Thursday, June 21, 2012

Island of Vice

Richard Zacks' latest

Richard Zacks, author of The Pirate Coast (see earlier post, The Pirate Coast, 5/9/12) recently published Island of Vice.  This lively history tells the story of Teddy's Roosevelt's "doomed quest to clean up sin-loving New York" in the early 1890's.  This relates Roosevelt's term as one of the four police commissioners in New York City from 1895 to 1897.  This is the young Roosevelt before San Juan Hill or the white house.  Here he is taking on the corrupt Democratic machine politics of Tammany Hall.  Vice flourishes in a community where the police are paid to look away.  "Big Bill Devery" the Tammany pick for NY Police chief, was fired by a reform mayor, Seth Low in 1902.   Shortly after, he purchased a dozen buildings at auction in Manhattan for the extraordinary sum of $377,800.  He later went on, for example, to purchase with his bookmaker pal, Frank Farrell, a strugling baseball team in Baltimore and brought it north in 1903.  "That ball club which had no official name was soon called the "Highlanders' or "Hilltoppers" but would later take the name the New York Yankees."

Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers that, "Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice (Commander Kelly's italics; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy"

Teddy Roosevelt fairly quavered all his life like a tuning fork set on the channel of righteousness.  He positively hummed with executive energy whether as police commisioner, assistant Navy secretary, Vice president, or President.  His view of righteousness may, at times, have been been narrow.  It is fascinating to see how TR the NYC Police commissioner enforcing blue laws would mellow into the statesman who, as President, won a Nobel prize in 1906 (back in the day when these were earned rather than awarded on the basis of party/ideological affiliation) for helping to end the Russo-Japanese war.

TR by John  Singer Sargent

Hamilton maintained that the executive function required energy and Teddy Roosevelt had plenty.  Evans Thomas' War Lovers (see earlier post Remember the Maine, but Forget The War Lovers, 2/20/12) suggests that it was TR's father's exemption from service during the US Civil War that drove him to becoming a bellicose young man.  Zacks is far more even-handed and sympathetic than Thomas.  He too suggests that TR's attempt to enforce the blue laws in NYC may have been driven, at least in part, by the premature death of his alcoholic brother, Elliot.

Island of Vice contains some excellent scenes that paint a wonderful picture of fin de siecle New York City.  The crusading Reverend Parkhurst trolls through the city's red light district on the sin tour of New York with a gang of worthies.  They are guided to a cross-dressing homosexual brothel.  Parkhurst declares, "to say that the police do not know what is going on and where it is going on is rot...Anyone who with all the easily discernible facts in view, denies that drunkenness, gambling and licentiousness in this town are municipally protected, is either a knave or an idiot."  Roosevelt accosts a sleeping policemen on his beat who responds, "Come on now, get a hustle on before I dump you."  Later that night, noticing an officer in extended conversation with a presumed lady of the evening, TR confronts him thus, "Officer, is this the way you attend to your duty?"  The officer responds, "What are you looking for, trouble?  You see that street?" he said pointing down Second Avenue. "Now run along, or I'll fan you and I'll fan you hard."

A contemporary editorial in the Brooklyn Eagle quoted by Zacks says, "Roosevelt is a good man in the most obnoxious sense of the word.  He is about as unwise and whimsical as can be."  At times TR seems to be entirely quixotic in his attempt to shut down all saloons on Sundays enforcing the existing laws.  He alienated many New Yorkers and many in his own political party in his self-righteous pursuit of crime.  Tammany Hall rebounded sharply in the election of 1895 in reaction to TR's enforcement of the blue laws.

In a telling episode Zacks' book firmly establishes the fact that Teddy Roosevelt did, however, have a sense of humor.  Herr Ahlwardt, an anti-semitic rabble rousing German, planned to give a Jew-bashing speech titled "The Essence of Modern Judaism" at Cooper Union.  On the day of the speech TR requested that "about forty good, true intelligent Jewish members of the force, men whose faces clearly show their race and  and order them to report to me in a body....I want them to keep order at this Ahlwardt meeting tonight."  A potential crisis was thus averted.  Zacks writes, "the police has squelched any riot  and had admirably handled the night.  Editorialists citywide denounced Ahlwardt...Roosevelt's clever and humane strategy of setting Jews to guard a Jew-hater went largely unnoticed and unreported."

Zacks concludes his work, "As in ancient Rome, the vitality of New York City sometimes seems to come more from the crooks than the do-gooders."  Zacks comment is undeniably fair--my favorite line in The Godfather is, "Leave the gun, take the Canolli."  The price we pay for the "vitality of the crooks,"however, is the necessary lack of vitality of so many many of their victims -- 'Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes"!

TR campaigned actively in support of the McKinley ticket in 1892.  It is interesting to note how the political rhetoric of 120 years ago has changed...or not.  TR declaimed then, "Instead of a government of the people, for the people and by the people, which we now have, Mr Bryan would substitute a government of a mob, by the demagogue, and for the shiftless and disorderly and the criminal and the semi-criminal."

At the end of the day, are the interests of the American people served better by energetic political leaders who, though self-righteous, have character, conviction and a boy scout-like determination to improve the world OR by the products of Big City corrupt political machines such as Tammany Hall?  Today, in the light of the conviction of Governor Blagojevich, the Solyndra scandal, and, mostly recently, the invocation of Executive privilege in connection with the "Fast and Furious" scandal, this question and Zack's illuminating book seem more relevant than ever.

In 2014 Richard Zacks reviewed America Invades...

"I would have lost the bet. I had no idea that the United States over its history has invaded almost HALF the countries on the globe. That’s an astounding amount of K-rations and munitions and mayhem, however well-intentioned. Authors Laycock and Kelly, with breezy wit and a dogged pursuit of neutrality, deliver a country-by-country compendium of U.S. intervention. Use it as reference; or, read it cover to cover, sea to shining sea, for the adventures and misadventures of American attacks on foreign soil. An eye-opener! a mind-expander! Can an attack of Bhutan or Lichtenstein be far off? One important final note:  this book is written with respect for the men and women of the U.S. armed forces."

Richard Zacks, author of "The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines and the Secret Mission of 1805" and  "An Underground Education"

You can now purchase Commander Kelly's first book, America Invades or on

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