- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

By all accounts, Anna Spafford was handsome — a tall, blue-eyed Norwegian immigrant to the Midwest who developed a commanding presence. In the “Bible-drenched” post-Civil War era, she married Horatio Spafford, a fast-talking lawyer and preacher, and, after losing their four young daughters in an Atlantic shipwreck, accompanied him and a small band of followers to Palestine in 1881 to await the Second Coming. They had no money — in fact, he got out of Chicago just as his many creditors were closing in — but they relied on the Lord, and Horatio’s followers to provide.

In American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26, 400 pages, illus.), Jane Fletcher Geniesse, a former reporter for the New York Times, tells the fascinating story of the Spaffords and their quixotic enterprise. In the process of describing the first permanent and longest-lasting American settlement in Jerusalem, she covers the history of the Middle East from mid-19th to mid-20th century and the region’s colorful participants, from Gen. “Chinese” Gordon, who sat for hours admiring the city from the roof of the Big House, to Kaiser Wilhelm, who required the Jaffa Gate to be enlarged so that he could ride through on his horse without risking damage to the peak of his helmet.

Horatio Spafford led the group to Jerusalem, but it was the much younger Anna who displaced him as the one who received messages straight from God and gave orders to the rest. And although it was Horatio who first decided that husbands should be separated from wives, and children from parents, to achieve “unity,” it was Anna who subsequently attracted many more members to the group and enforced discipline among the energetic, skilled Swedish immigrants who made the colony’s businesses succeed.

Jerusalem’s Protestant missionaries and successive U.S. consuls viewed the Spafford group as cranks and degenerates. Their beliefs were fuzzy and rumored to be heretical, but, Ms. Geniesse says, “to many Jews, Muslims, Greeks, Latins, Armenians, Copts, and sundry others, their reputation was … one of unsurpassed goodness and generosity to the poor and the needy around them. ” They held prayer services twice a day, and their neighbors often joined in because they enjoyed singing hymns and there was no proselytizing. The group fed the hungry, practiced faith healing on the sick, and took in orphans of all sects. As Ms. Geniesse writes, “Notable visitors to Jerusalem who stayed under their hospitable roof returned home singing paeans to the American Colony even as it was quietly evolving into a business for the profit of the strongest of the surviving members.”

When Anna died in 1923, the group quickly fell apart. People who had worked without pay for decades were left with almost nothing to show for their labors. Horatio and Anna’s two surviving daughters-Bertha Vestor was a chip off Anna’s block-and their families inherited the property that became the American Colony Hotel. Today, it is operated by a Swiss firm and houses Tony Blair’s Middle East negotiators, as well as other discerning guests looking for five-star accommodations in Jerusalem.

A political leader who embraces the code of the warrior, believes in political Darwinism, and asserts the superiority of the white race sounds more like a German chancellor than an American president. Yet these were facets of one of our most charismatic presidents, Theodore Roosevelt.

Whereas many biographers have focused on Roosevelt’s energy, which was indeed remarkable, in Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness (Yale, $35, 318 pages) author Joshua Hawley, a Stanford-educated lawyer, considers Roosevelt as a serious political thinker whose creed is worthy of our attention. As a result, the 26th president emerges as a complicated figure, not the shoot-from-the-hip outdoorsman whom Mark Hanna derided as “that damned cowboy.”

Roosevelt was born to wealth but reared by his father to a sense of noblesse oblige. He determined on a career in politics, but was temperamentally incapable of working his way up the ladder of the crusty Republican party of his day. When T.R.’s service in the Spanish-American War made him too celebrated to be ignored, the party arranged for him to be pigeonholed in the vice presidency. Then, in 1901, the shot that killed President William McKinley elevated Roosevelt to the presidency.

Roosevelt’s war against trusts has been described many times; Mr. Hawley considers the philosophy behind it. The president, a social conservative, believed that “old-stock Americans,” descended from the original European setters, had largely abandoned their responsibilities as leaders in favor of material wealth. The resulting vacuum in leadership invited the rise of unscrupulous populist demagogues, among whom he included the perennial Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan. Before genuine reform could take place, the threat from the socialist left must be removed.

The way to reform, Roosevelt believed, was an administratively active government, led by the president. Trusts must be brought under control. Regulation of railroads was essential to level the playing field between small and large shippers. He was, in contrast to most Republicans today, a champion of “big government.”

But if Roosevelt sought to protect the “little guy” at home, might made right in foreign affairs. When Colombia refused to sell the isthmus of Panama for Roosevelt’s proposed canal, he created an “independent” Panama responsive to his wishes. In Roosevelt’s own words, he stole the canal “fair and square.”

The author devotes considerable attention to the hostility between Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Whereas Wilson saw World War I as a result of miscommunication among the great powers, Roosevelt placed the blame squarely on imperialist Germany. Never reluctant to make moral judgments, he railed against Wilson’s initial policy of neutrality.

Although Roosevelt was not an isolationist, he regarded Wilson’s plan for a League of Nations as dangerously naive. In Roosevelt’s view, international law provided no reliable means of enforcement. In such a situation, no reliance could be placed on a League of Nations, membership in which might dilute America’s freedom of action.

The reader who wants a detailed, doorstop biography of T.R. will not make Mr. Hawley’s book his first choice. But the author analyzes his subject so as to explain how a headstrong, elitist continues to be listed among our greater presidents.

Perhaps it is because he didn’t worry about polls.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean.

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