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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
A newspaperman was struck by Roosevelt’s “novel way of inflating his lungs.” Between phrases he would open his mouth in a convulsive gasp, dragging the air in by main force. Clearly his asthma was troubling him. At times the slight stammer that friends had noticed at Harvard intruded, and his teeth would knock together as the words fought their way out. “He spoke as if he had an impediment in his speech,” said Hunt. “He would open his mouth and run out his tongue … but what he said was all right.”
Roosevelt continued, “As things are today in New York there are two branches of Jeffersonian Democrats.... Neither of these alone can carry the State against the Republicans.... I do not think they can fairly expect us to join with either section. This is purely a struggle between themselves, and it should be allowed to continue as long as they please. We have no interest in helping one section against the other; combined they have the majority and let them make all they can out of it!” At this, there were some scattered bursts of applause, and Roosevelt began to relax. “While in New York I talked with several gentlemen who have large commercial interests at stake, and they do not seem to care whether the deadlock is broken or not. In fact they seem rather relieved! And if we do no business till Februray 15th, I think the voters of the State will worry along through without it.”
Having said his piece, he abruptly sat down, and was inundated with “many hearty congratulations from the older members.” Among these, to his intense amusement, were several representatives of Tammany Hall, who apparently thought he had been speaking on their behalf. That night the Evening Post reported that he had made “a very favorable impression,” an opinion that Roosevelt himself modestly shared. He was less nattered with the Sun ’s characterization of him next morning as “a blond young man with eyeglasses, English sidewhiskers, and a Dundreary drawl.” The paper noted sarcastically that Roosevelt’s “maiden effort as an orator” had been applauded by his political opponents; there was a reference to his “quaint” pronunciation of the words “r-a-w-t-h-e-r r-e-l-i-e-v-e-d.”
Nevertheless the speech was successful. Roosevelt’s advice was accepted by his party, and the deadlock continued.
Early in February the Tammany holdouts finally gave in, and Charles Patterson, Democratic candidate for Speaker, was elected. Announcing his committees on February 14, Patterson awarded Roosevelt a coveted position, on the Cities Committee. “Just where I wished to be,” the young Republican exulted. He was not charmed, however, with his mostly Democratic companions on the committee, one of whom was Big John MacManus. “Altogether the Committee is just about as bad as it could possibly be,” he decided, with the wisdom of his twenty-three years. “Most of the members are positively corrupt, and the others are really singularly incompetent.”
Roosevelt lost no time in making his presence felt on the floor of the House. Within forty-eight hours of his committee appointment he had introduced four bills: one to purify New York’s water supply, another to purify its election of aldermen, a third to cancel all stocks and bonds in the city’s “sinking fund,” and a fourth to lighten the judicial burden on the court of appeals. The fact that only one of these—the Aldermanic Bill—ever achieved passage, and in a severely modified form, did not discourage him: he obviously wanted to create the image of a knight in shining armor opposing the Black Horse Cavalry, his term for machine politicians.
As such, he attracted to his banner a tiny group of independent freshman Republicans, like Isaac Hunt and “Billy” O’Neil, who shared his crusading instincts but lacked his flamboyance. The group’s efforts were given wide coverage by George Spinney, legislative correspondent of the New York Times, the first of many thousands of journalists to discover that Roosevelt made marvelous copy. The young reformers supplied their leader with research into suspicious legislation, advised him on correct parliamentary procedure (never his strong point), and attempted to suppress his more embarrassing displays of righteousness. Roosevelt’s ebullience was amusingly recalled forty years later by Hunt, in an interview with the worshipful Roosevelt biographer, Hermann Hagedorn:
HAGEDORN: He was cool, was he?
HUNT: No, he was just like a Jack coming out of the box; there wasn’t anything cool about him. He yelled and pounded his desk, and when they attacked him, he would fire back with all the venom imaginary. In those days he had no discretion at all. He was the most indiscreet guy I ever met. … Billy O’Neil and I used to sit on his coat-tails. Billy O’Neil would say to him, “What do you want to do that for, you damn fool, you will ruin yourself and everybody else!”
HAGEDORN: … He must have been an entertaining person to have around.
HUNT: He was a perfect nuisance in that House, sir!