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Prelude: PRACTICAL POLITICS
The New York State Legislature, which has convened in Albany since it became the state capital in 1797, epitomizes politics as plate tectonics. It represents an ancient clash of opposing forces: downstate versus upstate, Republican versus Democrat, conservative versus liberal, insurgent versus incumbent, reformer versus party-liner. Each January, for more than two centuries, the legislators have migrated to this modest river city, like the shad that have spawned in the Hudson River from time immemorial. One hundred and fifty miles up the Hudson from Manhattan, the lawmakers convene to renew their seismic political battles. Tremors are commonplace and full-scale quakes are expected. In a city settled by the Dutch, which thrived in the Colonial era because of a bustling beaver trade, the coin of the realm in recent centuries has been the acquiring, spending, and replenishing of political capital. Corruption, from the imperceptible to the spectacular, is as central to the rhythm of Albany across the ages of its political history as the tides on the Hudson River estuary.
The atmosphere in Albany during the legislative session is part carnival, part college fraternity. Some of the city's denizens are just passing through, looking to ride along on the political parade for a little while. Others arrive full of idealism and a burning desire to make meaningful change. A few seem perplexed to be elected public officials in the state's capital, as if they had awoken from a Rip van Winkle-like slumber to find themselves holding a seat in the Assembly or Senate. It's a dream job for some, a nightmare for others. Many build their reputations here. A few sacrifice their respectability on the altar of politics, learning the rules only to abuse them. The Legislature is a closed system, a kind of political union shop. The principles of prep school secret societies guide its old boys' network, clubby familiarity, oaths of loyalty, and rituals of initiation.
Shortly upon arriving at the State Capitol in Albany as a freshman assemblyman from Manhattan in January of 1882, Theodore Roosevelt received his first lesson in the ceremonials of this secretive subculture. The State Legislature was a world removed from Roosevelt's familiar universe of cloistered privilege and enormous inheritances in Manhattan's Gramercy Park neighborhood. Albany, by comparison, was a rawboned, outlaw frontier town.
Roosevelt was a boyish-looking and scrawny twenty-three-year-old who stood just five feet eight inches. His education began in a dim corridor outside the Assembly chamber, where he was ambushed by "Big John" McManus, a massive brute and former heavyweight boxer who played the role of chief thug for the Tammany Hall political machine. McManus was an intimidating presence for Tammany, which had its tentacles wrapped around every stratum of the Legislature and state politics.
McManus had been milling about on the third floor of the Capitol with a crew of his sycophants, who were stirring up a plan to knock Roosevelt down a few notches and to pound some of the Harvard pretension out of this young, cocky newcomer. McManus was rallying coconspirators around a plan to toss Roosevelt in a blanket, an embarrassing gag of that era tantamount to the prep school prank of flushing an underclassman's head in a toilet bowl. Roosevelt had caught wind of the hazing being contemplated against him, however. He confronted the massive McManus. Although Roosevelt was a head shorter and some one hundred pounds lighter, he locked eyes with McManus and spoke through clenched teeth, the veins standing up on his sinewy neck. "By God! McManus, I hear you are going to toss me in a blanket. By God! If you try anything like that, I'll kick you, I'll bite you, I'll kick you in the balls. I'll do anything to you -- you'd better leave me alone."
Roosevelt's spirited tirade stopped the brutish McManus in his tracks. Quickly sensing that his coconspirators were losing their nerve, McManus called off the blanket tossing and his entourage of thugs cleared the Assembly corridor. Little Teddy Roosevelt had stood up to the bully of the Legislature. It was an auspicious beginning for the youngest state legislator ever to have been elected.
The New York State Capitol in Albany in the nineteenth century was a den of feral politics. It's fitting, then, that the most powerful and longest-running machine dominating state politics, Tammany Hall, was known as "the Tiger." Thanks to Tammany, some of the most memorable rogues and colorful scoundrels practiced the art of what George Washington Plunkitt called "honest graft" and epitomized his classic description, "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em." Albany gave safe harbor to the outrageously corrupt and extremely corpulent William Marcy Tweed, the first to be called "Boss" and the architect of bossism. Richard Croker, the menacing Tammany enforcer, also feasted on political prey in Albany. It was into this Tiger's lair that the young, puny reformer Roosevelt, with a high, squeaky voice and thick eyeglasses, strode. He did not get eaten alive. On the contrary, he attacked Tammany and brought the political beast to its knees. Theodore Roosevelt proved a quick study who knew no fear. He became the lion who tamed the Tiger.
His stint in Albany represented a defining moment for Roosevelt's life and his development as one of the most beloved and enduring figures in American political history. The first three years he spent in the New York State capital as an assemblyman introduced Roosevelt to politics; a decade later he served two years as governor in Albany's Executive Mansion, where he experimented with the emerging political philosophy he would fully develop during his presidency.
New York State politics taught Roosevelt the realities of campaigning for, winning, and retaining office. Roosevelt was a scholar and an indefatigable researcher with an analytical mind; he had been comfortable within the discipline of analyzing, quantifying, classifying, and cataloging since his boyhood days of compiling bird guidebooks and amassing a natural history collection. And so it was with politics. Roosevelt managed to put the inexplicable process of democracy under a microscope, dissecting it, as it were, in order to understand its deep structure. Roosevelt found a like mind and sensibility in the social critic and writer Jacob Riis, with whom Roosevelt shared the philosophy of "practical politics" that five years in Albany had taught the Manhattan dandy. Roosevelt told Riis,
I stood out for my own opinion, alone. I took the best mugwump stand: my own conscience, my own judgment, were to decide in all things. I would listen to no argument, no advice. I took the isolated peak on every issue, and my people left me¿The things I wanted to do I was powerless to accomplish. What did I do? I looked the ground over and made up my mind that there were excellent people there, with honest opinions of the right, even though they differed from me. I turned in to help them, and they turned to and gave me a hand. And so we were able to get things done. We did not agree in all things, but we did in some, and those we pulled at together. That was my first lesson in real politics. It is this: if you are cast on a desert island with only a screw-driver, a hatchet, and a chisel to make a boat with, why, go make the best one you can. It would be better if you had a saw, but you haven't. So with men.
Of course, Roosevelt's political education was coupled with a character education, not just in Albany and in Washington (as assistant secretary of the navy) or in Manhattan (as police commissioner), but in the Adirondack Mountains, and in Cuba as well. No book about the making of our twenty-sixth president would be complete if it ignored any phase of his early career. Yet in all the famous, near-mythical stories of the weakling transforming himself into a man of vigor, something has been lost: Roosevelt the political master.
This, then, is the story of Roosevelt's political education.
Copyright © 2004 by Paul Grondahl
Excerpted from I Rose Like a Rocket by Paul Grondahl Copyright © 2004 by Paul Grondahl. Excerpted by permission.
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Chapter 1 BEGINNINGS
Chapter 2 HARVARD
Chapter 3 ASSEMBLY
Chapter 4 TRAGEDY
Chapter 5 BADLANDS
Chapter 6 WASHINGTON
Chapter 7 POLICE COMMISSIONER
Chapter 8 ROUGH RIDER
Chapter 9 GOVERNOR
Chapter 10 VICE PRESIDENT
Chapter 11 RIDE TO THE PRESIDENCY
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY AND SOURCES
Posted November 8, 2008
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