- Historic Sites
“There Isn’t Any Such Thing As The Past”
DAVID McCULLOUGH tells why he thinks history is the most challenging, exhilarating, and immediate of subjects
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
The lesson to be learned from the Panama Canal is that it succeeded by taking its greatest problem and making the problem an advantage. The problem was the rainfall and the Chagres River. The region had some of the heaviest rainfall anywhere in the world. That river could rise twenty feet in twenty-four hours, and how in the world were they going to get through that? How were they going to divert it or tunnel under it or bridge over it? The French never could figure it out. The key was not to try to dig a Suez type of canal, a great sea-level trench from ocean to ocean, but to create a lock-and-lake canal, where the ships are lifted up by a series of locks to a man-made lake, and then they sail across that lake, and then they are set back down on the other side by another series of locks. Well, the source—the constant supply—of the water was the Chagres. It was exactly the way jujitsu uses the opponent’s strength to overcome the opponent. And I think we really could apply that attitude toward lots of problems that we have. The solution to the problem is in the problem.
“Theodore Roosevelt was… trying to compensate for… his father’s life by wanting to get into every war that ever was.…”
It’s incredible that we went to Panama, two thousand miles from our source of supplies, brought everything there, and confronted the diseases that were there. One of the most important of all forces in history is epidemic disease, yellow fever and malaria in particular. Our capital isn’t in Philadelphia because it had a great yellow fever epidemic in 1793. We conquered—if that’s the word—both yellow fever and malaria in Panama. We built the canal for less than it was estimated to cost, but we did it with a serious loss of life—though not the loss of life that the French experienced. The French lost twenty thousand people, trying to build the Panama Canal. We lost about five thousand.
I suppose, then, the canal got you moved toward Teddy Roosevelt?
Yes. There is a line of progression. A large part of the story of the Johnstown flood is the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the Pennsylvania Railroad was surveyed through Johnstown by John Roebling, who built the bridge. And when I was writing about the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the events of the time in New York was that Ferdinand de Lesseps came to New York to pump up an interest in his stock company to build the Panama Canal. When I did the Panama Canal book, I ran into Theodore Roosevelt, and I got very interested in what he didn’t say about his life in his autobiography. You know, what people leave out is often very important. And while doing Roosevelt didn’t lead me directly to Truman, it did lead me to this office we call the Presidency.
The Roosevelts were rather prosaic, stay-at-home, moneymaking, conservative people of a somewhat narrow perspective. In my view, Theodore Roosevelt is, in truth, much more like his mother, who was a Bulloch from Georgia. They were romantic, eccentric daredevils, adventurous, brave, and lovable, in their way. I’m not sure how lovable some of those old Roosevelt Dutchmen were.
Did they really speak Dutch at the dinner table?
In the grandfather’s house, yes.
Why didn’t any of the Roosevelt men fight in the Civil War?
Well, as you know, in those days, you could purchase a substitute, hire somebody to go in your place, and that was done by a lot of people. There was no social stigma attached to it. It’s important that Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., the father of the President, hired a substitute. To his son, Theodore, this was the one flaw, the one disappointing passage in the life of his father, who was his hero all his life. I don’t like to use psychological jargon, but to a degree one could say that Theodore Roosevelt was compensating, trying to compensate for that aspect of his father’s life by wanting to get into every war that ever was and show what a hero and courageous fellow he could be.
Theodore Roosevelt was an eccentric. If he were around today, people would really wonder about him. I think he was a genius. He could read two books in a night and quote from them five years later. He could recite all of the Song of Roland in its original archaic French. He knew all about the big vertebrates of North America, probably as much as any zoologist at the Smithsonian, maybe more. He wrote—I don’t know—some twenty-two books. He embraced life with such zest, and he exuded such confidence and optimism, that people were at times inclined to believe that was the whole man.
It was not at all. He had a very deep melancholy and a withdrawing quality, where he would go into a dark room, and close the door and sit and read the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson, which is very down, blue, dark. He closed off whole sides of his personal life, and wouldn’t talk about it, because that was his way of coping.
He’s complicated and interesting. The John Singer Sargent portrait, I think, captures that. There’s a wistful sort of sad quality in that portrait that’s missing in the usual photograph of the grinning, toothy, fist-waving Theodore Roosevelt. Sargent saw something much closer to the real man.
Reading Mornings on Horseback , your biography of young Theodore Roosevelt, I was filled with awe at the letters that his mother wrote and the diary that he kept, never missing a day, with the acute observations of a tenyear-old boy.