Rosy View of the Happy Warrior Who Shaped Modern New York

Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith , by Robert A. Slayton. Free Press, 480 pages, $30.

In 1998, Time magazine preemptively celebrated the end of the American Century with a party in honor of the 100 most important people of the last 100 years. It was a silly list, of course, slanted toward the recent and the photogenic (Pelé?). Al Smith, who fit neither category, was ignored, though he arguably did more than anyone to shape modern New York. But Smith was obliquely summoned when Bill Clinton, speaking in praise of Franklin D. Roosevelt, called F.D.R. “the Happy Warrior.” In fact, that was the nickname Roosevelt used to nominate Smith for the Presidency in 1924 and 1928 though it takes no great leap of the imagination to apply it to Roosevelt. Drawn from the unlikely pen of William Wordsworth (hardly a favorite in Smith’s Fourth Ward), the phrase aptly sums up the ferocious optimism needed, then as now, to enter the lists against the party of privilege.

Long before Henry Luce decided the century was American, Al Smith personified the hopes of millions of immigrant families, drawn like moths to the torch held aloft by the Statue of Liberty. Their brutal struggle to claim its promise was mirrored by his Promethean rise from the mire of local politics, and their staccato setbacks were no less reflected by his scalding experience in the 1928 Presidential election. In a new biography, Robert Slayton takes a relentlessly roseate view of Smith he suggests a “redemption” I was unable to detect but he tells a story worth retelling, both for Smith’s time and our own.

Alfred Emanuel Smith entered the world in 1873, in a cold-water flat his parents rented at 174 South Street, facing the East River and the colossus being built to span it. Years later, he recalled, “the Brooklyn Bridge and I grew up together.” Surprisingly, this Irishman’s paternal ancestors were Italian-American a century before Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro appeared to be smashing taboos. His story comes straight out of Horatio Alger or more precisely, Benjamin Woolf, the forgotten hack whose play The Mighty Dollar inspired the teenage Smith with its brazen promise that anyone born in the United States could run for President. Smith saw the play over and over, he acted in it and he lived it.

Even in childhood, Al stood out for the usual reasons we see in turn-of-the-century urban parables character, kindness to animals and devotion to his mother (his father died when he was 11). Eddie Cantor, remembering their youth together, said, “What a guy.” Jimmy Durante, another contemporary, recalled some of the places they frequented: “Those joints were as tough as the steak off a ten-year-old cow.” Al dropped out of school to support his family, and soon found that his stentorian voice qualified him for interesting jobs: announcing boxing results as they came in off the ticker tape and crying from the roof of the Fulton Fish Market to announce the arrival of the day’s catch (Al brought home so much free fish that he suffered a recurring Melvillean nightmare of a huge fish chasing him for revenge).

His smashmouth talents soon brought him to the place toward which all ambitious young men of the Fourth Ward tended: Tammany Hall. He ably served two bosses (Tom Foley and Silent Charlie Murphy) and was rewarded with election to the New York Assembly. At first, no one took him seriously, and he nearly quit in frustration (holding up a pile of bills, he said, “I can tell a haddock from a hake by the look in its eye, but in two hundred years I could not tell these things from a bale of hay”). Yet he slowly mastered the tools needed for a legislative career. He worked hard, made friends and became a crucial linchpin between Tammany and the Progressive reformers people whose accents differed from his own, but whose hopes for the city were equally fervent.

The pivotal moment of this emerging alliance came on March 25, 1911, the day 146 people were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (the last survivor, Rose Freedman, just died on Feb. 15). Smith dominated the investigating commission and the legions of reforms it forced through. Mr. Slayton argues persuasively that between 1911 and 1915, the work of Al Smith and Robert Wagner “changed the way we lived,” from fire safety and other industrial reforms to a vastly streamlined state government. In 1913, he became Speaker of the Assembly; five years later, he was elected Governor (he was the first child of immigrants to occupy either position). These were his salad days. He served four terms, traveling everywhere with his brown derby and cigar, belting out his signature tune, “The Sidewalks of New York,” and pushing through truckloads of progressive legislation. Back in the Fourth Ward, he was a god.

