prominence in a dust-up with a Republican Party boss, though maybe not in the way he intended.
While supporting a nonpartisan candidate for governor of New York, Roosevelt penned an article, published nationwide, that took party leaders to task for corrupting the political process. Pulling no punches, Roosevelt claimed that leaders of both major political parties collaborated to “secure the appointment of evil men,” and he called for the public to root out the “alliance between crooked business and crooked politics. . . .”
One of those leaders, William Barnes, who had political aspirations of his own, took Roosevelt’s assault personally—particularly that word corrupt. Barnes had been a Roosevelt ally before a falling out between the two a few years earlier, and he had a score to settle. The authors tell us that “beyond the political ramifications was his personal disdain for the former president. He wanted to make Roosevelt eat those words.”
So he filed suit in Syracuse against Roosevelt for libel and sought damages in the sum of $50,000, or about $1.2 million in today’s dollars. While the damages sought was a hefty amount, of bigger concern for Roosevelt was that, in order to defend a libel claim, his own credibility would be at stake, and “he would be forced to defend his reputation and honor . . .”
According to the authors, “the trial would be fought over two issues: justification and mitigation.” First, was Roosevelt justified in what he said? In other words, was it true? If not, then could the damages be mitigated or reduced?
If the answer to the justification question was in the affirmative, it would be vindication for Roosevelt. But if not, and even if the jury mitigated the damages, a finding of unjustified libel might well be seen as an indictment of Roosevelt’s character, and that might be the death knell to his future aspirations.
For Barnes, ironically, the lawsuit he initiated opened himself up to unwanted scrutiny. After all, if truth is an absolute defense to a defamation claim—and it is—then it would be incumbent upon Roosevelt to establish that Barnes was, in fact, corrupt. That meant that, while Barnes’s attorneys would seek to undercut Roosevelt’s reputation for honesty, Roosevelt’s attorneys would seek to open all of Barnes’s closets and expose the skeletons within.
In telling the story of the six-week trial, the authors rely heavily—sometimes too heavily—upon court transcripts to recount considerable portions of the testimony of many of the 104 witnesses who testified. While that sometimes bogs down the narrative, the authors nevertheless provide keen legal insights to help the reader understand the significance of that testimony, as well as of key rulings made by the judge.
In an early ruling, for example, the judge found the article in question to be “libel per se,” which meant that, on the face of it, it was damaging to Barnes’s reputation. That then shifted the burden of proof from the plaintiff, Barnes, to the defendant, Roosevelt, to prove the truth of the article. And that opened up two crucial areas of Barnes’s own conduct that likely damaged his reputation even more than Roosevelt’s libel.
The first involved some lucrative government printing contracts that Barnes had obtained, under questionable circumstances, for his own company years earlier in Albany. The second related to a possible “corrupt alliance” between Barnes, as Republican Party boss, and Charles Murphy, as Democratic Party boss, to fix elections and governmental appointments. All of that dirty laundry would be aired before the jury, leading to an ultimate verdict that would vindicate one or the other of the combatants.
For those who enjoy presidential history, it’s probably not surprising that much of the defense strategy was simply to rely upon the sheer force of Theodore Roosevelt’s personality. “Teddy Roosevelt long ago had mastered the incredibly difficult skill of speaking to an entire room, and making each person in that space believe he was talking directly to them.” He would do so once again.
Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense reads like a blow-by-blow radio account of a prizefight between two heavyweights, although the arena is a courtroom, not a boxing ring. Some of the details and legal nuances might get lost in the telling, but you don’t have to be a lawyer to appreciate the battle.