Joseph Persico: His new book is marred by historical whoppers

Historians in the News

[Stern served as historian at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston from 1977 through 1999. He is the author of Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003), and The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2005) in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series.]

During a recent visit to our local public library, I spotted a copy of Joseph Persico’s new book, Franklin & Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd, and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life (Random House, 2008). I had read some positive reviews and decided to take the book home for some light summer reading.

Persico provides the following account of Theodore Roosevelt’s accession to the presidency: “Vice President Roosevelt was returning from a summer trip to Europe when on the morning of September 18, 1901, as the ship passed the Nantucket Shoals, a man came out of the lightship and bellowed through a megaphone that President McKinley had died the previous Saturday.” (p. 43)

In fact, on the day McKinley was shot in Buffalo, New York (September 6, 1901) TR was attending a luncheon of the Vermont Fish and Game League. He was informed of the assassination attempt by phone and immediately left for Buffalo. When McKinley’s condition seemed to improve by September 10th Roosevelt joined his family for a vacation on Mount Marcy in New York. It was there that he received a telegram with the news that the president was dying and he immediately returned to Buffalo—arriving after McKinley’s death on September 14th.

Persico also refers to TR’s subsequent election to a full term as president:

“Roosevelts from both branches, including Franklin and Eleanor, were together in all their glory on New Year’s Eve 1902 at the White House, watching the triumphant TR, recently elected president in his own right, pump thousands of hands in the reception line.” (p. 51)

TR, of course, was not elected to a full term until 1904. Also, presidential hand-shaking receptions for the public were traditionally held on New Year’s Day not on New Year’s eve. (For a delightful account of Theodore Roosevelt’s January 1, 1907 public reception, see Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979, pp. 8-29)

Not surprisingly, there are no sources cited in the back notes for either of these bizarre historical errors. I think I’ll read something else.

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