The story begins when I was a young kid, maybe 12 years old or so, growing up in Rhode Island. I remember sitting around holiday dining tables with extended family and hearing stories about Uncle Joe and his pal, Theodore Roosevelt.
The more I dug, the more I realized this was a story waiting to be told. I found 600 letters that these men had written to each other between roughly 1897 and before Roosevelt died in 1919. That’s a gold mine.
Joseph Bucklin Bishop was a Massachusetts guy. He was born on a farm in Seekonk, the sixth of seven children. The family was not well off—they were dirt farmers. But Joseph was a bright kid. He impressed his teachers in high school to the point that they got him into Brown University in the late 1860s. Despite the fact that his family really didn’t have any money, he worked his way through Brown as a cub reporter and taught night school. He graduated in 1870, and through these connections he had made at Brown, he immediately got a job at the best newspaper in America, the New York Tribune, and went to work for Horace Greeley at 23 years old. Bishop went from being a reporter to an editor very quickly.
He was a very principled guy who had no use for the yellow journalism that was emerging in New York at this time—the scandal sheets and the one-penny sheets. Bishop was moral, he was straight-laced, a little bit boring because of that (laughs). But his nature matched Theodore Roosevelt’s. Roosevelt was from a very moneyed mercantile family in New York City, but he was highly principled as well. These two guys who came from disparate backgrounds had this common bond, which was of principles and a commitment to reform the bad stuff that was going on in government.
They first met when Roosevelt was police commissioner in New York City in the mid 1890s. Roosevelt set out to reform the police department, which at the time was totally corrupt. Every police job was for sale—if you wanted to be a cop, you just paid off Tammany Hall and you got a badge, nightstick, and uniform. More often than not, instead of patrolling the streets of New York, the police officers would find a quiet place to sleep or they’d patronize the prostitutes or go into the bars and collect their paychecks. Roosevelt set out to reform the system . . . Bishop was up in his editorial office at the Tribune watching what Roosevelt was doing, and began writing very supportive editorials when most other papers were criticizing Roosevelt for being this daydreamer. These editorials caught Roosevelt’s attention. They decided to meet one day for lunch, and this was where the alliance was formed.