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Island of Vice

Teddy Roosevelt takes on New York City: the Rough Rider vs. the Rotten Apple

(Page 2 of 2)

The focus of Zacks's narrative eventually shifts from the fascinating vice crusade to what even the police chief who reported to Roosevelt's board, complaining to a reporter, called its "petty quarrels" and "constant bickerings." Most of these were procedural disputes having to do with promotions in the Police Department, part of Roosevelt's efforts to advance the worthiest officers while weeding out the most corrupt. The book would have been better served by condensing the sections on these bureaucratic proceedings, but doing so might not have come naturally to Zacks, an exhaustive researcher who's thorough to a fault throughout the book. (This author doesn't merely note that the mild weather on an Election Day encouraged turnout: he further elaborates that "the front-page 'Weather Prediction' called for 'fair and warmer,' with few clouds and mild southwesterly breezes.") To his credit, Zacks is such a vivid writer – his description of Roosevelt advisor Elihu Root as "waggle-eared, with a push-broom mustache over a weak chin" is typical of his evocative prose – that he manages to breathe some life into even the most tedious workings of municipal government.
Roosevelt's anti-vice campaign brought him national attention, and during his brief tenure as police commissioner he was more popular outside of New York than in it. After the 1895 election, T.R. was recognized for effectively using the police force to prevent the voter fraud rampant during the Tammany days. But his "purity crusade" was blamed for the widespread Tammany gains and Republican losses of that election, and Roosevelt, realizing that his days as commissioner were numbered, began currying favor with likely Republican presidential nominee William McKinley. After T.R.'s two years at the job, Zacks notes, "Despite one of the most concerted efforts in the history of New York City to crack down on whoring, gambling, and after-hours drinking ... all three somehow thrived." By the time President McKinley appointed Roosevelt assistant secretary of the navy in 1897, most New Yorkers were thrilled to be rid of him.

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Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York,, Details, and Spin. She holds a PhD in American Studies.


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