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
Roosevelt’s behavior on the floor, to say nothing of his high voice and Harvard accent, exasperated the more dignified members of his party. When wishing to obtain the attention of the Chair, he would pipe, “Mister Spee-kar! Mister Spee-kar!” and lean so far across his desk as to be in danger of falling over it. Should Patterson affect not to hear, he would march down the aisle with “menacing forefinger” and continue yelling, “Mister Spee-kar!”—for forty minutes, if necessary—until he was recognized.
By the third week of the session proper—his eighth in Albany—Roosevelt had put on a considerable amount of political weight. Actually this weight was an illusion, caused by the delicate balance of power in the House; but he did not hesitate to throw it around. On February 21 he again rose to protest a suggested deal with the opposite side, confident “that enough Independent Republicans would act with me to insure the defeat of the scheme by ‘bolting’ if necessary.” His senior colleagues were aware of this, and the matter was hastily referred to a party caucus that evening. For the next eight hours Roosevelt was beseiged by deputations promising him rich rewards if he would withdraw his objections. “I politely but sweetly and firmly declined.”
At the caucus a machine Republican spoke eloquently on behalf of the deal. It involved an alliance with the Tammany members (breathing vengeance, now, upon the regular Democrats for denying them committee seats) to take away the Speaker’s power of appointment. But this Roosevelt considered to be constitutionally irresponsible and politically demeaning. “As no one seemed disposed to take up the cudgels, I responded, and pitched into him mercilessly and we had rather a fiery dialogue.” Again the young man was successful: his objections were upheld by a narrow vote.
Next morning Roosevelt woke to find himself, if not famous, at least the hero of some liberal newspapers. “Rarely in the history of legislation here,” declared the New York Herald, “has the moral force of individual honor and political honesty been more forcibly displayed.” Privately Roosevelt could take pride in the fact that he had managed to impose his will on his party, without embarrassing it on the floor of the House. “I hate to bolt if I can help it,” he informed his diary.
The tempo of legislation picked up, and the young reformer became aware of the full extent of corruption in New York State politics. About a third of the entire Legislature was venal, Roosevelt calculated. He was shocked to see members of the Black Horse Cavalry openly trading in the lobbies with corporate backers, and he paid particular attention to the bills they were bribed to sponsor—bills worded so ambiguously as to deceive well-meaning legislators.
But for every such bill there were at least ten whose corruptive power was all but impossible to monitor in advance. These “strike” bills were introduced to restrict, not favor, corporations. They seemed to be in the public interest, and redounded greatly to the credit of their sponsors—who, as Roosevelt succinctly put it, “had not the slightest intention of passing them, but who wished to be paid not to pass them.” In other words blackmail, not bribery, was the principal form of corruption in the Assembly.
Roosevelt was confronted with a prime example of such legislation early in March. Representatives of the Manhattan Elevated Railroad asked him to sponsor a bill granting their corporation monopolistic control over the construction of terminal facilities in New York City. Since the sums involved in such construction were huge, the lobbyists said they were “well aware that it was the kind of bill that lent itself to blackmail,” and looked to Roosevelt to ensure that it was voted upon honestly. The young assemblyman scrutinized it carefully. He found that the bill was “an absolute necessity” and agreed to sponsor it, on condition that “nothing improper” was done on its behalf.
No sooner had the bill come up before the Cities Committee, of which Roosevelt was then acting chairman, than corrupt members, scenting the spoils of blackmail, combined to delay its progress. Exasperated, Roosevelt decided to force it through. Since the spoilsmen included Big John MacManus and J.J. Costello, he was aware that something more than parliamentary skill might be required. “There was a broken chair in the room, and I got a leg of it loose and put it down beside me where it was not visible, but where I might get at it in a hurry if necessary. I moved that the bill be reported favorably. This was voted down without debate by the ‘combine’some of whom kept a wooden stolidity of look, while others leered at me with sneering insolence. I then moved that it be reported unfavorably, and again the motion was voted down by the same majority and in the same fashion. I then put the bill in my pocket and announced that I would report it anyhow. This almost precipitated a riot, especially when I explained … that I suspected that the men holding up all report of the bill were holding it up for purposes of blackmail. The riot did not come off; partly, I think, because the opportune production of the chair-leg had a sedative effect, and partly owing to wise counsels from one or two of my opponents.”