Urban Precedents

In the excitement over the USA’s first black American President, some people have become over-excited. An example is Marbury, who claims Barack Obama is also the nation’s first urban President.  This is simply not the case.

Although most US Presidents are creatures of the countryside or the suburbs, there have been at least two Presidents with as much claim to be urbanistas as does young Bam. Most recent was John F. Kennedy, raised in Boston and a sophisticated habitue of London, Washington and New York City before becoming President. Of course, as all rich kids of his time did, he spent summers sailing on the Cape or vacationing in Florida, but JFK was as urban as they come.

And before JFK, a century ago, there was Teddy Roosevelt, born and raised in Manhattan, and urban to the core. Of course he loved Nature (he could justly also claim the title of the country’s first Environmentalist President), and he decamped to the wilderness of the North Dakota Badlands to find himself after the death of his first wife. But this was a man who was such an urban-dweller that he took the job of President of the Police Commission of the New York City Police Department – the NYPD! – literally running to his office on the day of his appointment, according to the account of his friend, the journalist Lincoln Steffens. While in that post, Roosevelt spent his evenings walking the streets of Manhattan to meet his policemen on the beat:

T.R. went about  at night with [journalist Jacob] Riis as his guide to see the police at work.  He had some bizarre experiences.   He caught men off post, talking together; he caught them in all sorts of misconduct and had funny, picturesque adventures, which Riis described to all of us [journalists] (so fair was he as a reporter) and which we all wrote to the amusement of newspaper readers.  But what T.R. was really doing – the idea of Riis in proposing it – was to talk personally with the individual policemen and ask them to believe in him, in the law, which they were to enforce.  T.R. knew, he said, the power they were up against, the tremendous, enduring power of organized evil, but he promised he would take care of them.”

Walking the streets of Manhattan at night is not the behaviour of a President Cornpone. Obama is the third urban President the USA has had, not the first.

Lincoln Steffens [1931]:  The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens.  (New York, USA:  Harcourt Brace and Company.)

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