I Rose Like a Rocket: The Political Education of Theodore Roosevelt

I Rose Like a Rocket: The Political Education of Theodore Roosevelt

by Paul Grondahl

In I Rose like a Rocket, Paul Grondahl reveals the true story of Roosevelt's preparation for the White House: not one of self-making so much as a classic political education. From his earliest days as an assemblyman in Albany to his service as police commissioner in New York and civil service commissioner in Washington, Roosevelt learned invaluable lessons from the…  See more details below


In I Rose like a Rocket, Paul Grondahl reveals the true story of Roosevelt's preparation for the White House: not one of self-making so much as a classic political education. From his earliest days as an assemblyman in Albany to his service as police commissioner in New York and civil service commissioner in Washington, Roosevelt learned invaluable lessons from the giants of his day. He was nearly roughed up twice by Democratic toughs in Albany and he suffered terrible defeats at the more-experienced hands of machine masters "Easy Boss" Thomas C. Platt and "Honest John" Kelly; yet he also learned how to manipulate and co-opt the press, how to harness public pressure and bipartisan allies, and how to fight for his desires from sunrise to sunset and beyond.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Albany Times Union reporter Grondahl (Mayor Corning: Albany Icon, Albany Enigma) does an outstanding job of documenting Theodore Roosevelt's evolution from brash young political reformer to shrewd and pragmatic political operator, always with his eye on various idealistic prizes. Grondahl first introduces readers to Roosevelt as a boyish, scrawny 23-year-old arriving in Albany during the snowy January of 1882 for his first term in the New York State legislature. He then proceeds to show how the upstart scion of New York's Knickerbocker elite learned to deal with such corrupt and wily operators as "Big John" McManus, "Boss" Tweed, Roscoe Conkling and Tammany enforcer Richard Croker. As Grondahl painstakingly documents, this phase of Roosevelt's life proved to be a vital first step in his political coming-of-age. What he learned in Albany set the stage for the next round in his education as federal civil service commissioner in Washington, D.C., during the late 1880s and early '90s and his colorful tenure as police commissioner of New York City (1895-1897). Moving through these positions and subsequent posts (assistant secretary of the navy, commander of the Rough Riders, governor of New York, vice-president and president), Roosevelt grew as a politician in ways painted quite deftly by Grondahl. Starting off as an uncompromising but ineffective crusader riding a high horse, Roosevelt ended up as a studied master of brinksmanship and deal maker, capable of forging vital political alliances that resulted in meaningful political reform. Agent, Dan Mandel. (June 10) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This year marks the centennial of Theodore Roosevelt's only election to the presidency on his own, as he first succeeded to the nation's highest post on September 14, 1901, after the assassination of William McKinley. Authored by a seasoned Albany, NY, journalist who has published a biography on another New York politician (Mayor Corning: Albany Icon, Albany Enigma), this book makes a significant contribution to the Roosevelt literature. It covers the period from TR's birth in 1856 to 1901, when he made his legendary descent from the state's highest peak for a midnight ride to the presidency. This is the same period covered in the first volume of Edmund Morris's classic The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, usually considered the ultimate in terms of eloquence and research, which gives us the man as a whole. Grondahl demonstrates a certain flair by focusing more narrowly on TR's "political education," that is, his evolution from inexperienced state legislator to seasoned governor nearly 20 years later. As Grondahl shows, TR fulfilled himself through work in the political arena and is now often considered one of our five best presidents. Grondahl here demonstrates talent as a biographer; the writing is so engaging that readers won't want to put the book down. And perhaps Grondahl has a better feel for New York politics than Morris, as he covers the legislature as part of his job. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries. William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A reasonably good take on Teddy Roosevelt's coming of age as a political leader. For Howard Dean's spin-control people, this study by Albany Times Union staff writer Grondahl comes too late; they might have profitably pointed to the great TR's example of what happens when great joy meets other fiery emotions, as when he shot a buffalo on the North Dakota plains in 1883: "The kill triggered an orgiastic outburst. Roosevelt hollered and hopped around the dead beast in a primal dance. He shrieked and bellowed in a crazed celebration of the blood sport." TR seems not to have considered such moments unusual, and certainly nothing to apologize for; indeed, he lived by a chivalric code much of which was of his own making, which set him apart from other politicos of the time. One plank in his platform was not to back down before bullying, and so, Grondahl writes, when TR first entered the New York legislature he sought out the local Tammany enforcer, a notorious hector, and threatened, "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." He meant it, too. Most of Roosevelt's experiences in Albany, Grondahl holds, were less dramatic, but they constituted a political education that would serve TR well in the White House, especially when he sought to break the power of the great financial and commercial trusts. As a legislator and governor, TR had already scrapped with the likes of Jay Gould and Tammany, but he had to unlearn some of his tactics on battling for higher office: "In the run-up to the Republican National Convention, Roosevelt reversed his take-no-prisoners approach and tried to play it safe and reserve political capital." Thatdid not suit his nature, however, and Roosevelt reverted once in the White House to that hunter on the plains, glad to draw blood. But that's a story for another volume. A nice complement, if sometimes only a footnote, to David McCullough's Mornings on Horseback. Agent: Dan Mandel/Sanford J. Greenburger Associates

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I Rose Like a Rocket

The Political Education of Theodore Roosevelt
By Paul Grondahl

Free Press

Copyright © 2004 Paul Grondahl
All right reserved.

ISBN: 074322731X


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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