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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
He was hardly less severe on members of his own party. Ex-Speaker Alvord he instantly dismissed as “a bad old fellow … corrupt.” Another colleague was “smooth, oily, plausible and tricky”; yet another was “entirely unprincipled, with the same idea of Public Life and Civil Service that a vulture has of a dead sheep.” His contempt dwindled reciprocally according to the idealism and independence of the younger members—in other words, those most like himself. Although they could be counted on the fingers of one hand, Roosevelt instinctively sought them out. One in particular caught his eye: “a tall, thin, melancholy country lawyer from Jefferson, thoroughly upright and honest, and a man of some parts.”
The melancholy youth’s name was Isaac Hunt. He, too, was serving his first term in the Assembly. But the two freshmen did not get to meet for several days, owing to a strange state of political paralysis in the House. The situation was succinctly summarized in Roosevelt’s diary of January 3: “The Legislature has assembled in full force: 128 Assemblymen, containing 61 Republicans in their ranks, and 8 Tammany men among the 67 Democrats. Tammany thus holds the balance of power, and as the split between her and the regular Democracy is very bitter, a long deadlock is promised us.”
His forecast proved correct. The very first piece of business before the House—electing a new Speaker—was stalled by Tammany members, who refused to give their crucial block of votes to either of the major party nominees. Thus each candidate was kept just short of the sixty-four votes required to win. Clearly the holdouts hoped that one side or the other eventually would make a deal with them, and that the elected Speaker would reward Tammany with some plum committee jobs. Until then, with nobody in the Chair, there could be no parliamentary procedure, and hence no legislation.
For the first week in Albany, Roosevelt had nothing to do except trudge daily up State Street and answer the roll call in the Assembly chamber. Then, there being no further business, he would trudge back to the Delavan House and meditate on the “stupid and monotonous” work of politics. Albany was an unattractive place to be bored in: a little Dutch burg , rather the worse for industry, separated from New York by 145 miles of chilly river valley. Back home, in Manhattan, the social season was at its height, and Fifth Avenue was alive with the sounds of witty conversation and ballroom music. Here it was so quiet at night that the only sound in the streets was the clicking of telephone wires. There were, of course, several “disorderly houses” for the convenience of legislators, but such places revolted him. To vent his surplus energy, he went for long walks around town, but the local air was insalubrious, even to a man with healthy lungs. Depending on the vagaries of the breeze, his nostrils were saluted with the sour effluvia of twenty breweries, choking fumes from the Coal Tar and Dye Chemical Works, and brackish smells from the river. Only on rare occasions did chill, pure Canadian air find its way down from the north, bringing with it the piny scent of lumberyards.
Escaping to New York for his first weekend proved recuperative, and Roosevelt bounced back to Albany on Monday, January 9, in high good humor. There was another Republican caucus that night, and although it dealt with the less than fascinating subject of the appointment of Assembly clerks, Roosevelt conscientiously attended. This time he was in even greater sartorial splendor, having dined out beforehand. Isaac Hunt, the melancholy member from Jefferson County, was standing by the fireplace in the committee room when “in bolted Teddy … as if ejected from a catapult.”
Deliberately selecting the most prominent position in the room—directly in front of the chairman Roosevelt sat down, “grinned and giggled,” and pulled off his ulster. Underneath he was in full evening dress, with gold fob and chain. At the first opportunity he jumped to his feet and addressed the meeting in the affected drawl of Harvard and Fifth Avenue. “We almost shouted with laughter,” Hunt remembered, “to think that the most veritable representative of the New York dude had come to the Chamber.” But as Roosevelt continued to speak, “our attention was drawn upon what he had to say because there was a force in his remarks … it mollified somewhat his unusual appearance.”
Roosevelt was about to sit down again when he caught sight of Hunt by the fireplace. Instantly he made his way over to him. Hunt, too, as it happened, was rather overdressed; he was sensitive about his rural background, and had invested in a custom-made Prince Albert coat by way of disguise. He might as well have saved his money. “You,” shrilled Roosevelt triumphantly, “are from the country!” Hunt had no chance to recover from this sally (apparently intended as a compliment), and Roosevelt, without pausing for breath, began to interrogate him on provincial politics. For the rest of that evening he pumped Hunt dry of “all the details of how we got along, how we managed our affairs, and how we ran caucuses, and how we got our conventions, and how we did everything in the country.” Roosevelt’s usual practice, after such an interview, was to discard his victim like a well-sucked orange, but something about the young lawyer appealed to him. Hunt, in turn, was charmed, and at the end of the caucus the two assemblymen parted “fast friends.” Roosevelt had recruited his first legislative ally.