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Book Review: Heir to the Empire City

By (December 1, 2013) One Comment

Heir to the Empire City: New York and the Making of Theodore Rooseveltheir to the empire city

By Edward P. Kohn

Basic Books, 2013

Edward Kohn isn’t the first historian to do it, but he’s nevertheless entirely correct in reminding his readers, in his taut and interesting new book Heir to the Empire City, that when it came to shaping an image for public consumption, Theodore Roosevelt was a grand master from a very young age – and that for a complex combination of reasons (some cultural and a good many personal), the main image he chose was that of what one of his New York legislature enemies scornfully referred to as “a genuine dude.”

In fact, Roosevelt’s well-(and of course self-)publicized adventures in the “Badlands” of  the Dakota territory took up a comparatively small fraction of his life. He went there (he would have disliked “fled there,” but it’s perhaps more accurate) in the aftermath of the deaths of his beloved mother and his cherished first wife, who died on the same day in the same house within hours of each other – a horrifying conjunction that brought Roosevelt as close to utter despair as he ever came.

In the Badlands he learned some things he might not have learned otherwise in the aristocratic Gilded Age New York circles into which he’d been born and in which he’d moved during his vacations from Harvard and his time as a young Assemblyman. He learned how to do with very little ready cash. He learned the true solace that great books could provide. He learned that the crack of thunder and the lash of sleet on his cheeks would not kill him. He learned that he could take a bare-knuckle punch thrown in anger by a bigger man – could take a few, in fact, and pay them back in kind. He learned the ways of the great American frontier right before it vanished completely (he was the last American president who would ever learn those ways).

In the parlance of our technological age, the West reset him. When he returned to New York he leapt into vigorous public life, always with that maddening Rooseveltian mixture of egotism and altruism. When he became president of the board of New York City Police Commissioners in 1895, he found himself in effective command of 4000 policemen at the very epicenter of Tammany Hall corruption, and here Kohn’s story really hits its stride – as indeed how could it not? It’s the stuff of fictional melodramas, only writ large as only real life can do it: a tireless, fearless, utterly incorruptible man encountered a teeming world of negligence, larceny, graft, and brutality (the statistics Kohn quotes on police beatings alone will curl his readers’ toes a bit) – encountered all this, looked it squarely in the face, and instantly set about bending all of it to his will. A friend from his Boston days wrote to him in worried tones, “Theodore, a system that entrenched will crush you” – to which he replied so heatedly the nib of his pen punctured the paper: “We shall see who does the crushing! By thunder we shall!”

New York saw quickly, and Kohn tells the tales with relish. Some of those tales will no doubt be familiar to some of his readers (they’ve formed the backdrop for more than one series of murder mysteries, for instance, and they were very energetically dramatized by Caleb Carr in his bestselling novel The Alienist)(they were also the subject of an excellent History Channel production with the priceless tag-line “Every jungle needs a king”) – Roosevelt breaking down corrupt officers caught red-handed taking bribes, Roosevelt facing down back-dealing politicians expecting he had a price, most famously Roosevelt going out on impromptu 2 a.m. patrols in order to see if his officers were awake, sober, and at their posts. Kohn narrates it all with a clean thoroughness and occasional glints of dry humor:

When Roosevelt took office in early 1895, between 12,000 and 15,000 saloons were operating in New York City. Within a few months, Roosevelt had been successful in closing 97 percent of them on Sundays, stopping the flow of some 3 million glasses of beer. As a result, by the summer of 1895, Roosevelt had become the most unpopular man in New York City.

The most refreshing thing about Heir to the Empire City is the way it never loses sight of the bigger picture: the Theodore Roosevelt in these pages is always going to survive his future military adventures and become President of the United States, and Kohn keeps his story-line tense with the foreshadowing of those great changes. Particularly he sees clear hints in the police commissioner of the commander in chief: “Whether for city mayor, state governor, or president of the United States,” he writes, “enhancements of executive power would be a hallmark of Roosevelt’s political thought.”

This analysis is undoubtedly true, and it certainly worried all of Roosevelt’s enemies – and those of his friends who cared about the rule of law. It’s the tension between indomitable will, which can err, and due process, which can be perverted, that forms the tension at the heart of this book – and the tension makes for good reading.