reading about fires and rich dudes

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Monday, September 05, 2011
I'm currently reading Timothy Egan's The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America for my non-fiction book group. It's about the huge forest fire that blazed across Montana, Idaho, and Washington in 1910 and the birth of the US Forest Service.  I'd heard that it was a good book, but I had no idea how much I would enjoy it! I'm still in the early parts where he's setting the scene. I guess I really didn't have much of an image of Teddy Roosevelt except that he was a massive extrovert who carried a big stick - I'm loving this view of him as a progressive conservationist (...who also wrestles people in his underwear).

Don't these robber barons sound strangely familiar? Except now instead of being fought on behalf of the "small man," they get enormous tax breaks? Here's a quote from a section I read this morning on my break:

John Rockefeller was perhaps the richest American who ever lived. Morgan and Weyerhaeuser were not far behind, each with a net worth roughly equal to that of Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, in contemporary dollars. Rockefeller had more than four times the wealth of Gates, his stake at just under $200 billion, when adjusted for inflation. As to Roosevelt's view of these men, he was rarely discreet. He called them "the most dangerous members of the criminal class, the malefactors of great wealth," in his best-known phrase, uttered during a sharp economic downturn. And he was more cutting when he really wanted to be dismissive.
"It tires me to talk to rich men," he said. "You expect a man of millions to be worth hearing, but as a rule, they don't know anything outside their own business." When Standard Oil donated $100,000 to Roosevelt's campaign, the president asked that it be returned. It was somewhat jarring, to say the least, that Roosevelt, from a wealthy New York family, and Pinchot, who had inherited a chateau with twenty-three fireplaces, had turned so vehemently against their class, envisioning the national forests as a way to "help the small man make a living rather than help the big man make a profit," as Pinchot said freqeuntly. But once engaged, they never looked back. 
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