Zacks (The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, 2005, etc.) returns with a sharply focused look at Theodore Roosevelt’s brief tenure as a New York City police commissioner.
The author begins and ends with allusions to the naked goddess Diana perched atop Madison Square Garden—his symbol for the sensual interests of New Yorkers that Roosevelt was intent on controlling, if not diminishing to the vanishing point. Zacks sketches the anti-vice career of crusading preacher Charles H. Parkhurst, whose efforts Roosevelt supported and broadened. The incredibly energetic Roosevelt worked long daylight hours and then, often, patrolled the streets at night, checking up on cops to see who was sleeping, drinking, whoring and otherwise neglecting his duty. Frequently accompanying and guiding Roosevelt was journalist Jacob Riis, whose pioneering photo-journalistic How the Other Half Lives highlighted the economic extremities endured by many in the city. As Zacks points out, Roosevelt had initial popular and journalistic support for his efforts at vice control, but when he began devoting many police resources (and lots of political capital) to enforcing blue laws, both the press and the public began to turn against him. Because many workers had only Sundays off, the dry-on-Sunday policy made many working men and women very unhappy. As the political sands shifted beneath him, Roosevelt redoubled his efforts, alienating more voters, and began seeking ways out of his increasingly stressful and polarizing position. Relief came when newly elected President McKinley appointed him the assistant secretary of the Navy. The author takes us inside fin-de-siècle brothels and bars, Tammany Hall and courtrooms, contentious commissioners’ meetings and cops’ barracks.
A nuanced, comprehensive portrait of unique man and the surrounding period, culture and political system.