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13 January, 2012
Chapter VI: Fighting Office-Seekers
by Pearson, Edmund Lester
|To tell the story of Roosevelt's life it is necessary to talk much
about politics, and that to some people is a dull subject. But he
was in political office over twenty years of his life, always
interested and active in politics, and the vigor which he brought
to his duties made public affairs attractive to thousands of
Americans who had felt little concern about them.
This alone was a great service. If a man is going the wrong way in
political life, if he is trying to do unwise or evil things, he is
a danger, but a danger which may be corrected. He may be made to
turn his efforts in useful directions. But the man who takes no
interest at all in the government of his city, state or nation,
who is so feeble that he cannot even take the time to vote on
election day, but goes hunting or fishing instead,--this man is a
hopeless nuisance, who does not deserve the liberty which he
enjoys, nor the protection which his government gives him.
Politics, when Mr. Roosevelt was active, were not dull. Few men
have ever made them so lively and interesting. Every activity in
life meant something to him, a chance for useful work or for good
fun. He had a perfectly "corking time," he said, when he was
President, and the words shocked a number of good people who had
pardoned or overlooked dirty actions by other public men, so long
as these other men kept up a certain copy-book behavior which they
thought was "dignity."
It is a question if any man ever had a better time, ever had more
real fun in his life, than did Mr. Roosevelt. In spite of the hard
work he put in, in spite of long days and weeks of drudgery he
knew how to get happiness out of every minute. He did not engage
in drinking and gambling for his amusements. He did not adopt a
priggish attitude on these matters,--he simply knew that there
were other things which were better sport. He was a religious man,
a member all his life of his father's church, but religion did not
sour him, make him gloomy, or cause him to interfere with other
people about their belief or lack of it.
He got an immense amount of pleasure in his family life, in half a
dozen kinds of athletic sports, especially the ones which led him
outdoors, and in books. In these things he was marvelously wise or
marvelously fortunate. Some men's lives are spent indoors, in an
office or in a study among books. Their amusements are indoor
games, and they come to despise or secretly to envy, the more
fortunate men who live outdoors.
Some of the outdoors men, on the other hand, become almost as one-
sided. Knowing nothing of the good fun that is in books they deny
themselves much pleasure, and take refuge in calling "high-brows"
the men who have simply more common sense and capacity for
enjoyment than themselves.
Mr. Roosevelt, more than most men of his time, certainly more than
any other public man, could enjoy to the utmost the best things
the world has in it. He knew the joy of the hard and active life
in the open, and he knew the keen pleasure of books. So when he
returned to America after his marriage in 1886, he built a house
on Sagamore Hill at Oyster Bay on Long Island. Here he could ride,
shoot, row, look after his farm, and here in the next year or two
he wrote two books. One was the life of Gouverneur Morris,
American minister to France in the early years of our nation; the
other a life of Senator Thomas H. Benton of Missouri.
But he was not long to stay out of political office. In 1888
President Cleveland had been defeated for reelection by the
Republican candidate, Benjamin Harrison. The new President
appointed Mr. Roosevelt as one of the Civil Service Commissioners,
with his office in Washington.
Most politicians are charged, certainly Mr. Roosevelt was
sometimes charged, with being a selfish seeker after personal
advancement. There is not much on which to base this argument in
Mr. Roosevelt's acceptance of this office. For the man who is
looking out merely for his own ambitions, for his own success in
politics, is careful of the position he takes, careful to keep out
of offices where there are many chances to make enemies. The Civil
Service Commission was, of all places at that time, the last where
a selfish politician would like to be. Nobody could do his duties
there and avoid making enemies. It was a thankless job, consisting
of trying to protect the public interests against a swarm of
office-seekers and their friends in Congress.
It is ridiculous now to remember what a fight had to be waged to
set up the merit system of the Civil Service in this country. The
old system, by which a good public servant was turned out to make
room for a hungry office-seeker of the successful political party,
was firmly established. Men and women were not appointed to office
because they knew anything about the work they were to do, but
because they were cousins of a Congressman's wife, or political
heelers who had helped to get the Congressman elected. Nobody
thought of the offices as places where, for the good of the whole
country, it was necessary to have the best men. Instead, the
offices were looked on as delicious slices of pie to be grabbed
and devoured by the greediest and strongest person in sight.
The Civil Service Commission, when Mr. Roosevelt became a member,
had been established by Congress, but it was hated and opposed by
Congress and the Commission was still fought, secretly or openly.
Congressmen tried to ridicule it, to hamper it by denials of
money, and to overrule it in every possible way. A powerful
Republican Congressman and a powerful Democratic Senator tried to
browbeat Roosevelt, and were both caught by him in particularly
mean lies. Naturally they did not enjoy the experience.
At the end of his term, President Harrison was defeated by Mr.
Cleveland, who came back again to the Presidency. He re-appointed
Mr. Roosevelt, who thus spent six years in the Commission. When he
retired he had made a good many enemies among the crooked
politicians, and some friends and admirers among well-informed men
who watch the progress of good government. He was still unknown to
the great body of citizens throughout the country, although he had
been fighting their fight for six years.
He went from Washington to accept another thankless and still more
difficult position in New York City. It was one which had been
fatal to political ambitions, and was almost certain to end the
career of any man who accepted it. This was the Presidency of the
Board of Police Commissioners.