F.D.R.’s Closest Call: What if He Had Lost?

Last Monday, Jan. 30, marked the 124th birthday of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Sixty years after his death, nearly everyone has forgotten how close we came to never having him as a President.

In 1928, I was a 15-year-old political junkie living in Bensonhurst. The Democrats nominated New York Governor Al Smith for the Presidency, the first time a Catholic from a major party was running for that office. The Republican Party of New York threw Democrats into a funk by nominating Albert Ottinger for Governor. He was the first Jewish gubernatorial candidate in New York history. To counteract the impact of Ottinger’s candidacy on the Jewish vote, which was mostly Democratic, Smith urged F.D.R. to run for Governor, because he was the strongest possible candidate.

F.D.R. had to make a tough decision. Although he was ambitious, he wasn’t sure that his recovery from infantile paralysis had progressed sufficiently. It took a crucial push from his wife Eleanor to get F.D.R. to run.

To further neutralize the impact of Ottinger on the Jewish vote, the Democrats chose Herbert Lehman as the candidate for lieutenant governor. Lehman was well known in the Jewish community. A generous philanthropist, he was active in the prestigious Temple Emmanuel in Manhattan. Moreover, the anomaly of a banker who was liberal in his politics was very appealing. Lehman had been involved in industrial-relations issues and had shown an impartiality that impressed the trade unions. At one time his bank, Lehman Brothers, had even made a loan to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union when it was in financial trouble.

Ottinger, the only Republican who held state office—Attorney General—had an impressive record. He was responsible for closing down the notorious “bucket shops” on Wall Street. However, he hadn’t been especially active in the Jewish world. The Democrats seized upon the fact that he was a “quiet Jew” and compared him unfavorably with Lehman. (Ottinger’s son, Richard, later became a Congressman who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1970.)

As a teenager, I shared the intense political interests of my father, who was a homebuilder in Brooklyn. For reasons I never fully understood, my father was a registered Republican at the time, perhaps because Teddy Roosevelt was one of his heroes. I remember that he received letters signed by two of the most respected Jewish lawyers of the day, Louis Marshall and Samuel Untermeyer, urging him to vote for the Roosevelt-Lehman ticket. These letters went to thousands of Jewish voters, but they didn’t sway my father. He supported Smith for President and Ottinger for Governor—because he was Jewish. And he was much more interested in the gubernatorial race than the Presidential one.

A week before the election, my father took me to a rally to hear Ottinger speak. He devoted a large part of his remarks to proving that he was an authentic Jew and sprinkled his speech with Yiddish phrases. My father was impressed, not least by the fact that a German Jew could speak reasonably good Yiddish!

Hoover easily won the race for the Presidency—one of the nastiest in American history, with Smith’s Catholicism a major issue. Particularly bitter to Smith was his defeat in New York, his home state.

The gubernatorial contest was one of the closest in New York history. Against the national Republican trend, Roosevelt won by only 25,000 votes—less than 1 percent of the four million ballots cast. Brownsville, the most heavily Jewish district in the state, produced for the Roosevelt-Lehman ticket its greatest majority ever for a Democrat—against the first Jewish candidate for Governor. The Democratic leader of Brownsville was the famous Hymie Shorenstein, the only non-Irish leader of a political district in all of Brooklyn.

The result of the gubernatorial race wasn’t known until the morning after the election. My father had bought our first electric radio so that we could listen to the results. We stayed up all night as the race seesawed back and forth between Ottinger and Roosevelt. I recall the announcement after midnight by Ed Flynn, the Democratic boss of the Bronx and F.D.R.’s campaign manager. He said the returns from Republican precincts upstate were so slow in coming in that at 6 a.m. he would dispatch a posse of lawyers to determine what was holding them up. That did the trick. Soon after that, Roosevelt’s election was announced.

F.D.R. made the most of his first two years as Governor and was re-elected by a landslide in 1930. Then, of course, he became the Presidential candidate in 1932 and won a landslide victory against Hoover.

But had he lost in 1928, he never would have become President.

Philip Kaiser served as Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Truman and as an ambassador to Senegal, Mauritania, Hungary and Austria for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter. F.D.R.’s Closest Call: What if He Had Lost?