At the library not long ago I happened upon a fairly short and solid read titled Heir to the Empire City: New York and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edward P. Kohn.
It’s made my suggested reading list for: a) people like me who are probably wayyy too into New York politics, b) people like me who are fascinated by language and how words shape thinking, and c) those of us who wish today’s politicians were … how do I put this … as intellectually fortified as TR.
Kohn (pictured below on The Daily Show) chairs the History Department at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey – not a perch New Yorkers would consider a ringside seat into our politics and political mindset.
But Kohn makes a compelling case that TR’s thinking and style was formed far more by his early political career in New York City than his time out west or with the Rough Riders.
Namely, TR’s “urban progressive” philosophy was forged pushing reform in the hiring and promoting of city workers, and fighting graft and corruption in municipal contracting, elections and more.
In each case, Roosevelt’s view of progress meant fighting for the “have-nots” against the “haves,” despite the fact that TR himself was as much a “have” as anyone.
Perhaps the best case in point is the 1896 New York heat wave that killed 1,500 people in 10 days, and TR’s efforts to ensure that poor people got ice they needed to make it through the hot days and nights.
As Kohn tells it, the New York City ice market was controlled by a speculator named Charles Morse, later known as “the Ice King” after he consolidated New York City’s ice business and gave company stock to the Mayor and other Tammany Hall cronies.
Morse kept prices high and out of the reach of the city’s poor – at a time when babies were dying of heat exhaustion in Lower East Side tenements and dead horses were rotting in the streets.
TR, as police commissioner, worked with private charities to buy ice and organized giveaways at station houses. He ordered beat cops to hand out coupons to families in their neighborhoods that guaranteed them ice. Twenty thousand families were served the first night and even more the next.
A man of means and privilege, Roosevelt defined progressivism as coming to the rescue of people trapped in circumstances not of their creation. He saw a city government co-opted by political henchmen in cahoots with moneyed interests to protect their own mutual sweet deals.
Faced with an insider system in which one hand washed the other, TR created a progressive movement that fought for the rights of the folks who got stuck with the dirty water.
TR’s role in making sure people got a fair shake during the 1896 heat wave provides a contrast for today’s self-anointed progressives who oppose anything that would provide an alternative to the current school system or challenge the existing educational power structure.
From Mayor de Blasio and his fellow “progressives” in New York and elsewhere, we see a concerted effort to preserve the deals of those who control things, at the expense of those who don’t.
Families who want school choice are the ones who can’t move to the suburbs, can’t help their kids get into the city’s elite test-based specialized public high schools like Brooklyn Tech or Stuyvesant, and can’t pay $45,000 a year for Dalton or Fieldston.
It’s hot where they live and they’re looking for ice.
Why do so many of today’s “progressives” try so hard to keep them from getting any?