01/29/2015 11:22 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

The Vultures of Albany, Past and Present

Yana Paskova via Getty Images

Here's how a young New York State Assemblyman from Manhattan described his colleagues in Albany:

One, he said, was "entirely unprincipled, and with the same idea of public life and the civil service that a vulture has of a dead sheep." Another's "intellectual capacity about equals that of an average balloon." Many big city Democrats could be summarily dismissed as "a stupid, sodden vicious lot, most of them being equally deficient in brains and virtue."

Last week, a New York Assemblyman, Speaker Sheldon Silver, no less, was indicted for, among other infractions, depriving New Yorkers of his honest services as a state legislator. Given those disparaging descriptions above, rendered in 1881 when 23-year-old Theodore Roosevelt arrived as the youngest assemblyman in state history, perhaps the public's expectations of what constitutes honest services has outpaced the evolution of ethical character in the capital.

Silver was accused of collecting fees from law firms for referring clients who had business before the state, a practice that Preet Bharara, the federal prosecutor who embodies Roosevelt's moral indignation, construes as kickbacks. Former Gov. David Paterson, like many present or former legislators, was unfazed by the semantics or the substance of the charges. "People earn money all the time and don't do any work," he said. Anyway, wasn't it Bharara himself who once lamented, "The scandal isn't what's illegal; the scandal is what's legal."

Roosevelt left his law studies at Columbia to accept the nomination of Republican Club of the 23rd Assembly District, the so-called "brownstone district," bounded by East 40th and 80th Streets and Lexington and Seventh Avenues. He was an anomaly, as William Roscoe Thayer recalled in an early 20th century biography.

"Politics were low and corrupt; politics were not for 'gentlemen,'" Thayer wrote "They were the business and pastime of liquor-dealers, and of the degenerates and loafers who frequented the saloons, of horse-car conductors, and of many others whose ties with 'respectability were slight."

While their professional caliber has improved since then and Roosevelt would no longer keep a chair leg handy to guard against physical assault, some of his recollections of his three one-year terms in Albany still resonate, according to A Most Glorious Ride: The Diaries of Theodore Roosevelt 1877-1886, edited by Edward P. Kohn.

"Work both stupid and monotonous," Roosevelt wrote in his diary for January 7, 1882, "Adjourned, without doing anything," he wrote on Friday, Feb. 10, 1882.

As a reformer, Roosevelt never shared Mark Twain's cynical maxim about benign neglect, that "no man's life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session." But he was sanguine when an intramural Democratic stalemate over choosing a predecessor to Sheldon Silver as speaker brought the people's business to a standstill.

"The public," he mused, "as far as I can find out rather approves of the absence of legislation."

Much like today, the rules favored the rulemakers. Mastering mimicry, Roosevelt recorded this exchange between the Assembly clerk and a member from lower Manhattan, Thomas Bogan:

Bogan. "I rise to a pint of ardther (order) under the rules."

Clerk. "There are no rules."

Bogan. "Thin I object to thim!"

Clerk. "There are no rules to object to."

Bogan (meditatively) "Indade! That's quare now; (brightening up, as he sees a way out of the difficulty) Viry will! Thin I move that they be amended till there ar-r-r!" (smiles complacently on the applauding audience, proudly conscious that he has at last solved an abstruse point of parliamentary practice)

Roosevelt reserved his most caustic comments for the Tammany Democratic machine and urban Irish immigrants, most of whom, he wrote, were "stupid looking scoundrels with apparently not a redeeming trait, beyond the capacity for making exceedingly ludicrous bills." One fellow assemblyman he characterized as "a thorough faced scoundrel, and therefore a fitting candidate for the lowest branch of the low New York Democracy." Another, John McManus of the upper West Side, he characterized as "a huge, fleshy, unutterably coarse and low brute, who was formerly a prize fighter, at present keeps a low drinking and dancing saloon, and is more than suspected of having begun his life as a pick pocket."

Roosevelt was nominated for the speakership, but lost when the Democrats controlled the lower house and to a fellow Republican in an intramural feud. But, unlike the majority of his successors in today's Legislature, he collaborated closely with the governor, Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, to enact a reform agenda despite their ideological differences. Roosevelt managed to create a commission to investigate New York City corruption (he wondered why Hubert O. Thompson, the public works commissioner, spent more time hosting an open bar at the Delavan House in Albany than at City Hall) and shifting power and accountability from aldermen to the mayor.

He also fearlessly demanded the impeachment of a State Supreme Court Justice whom he accused of being corrupted by a railroad mogul.

"I paid attention chiefly while in the Legislature to laws for the reformation of primaries and of the civil service and endeavored to have a certain Judge Westbrook impeached, on the ground of corrupt collusion with Jay Gould and the prostitution of his high judicial office to serve the purpose of wealthy and unscrupulous stock gamblers, but was voted down," Roosevelt later recalled.

Even today, the occasional gadfly galvanizes Albany, but Roosevelt was altogether unconventional.
"Even his youth and idealism and ignorance of public affairs could not blind him to the apparently inevitable consequences," The Saturday Evening Post wrote.

"Astonishment verging on consternation filled the Assemblymen, who, through long experience, were convinced that Truth was too precious to be exhibited in public," Thayer declared in his biography.

"The rugged independence of Assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt and his disposition to deal with all public measures in a liberal spirit have given him a controlling force on the floor superior to that of any other member of his party," The New York Times concluded.

"I think TR would be shocked that over 130 years since he served in the Assembly, Albany still has the 'three men in the room' system whereby only the governor, Assembly speaker, and Senate majority leader make just about every major decision facing the state concerning finances and big projects," said Professor Kohn, who has written several books about Roosevelt. "At the same time, I think TR would be heartened by the fact that there was such public outrage this time and that Silver's actions led to his arrest and rapid fall from grace. I think this is a result of TR's lifelong efforts toward good government and a professional civil service.

"I live and work in Turkey, where government ministers have been found with shoe boxes full of millions of Euros," Kohn said. "Everyone here just shrugs. From time to time in Italy they have to send in the army in to remove garbage from the streets, and Russia has special prisons reserved only for corrupt officials and police officers. The fact that Americans can generally rely on clean government and honest public services -- and imprison Illinois governors (I am a native of Chicago, of all places!) and probably New York Assembly speakers when they resort to bribery and influence-peddling -- I think is an important but mostly forgotten part of TR's legacy."