Teddy Roosevelt, An Early Urban President

Theodore Roosevelt is known as many things: a naturalist, hunter, rough rider and, of course, president. A new book argues it was his time in Manhattan, not the West, that forged him into the politician and man we now read about in history books. Host Scott Simon talks with author Edward Kohn about his new book, Heir to the Empire City: New York and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And before President Obama, the most urban president in U.S. history was a big game hunter and a rough rider, a man who knew how to shoot an elk and tame stallions. But...

EDWARD P. KOHN: His masculinity wasn't necessarily forged in the west as a cowboy, but actually much more so in the contact sport that was New York politics back in the 1880s.

SIMON: Teddy Roosevelt, who is actually from Manhattan, not the badlands. Edward P. Kohn has written a new book, "Heir to the Empire City: New York and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt." He says that TR's first great political rival was New York's Tammany Hall political machine.

KOHN: There was this kind of unholy alliance among Democratic politicians and office seekers, the police, and local bosses. This is exactly one of the things that brought Theodore Roosevelt into politics in the first place, is that office seekers would pay for an office and the bosses would support Democrat for mayor; the mayor would get elected, would place the people in offices. And why would you want these offices that seem kind of benign? Like, why would you want to be city clerk? Because you collected all the money and fines for the city and inevitably thousands of dollars of this would end up in your pocket.

SIMON: I was very touched in reading stories in your book about when he was the New York City police commissioner, for which he has no visible qualifications the way we would understand it today.

KOHN: You're right.

SIMON: He walked a beat with Jacob Riis, the great muckraking journalist who wrote about New York's poor in the tenements. What did he learn on those tours?

KOHN: I think he learned - it's really amazing that we see brownstone-born, Harvard educated, cosmopolitan Theodore Roosevelt, who's multilingual, really loving, just as much as he liked to get dusty in the west, he liked to get dirty in Manhattan. I mean, he saw inside the tenements and he would remember some of the scenes later, even in his autobiography, of several families living in a single room, of the scraps of food in the corner right next to the bedding.

Probably no American president for the next 100 years had such an intimate contact with America's working urban poor in New York City with the immigrant poor as well. And it also helped him get this almost holistic understanding of what it meant to live in a city, how all the different parts, working for the safety, health, security, housing, labor; all of these things interconnected.

And so even though he was only police commissioner, I think those couple years really gave him a broader understanding of the ills and challenges facing a rapidly urbanizing America.

SIMON: Roosevelt became President in 1901 when he was vice-president. President McKinley was shot while at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. He became the youngest President in U.S. history. How did what he learned in New York match up with what confronted the United States?

KOHN: I can't think of a person perhaps more perfectly suited to become president at the beginning of the 20th century. When Roosevelt was born, only about one in five Americans lived in large towns or cities. By the time he became president, that number was 40 percent, double. And Roosevelt was keenly aware of this, and he even noted this in his first address to Congress, that the largest demographic change that the United States was going through at the time was urbanization.

He had this complete understanding of the ills facing a modern urbanizing, industrializing America. And so from tenement reform and housing, labor, trusts, immigration, Roosevelt was in a perfect place to help institute the reforms that we come to know as the progressive era. He wasn't a rural progressive, he wasn't a populist from west of the Mississippi. His progressive era reforms were the reforms of an urbanite.

SIMON: You wind up saying that New York City not only made Teddy Roosevelt a strong but gave him a sense of responsibility that maybe - is unusual in some political figures.

KOHN: I think that's right. You know, this is a time in American history where it's a complete laissez-faire economy. Government is hands-off anything having to do with people's individual welfare. You know, Roosevelt is police commissioner in New York, for instance, you know, during what is the Great Depression of the late 1890s when every government official from the President to the governor to local officials are saying it is not government's responsibility to take care of the poor or the hungry or the homeless.

And this is one of the things that makes Roosevelt, really, for the turn of the century, such a radical to actually expound the idea that, no, government is responsible; not for creating equality but for fostering equality of opportunity and equality before the law.

SIMON: Edward P. Kohn of Bilkent University in Turkey. His new book, "Heir to the Empire City: New York and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt." Thanks so much for joining us.

KOHN: Thank you, Scott.

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