Inevitably, his success at leading America’s State brought Presidential nibbles. It went with the territory between 1904 and 1948 there were 12 elections, and a quondam Governor of New York ran in eight of them (the Subway Series occurred in 1944, when F.D.R. beat Dewey). The 1924 Democratic convention was held in Madison Square Garden, but it turned into a disaster as delegates deadlocked between Smith and Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law, William Gibbs McAdoo. Over an agonizing 103 ballots, all the divisions roiling the party were brought into the open, live on radio. Southerners, ultra-Protestants and temperance nuts (the three were often the same) opposed Smith zealously, and the K.K.K. burned him in effigy in New Jersey. Smith’s disciples fought back, foreshadowing the great cultural divides over the Scopes trial and the Sacco and Vanzetti case. Finally, a compromise candidate emerged, the forgettable John W. Davis, routed by Coolidge in November.

Al’s friends took solace in the knowledge that the numbers were with them (the 1920 census showed the country was more urban than not), and that Americans had been moved when Franklin D. Roosevelt braced his stricken body to christen Al “the Happy Warrior” in his nominating speech. Four years later, Smith was poised to claim his nomination. He had more supporters than ever, including the first celebrity endorsements (Babe Ruth and Irving Berlin, who penned “We’ll All Go Voting With Al”). But after snagging the nomination, Smith discovered just how much hatred can be stirred up by trying to move America forward. Fundamentalists foamed at the mouth even more than usual as they catalogued his various Romish unsuitabilities for the post. Photos of the newly built Lincoln Tunnel proved to the faithful that the Pope had a secret conduit to reach Al (no one explained what the Pope was doing in New Jersey). One crank betrayed the spirit of the times when he complained that Al Smith represented “card playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorces, novels, stuffy rooms, dancing, evolution, Clarence Darrow, overeating, nude art, prize fighting, actors, greyhound racing, and modernism.” (Who wouldn’t vote for that platform?) Another blamed the foxtrot and the bunny hop on him. The Klan burned crosses at his speech sites and predicted that this citizen of “Jew York” would appeal to the “Jew-Jesuit movie gang who want sex films.” Ah, the good old days.

Smith ran a courageous campaign, and used his moderate powers of eloquence to defend himself. He never stood a chance, and was crushed in the election, losing even New York. If he found grim satisfaction in Hoover’s inept response to the Depression, it was counteracted by his own financial problems and the vertiginous rise of his protégé, “Frank” Roosevelt. Smith’s cronies thought F.D.R. a lightweight (they played on his initials to call him “Feather Duster”), but anointed him to fill Smith’s seat as Governor in 1928. Smith watched with growing resentment as he grew into the job, was easily reelected in 1930, then proceeded to his rendezvous with destiny in 1932 and beyond. Smith challenged F.D.R. for the nomination, lost gracelessly and pouted throughout the New Deal, even branding Roosevelt a Communist stooge. To his credit, F.D.R. ignored the attacks, and they reconciled in 1941.

Robert Slayton reveres Smith too transparently but he dutifully records the painful history of Smith’s final years. Appropriately, the symbol of New York’s aspirations became the helmsman for the Empire State Building a job that became a millstone when the building was unrentable for years in the Depression (skeptics called it “Smith’s folly”). Traces of the old Al remained he denounced Hitler earlier than most, probably because the brownshirts reminded him of what he’d been through in 1928. But his speeches, once so expansive, seemed small and selfish. The Happy Warrior was now the Miserable Non-Combatant, more at home with the animals of the Central Park Zoo than the zookeepers running New York and America. When the book reaches his death in 1944, it comes as a release. Still, 200,000 people filed past his bier in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Of course, this was not the end of Al Smith. In 1958, Oscar Handlin wrote a trenchant short biography of Al Smith that began with the question, “Can a Catholic ever be President of the United States?” It was reviewed for The Washington Post by Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and the question was answered by Kennedy’s victory in 1960. Today, Jews can run for Vice President, and Catholics are as American as apple pie, accepted by all outside the kluxus of Bob Jones University where the Pope is called the Antichrist, where George W. Bush defined “compassionate conservatism” (spelled with a C, not a K) and where John Ashcroft is an honorary alumnus. Maybe, as John T. Scopes once discovered, we haven’t evolved quite as far as we think we have.

Ted Widmer served on the National Security Council from 1997 to 2000. He teaches history at Washington College.

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