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'Island of Vice' author Richard Zacks on Teddy Roosevelt's crusade to clean up NYC

Richard Zacks talks about the remarkable Teddy Roosevelt and his failed attempt to take the vice out of New York City.

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Q: As your book showed, one of the top anti-vice activists was an incredible hypocrite. Hypocrisy, of course, is common in many do-gooder movements, as is self-righteousness. But Roosevelt, several years from becoming president, doesn't come across as either a hypocrite or a prig. Is that your sense too?

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A: He wasn't a hypocrite. He was a happily married man who wasn't sneaking off to the brothels. And he was by no means as self-righteous as some of the more church- and temperance-oriented reformers. But he did irritate people.

Q: Why did he think the city needed to be cleaned up?

A: He was a student of how corrupt the municipal governments of America were, how they’d been taken over by corrupt political organizations. He thought if he cleaned up New York, the Sodom of the country, it would have a snowball effect. If you could do it here, you could clean up any city.

Q: On some nights, he'd wander the streets of the city incognito and confront cops who weren't doing their jobs. What would happen?

A: The cops would say "I'm going to beat you!" or "I'm going to fan you!" with their nightstick. That’s when he was really popular. Nobody had so blatantly stood up to the cops like that. This 5-foot-8, 5-foot-9 little aristocrat confronting big Irish guys and lecturing them! I really don't think he did it as a publicity stunt, but it worked out to be one of the greatest publicity stunts. The city loved it at first, and the country loved it.

Q: What turned the city against him?

A: The crackdown on saloons being open on Sundays. When the city realized that this passionate man was actually going to really go through with it and never back down, he became despised in some quarters, and 30,000 people got in the streets to protest his policy. The immigrant cauldron of New York refused to be sober on Sundays. It was going to find a way around this crackdown, and it did, but not in a way anyone expected. They found a loophole, and suddenly everything backfired.

Q: What happened in the long term to Roosevelt's anti-vice and anti-crime efforts?

A: A lot of the things that Roosevelt cracked down on are now legal. He wanted to reinforce laws about not serving alcohol on Sundays; now bars can serve it on Sundays. He was cracking on off-track betting parlors, and now we have those. We have casinos not too far away, and the lottery. Society has just changed its opinions about a lot of the things that Roosevelt was cracking down on.

Q: What about the Wild West nature of New York City?

A: It has definitely gotten tamer. Here's an ultimate example: My teenage son called me. He said, "Don’t worry about me, I'm in Times Square." It's like a mall now. He doesn't know any better.

Q: What can we learn about Roosevelt in this whole story?

A: The big thing that still astounds me is that he did not back down even though he ultimately had a vast majority of the city and police department opposing him. When he took a poll, he took a poll of one: he asked himself what was the best thing to do. They don’t make politicians like that any more.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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