THEODORE ROOSEVELT: HOW WE OVERTHREW CORRUPT TAMMANY HALL
Internauta offre al Rottamatore, come a chiunque altro sogni di combattere la corruzione, la testimonianza di chi vinse una grossa battaglia contro la cupola del malcostume a New York: Theodore Roosevelt. Aiutato, come i suoi quinti cugini Franklin Delano e Anna Eleanor, dal fatto d’appartenere a una famiglia del grande patriziato, a 37 anni il Nostro fu messo a capo del Police Board della metropoli. Il successo fu totale: governatore dello Stato a 40 anni, presidente degli Stati Uniti a 43, premio Nobel per la pace a 48. Ecco come raccontò la sua bonifica nella rivista Atlantic (1897).
“In New York, in the fall of 1894, Tammany Hall was overthrown by a coalition composed partly of the regular Republicans, partly of anti-Tammany Democrats, and partly of Independents. Under the last head must be included a great many men who in national politics habitually act with one or other of the two great parties, but who feel that in municipal politics good citizens should act independently. The tidal wave, which was running high against the Democratic party, was undoubtedly very influential in bringing about the anti-Tammany victory; but the chief factor in producing the result was the widespread anger and disgust felt by decent citizens at the corruption which under the sway of Tammany had honeycombed every department of the city government.
The center of corruption was the police department. No man not intimately acquainted with both the lower and the humbler sides of New York life -for there is a wide distinction between the two- can realize how far this corruption extended. Except in rare instances, where prominent politicians made demands which could not be refused, both promotions and appointments toward the close of Tammany rule were almost solely for money, and the prices were discussed with cynical frankness. There was a well-recognized tariff of charges, ranging from two or three hundred dollars for appointment as a patrolman, to twelve or fifteen thousand dollars for promotion to the position of captain. The money was reimbursed to those who paid it by an elaborate system of blackmail. This was chiefly carried on at the expense of gamblers, liquor sellers, and keepers of disorderly houses; but every form of vice and crime contributed more or less, and a great many respectable people who were ignorant or timid were blackmailed under the pretense of forbidding or allowing them to violate obscure ordinances, and the like.
In May1895, I was made president of the newly appointed police board, whose duty was to cut out the chief source of civic corruption in New York by cleansing the police department. We could not accomplish all that we should have liked to accomplish, for we were shackled by preposterous legislation, and by the opposition and intrigues of the basest machine politicians. Nevertheless, we did more to increase the efficiency and honesty of the police department than had ever previously been done in its history.
Beside suffering, in aggravated form, from the difficulties which beset the course of the entire administration, the police board had to encounter certain special and peculiar difficulties. It is not a pleasant thing to deal with criminals and purveyors of vice. It is a rough work,and cannot always be done in a nice manner.
The Tammany officials of New York, headed by the comptroller, made a systematic effort to excite public hostility against the police for their warfare on vice. The lawbreaking liquor seller, the keeper of disorderly houses, and the gambler had been influential allies of Tammany, and head contributors to its campaign chest. Naturally Tammany fought for them; and the effective way in which to carry on such a fight was to portray with gross exaggeration and misstatement the methods necessarily employed by every police
force which honestly endeavors to do its work.
Tammany found its most influential allies in the sensational newspapers. Of all the forces that tend for evil in a great city like New York, probably no other is so potent as the sensational press. If the editor will stoop, and make his subordinates stoop, to raking the gutters of human depravity, to upholding the wrongdoer and assailing what is upright and honest, he can make money.
In administering the police force, we found, as might be expected, that there was no need of genius, nor indeed of any very unusual qualities. What was required was the exercise of the plain, ordinary virtues, of a rather commonplace type, which all good citizens should be expected to possess. Our methods for restoring order, discipline and efficiency were simple. We made frequent personal inspections, especially at night, going anywhere, at any time. We then proceeded to punish those who were guilty of shortcomings, and to reward those who did well. A very few promotions and dismissals sufficed to show our subordinates that at last they were dealing with superiors who meant what they said, and that the days of political “pull” were over while we had the power. The effect was immediate.
A similar course was followed in reference to the relations between the police and citizens generally. There had formerly been much complaint of the brutal treatment by police of innocent citizens. This was stopped peremptorily by the obvious expedient of dismissing from the force the first two or three men who were found guilty of brutality. On the other hand, if a mob threatened violence, we were glad to have the mob hurt. If a criminal showed fight, we expected the officer to use any weapon that was requisite to overcome him on the instant. All that the board required was to be convinced that the necessity really existed. We did not possess a particle of the maudlin sympathy for the criminal, disorderly, and lawless classes which is such a particularly unhealthy sign of social development.
To break up the system of blackmail and corruption was less easy. The criminal who is blackmailed has a direct interest in paying the blackmailer, and it is not easy to get information about it.
It was the enforcement of the liquor law which caused most excitement. In New York, the saloon-keepers have always stood high among professional politicians. Nearly two thirds of the political leaders of Tammany Hall have been in the liquor business at one time or another. The influence the saloon-keepers wield in local politics has always been very great, and until our board took office no man ever dared seriously to threaten them for their flagrant violations of the law. On the other hand, a corrupt police captain, or the corrupt politician who controlled him, could always extort money from a saloon-keeper by threatening to close his place. The amount collected was enormous.
In reorganizing the force the board had to make, and did make, more promotions, more appointments, and more dismissals in its two years of existence than had ever before been made in the same length of time.The result of our labors was of value to the city, for we gave the citizens better protection than they had ever before received, and at the same time cut out the corruption which was eating away civic morality. We were attacked with the most bitter animosity by every sensational newspaper and every politician of the baser sort, because of what we did that was good. We enforced the laws as they were on the statute books, we broke up blackmail, we kept down the spirit of disorder and repressed rascality, and we administered the force with an eye single to the welfare of the city.
Our experience with the police department taught one or two lessons which are applicable to the whole question of reform. Very many men put their faith in some special device, some special bit of legislation or some official scheme for getting good government. In reality good government can come only through good administration, and good administration only as a consequence of a sustained -not spasmodic- and earnest effort by good citizens to secure honesty, courage, and common sense among civic administrators. If they demand the impossible, they will fail; if they do not demand a good deal, they will get nothing. But though they should demand much in the way of legislation, they should make their special effort for good administration. A bad law may seriously hamper the best administrator, and even nullify most of his efforts. But a good law is of no value whatever unless well administered.
(Theodore Roosevelt , 1897)