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Taliaferro is reluctant to agree, but the evidence of this book is that Roosevelt got it right: “He was at his best at a dinner table or in a drawing room, and in neither place have I ever seen anyone’s best that was better than his.” But Hay’s “easy-loving nature” and “moral timidity” made him “shrink from all that was rough in life, and therefore from practical affairs.”
Taliaferro mines the letters of Hay, his family and his friends and the personal warmth shines through. What’s also unavoidable is how little Hay was engaged to his times. His loyalty was to Lincoln and President William McKinley, to his wife (despite at least two infatuations with other women, one of them the wife of his nemesis, Cabot Lodge), to friends like Adams and Clarence King, to the class he rose to, and to the GOP.
Like the fictional Lord Grantham of “Downton Abbey” fame, Hay was oblivious or indifferent to how profoundly the world was changing around him. Less than a decade after his death, Europe erupted into a war that destroyed four empires, dragged the United States into another peace-making effort and brought another president into conflict with Cabot Lodge over a treaty.
For a man so deeply connected to the politicians, businessmen and writers of the late 19th century, Hay’s intellect was astonishingly untroubled. The gap becomes evident late in Hay’s life, on a trip to Europe.
Adams meets him in a brand new automobile. As they motor around the outskirts of Paris, the reader notices that Hay’s adult life encompassed the dawn of the automobile, aviation, the telephone and the completion of the trans-continental railroad. None of this apparently attracted Hay’s intellectual notice.
The languages and the traveling didn’t help him spot, as a young diplomat in the late 1860s, that Otto von Bismarck was remaking the European map. He loved Britain but doesn’t utter a thought about how Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone remade the place as they swapped power in election after election. European powers carved up Africa and the man on the verge of taking over U.S. foreign policy was silent. Germany was building a navy to rival Britain’s as Hay was reaching the pinnacle of his career, and it seemed to have escaped his attention.
President Roosevelt kept Hay on the job after McKinley’s assassination. Roosevelt’s boisterousness always rubbed Hay wrong, and the contrast between the two is a fitting summary of the century that was ending and the one beginning.