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The Cyclone Assemblyman
When Theodore Roosevelt—Harvard-educated, dandified, and just twenty-three—arrived in Albany as an assemblyman in 1882, the oldpols dismissed him as a “Punkin-Lily,”and worse. They were in for a shock.
February/March 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 2
The Judiciary Committee did not conclude its investigation of Westbrook and Ward until May 30,1882, a few days before the legislative session ended. Although the committee’s reports were not due to be made public until noon on May 31, rumors began to circulate, in the small hours of the morning, that the majority was prepared to recommend impeachment. Roosevelt and Hunt took a straw poll of their colleagues around 3:00 A.M. , which indicated that the Assembly would accept this recommendation; yet even at so late an hour, “mysterious influences” were working against them. There was a frantic burst of last-minute bribery, and, one assemblyman later recalled, three pivotal members of the committee agreed to withdraw their signatures from the majority report, to the tune of $2,500 each. (One later estimate put Jay Gould’s total expenses during the Westbrook affair at “a cool million dollars.”) Thus, in the nine hours preceding the committee’s reports to the House, its majority for impeachment was changed to a majority against. The chairman conceded that Judge Westbrook had occasionally been “indiscreet and unwise,” but said that he was merely guilty of “excessive zeal” in trying to save the Manhattan Elevated from destruction.
During the reading of this report, Roosevelt twisted and turned in impotent wrath. At the first opportunity he jumped to his feet and urged the House not to accept it. Observers were impressed to note that he kept his temper well in check, speaking slowly and clearly in a trembling voice; but his choice of words was vituperative. “You cannot by your votes clear the Judge… you cannot cleanse the leper. Beware lest you taint yourself with his leprosy!” During the long and dramatic debate that followed, he lost control of himself only once, when a speaker referred to him as “the reputed father” of the Westbrook Resolution. “Does the gentleman mean to say,” yelled Roosevelt, “that the resolution is a bastard?” His anger was to no avail, and the House accepted the committee’s findings by a vote of 77 to 35.
Two days later, on June 2, what a New York Times reporter labeled “the most corrupt Assembly since the days of Boss Tweed” went out of existence. Roosevelt took a rueful farewell of Isaac Hunt, Billy O’Neil, and his other legislative friends, and caught the 7:00 P.M. train to New York, where Alice had already preceded him. Interviewed at Grand Central, he agreed that the session had been a bad one for the Republican party. “There seem to have been no leaders ,” he said thoughtfully.
Reviewing the session at leisure that summer, Roosevelt had little to regret, and much to look forward to. True, Westbrook and Ward had slipped through his fingers at the last moment, but their “coarse moral fiber” had been exposed, and his political reputation made. Republican newspapers were loud in his praise, and at least one national magazine, Harper’s, had congratulated him on “public service worthy of high commendation.” Less than two years out of college, still five months shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, he was already a powerful man. “fr