An overstuffed biography of an overlooked American statesman and reluctant politician.
If you’re a political scientist, American historian or fan of 19th-century Republicanism, you have likely heard of John Hay (1838–1905). If you’re a tourist in Washington, you likely have passed by the Hay-Adams Hotel, across the street from St. John’s Church, where presidents go to pray. Former Newsweek editor Taliaferro (In a Far Country: The True Story of a Mission, a Marriage, and the Remarkable Reindeer Rescue of 1898, 2006, etc.) finds in Hay a subject worthy of wider circulation. Hay, from the minor aristocracy of small-town Illinois, began his professional career as a secretary to Abraham Lincoln, close enough to the action that he traveled with the president to Gettysburg and there recorded that Lincoln “said his half dozen lines of consecration and the music wailed and we went home.” By association with his friend Robert Lincoln, the president’s son, Hay came to be one of the fallen leader’s first biographers—but also a servant of Republican presidents thereafter, one who long “had sworn that he never would run for office, but even in his adamance, he gave hints that he was wavering.” Hay’s apogee came with service as secretary of state to Theodore Roosevelt, who signed up Hay for a second term without even consulting him—but he served till the end of his life, saying, “it would be a scandal to contradict him.” Taliaferro inclines toward too much completeness. The story of how the Panama Canal came to be is an intriguing one and worthy of a book itself, though here, its political complexities tend to burden an otherwise quickly flowing narrative, which moves even faster when friends of Hay, such as Mark Twain and Henry Adams, are part of it.
Overlong, but still the best life of Hay that we have and a persuasive argument for taking another look at the life of a career public servant.