There are some trials that naturally lend themselves to dramatic recounting in books or movies. They’re usually the same ones that get called “trials of the century.” Cases, for example, involving John T. Scopes, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, Adolf Eichmann and O.J. Simpson all captured the public imagination and inspired writers and filmmakers to take a shot at depicting the courtroom drama that ensued.
None of those were civil cases that involved the tort of libel, however. (That’s not to say there haven’t been landmark trials about defamation, but with the exception of Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, which formed the basis for Miloš Forman’s 1996 film The People vs. Larry Flynt, few have been the subject of books or movies intended for general audiences.) But in their new book, Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense, authors Dan Abrams and David Fisher prove that the story of a libel case can indeed make for gripping reading.
While many Americans today might not be aware that Theodore Roosevelt was involved in a libel suit, the case dominated headlines in 1915. Roosevelt, a former two-term president, was still very much a national celebrity; three years prior, he made an unsuccessful bid to return to the White House as a candidate for the Progressive Party.
In 1914, Roosevelt endorsed the candidacy of Harvey Hinman, a longtime state senator, for governor of New York. He couldn’t resist adding some caustic jabs at two New York political bosses: Charles Murphy, a Democrat, and William Barnes, a Republican. “Mr. Murphy and Mr. Barnes are of exactly the same moral and political type,” Roosevelt said. “Not one shadow of good comes from the substituting one for the other in control of our government.”
Barnes was, predictably, not pleased and sued Roosevelt for libel. The former president would testify at the trial in Syracuse, N.Y., for a week, set on “defending the legacy he had carefully crafted and jealously protected.”
Relying on transcripts and newspaper accounts of the case, Abrams and Fisher tell the story of the trial from jury selection to its verdict. The reader learns about the lawyers involved: Barnes was represented by the “flamboyant” and hyperconfident William M. Ivins, while Roosevelt hired an “unflappably cool customer” of an attorney named John M. Bowers. The two lawyers would spar, sometimes bitterly, over the course of the trial.
The main attraction to those following the case was, of course, Roosevelt’s testimony. Ivins’ strategy was to “get the self-righteous Roosevelt angry and agitated,” which proved more difficult to do than the attorney expected. “If Roosevelt could exercise his charisma, the case would be lost” for Barnes, Abrams and Fisher write.
Ivins did his best to paint Roosevelt as a hypocrite who talked a good game about getting corruption out of politics but didn’t follow through when he was an officeholder. “You do not attack anything against unless there is a [popular] feeling against it … ?” Ivins asked.
“I attack!” Roosevelt responded emphatically. “I attack iniquities, I attack wrongdoing. I try to choose the time for an attack when I can get the bulk of the people to accept the principles for which I stand!”
Ivins wasn’t impressed, but he ultimately proved to be no match for Roosevelt’s garrulous charm. The jury in the case (spoiler alert for the verdict of a century-old trial) found for Roosevelt, who proclaimed, “Truth and righteousness again have prevailed,” and shook the hands of each juror.
It’s difficult to turn a civil trial into a gripping narrative, but Abrams and Fisher do just that. While much of the book is, necessarily, based on the trial transcript, the authors do an excellent job providing the context of the case, deftly explaining the political “boss system” that controlled New York at the time and charting Roosevelt’s political evolution from rock-ribbed Republican to progressive independent. They also provide something of a crash course on defamation law in the years before the landmark New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case, explaining the elements of the tort in a clear and accessible fashion.
Abrams and Fisher are gifted writers, and their prose is neither overly spare nor showy; they’re clearly fascinated by the trial, and their enthusiasm for their subject matter shows. Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense is a must-read for anyone with a deep interest in the 26th president, or in First Amendment law, but any reader with an affection for American history will find something to admire in this book.