By 1936, two New Yorkers were touted as the greatest political leaders of the century -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Alfred Emanuel Smith Jr. While every American can recall some accomplishments of FDR, only those who lived through the 1920s and 1930s will likely even remember who Smith was.
Al Smith embodied the American dream. A Roman Catholic born in 1873 to second-generation immigrants (his mother was Irish; his father, German and Italian), he rose from the cramped tenements of Manhattan's Lower East Side to the Governor's mansion in Albany. Smith, who dropped out of eighth grade to support his family when his father died, was New York's most progressive and popular governor, running a vigorous race for president against Herbert Hoover in 1928. An inspiring speaker, he generated enormous excitement when he addressed huge crowds around the country. Hoover's landslide victory and the stunning resurgence of anti-Catholic bigotry in the presidential race against Herbert Hoover led Smith to reassess his optimistic, liberal-minded political views and played a role in his subsequent rejection of Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Chris Finan, the president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), has written Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior (Hill and Wang, June), a comprehensive and entertaining biography of Smith's political career, and a fascinating portrait of his vibrant home town. In a starred review, Kirkus wrote that it was "a rock-solid biography.... Well written, thoroughly researched: likely to stand as the definitive portrait of Smith for years to come."
BTW spoke with Finan on the eve of the book's publication party, held on the 80th floor of Smith's most substantial legacy, the Empire State Building (click here for related story).
BTW: In the book you quote Smith's comment that "I would sooner be a lamppost on Park Row than the governor of California." In describing his childhood you write, "Al and his friends learned to swim in the East River with ropes tied around their waists or in large tanks behind the Fulton Fish Market that held live fish during the day." How could such a colorful figure from such an interesting background be forgotten?
CF: He didn't leave letters or much of the "paper trail" biographers want. In addition, his attack on the New Deal has led many historians to believe that he did not deserve the great reputation that he enjoyed in his own day.
BTW: What was so appealing to you about Smith?
CF: I come from a multi-ethnic background that includes Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, and much of the ethnic conflict of Smith's time is not unlike the sniping that occurred in my own family. In addition, Smith came up through Tammany Hall and owed his political career to the machine, but he went against type and became a reformer, leading the fight for factory safety and welfare legislation in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire . He was honest, funny, and principled. He didn't just reject political equivocation -- he called it "baloney." So I was very surprised that no one had written a biography of Smith in over 30 years.
BTW: You are an ardent supporter of First Amendment rights and anti-censorship in any form. Did Smith have a connection to those issues?
CF: He was an eloquent spokesman for free speech. Throughout his early career, Smith fought for groups that were a political minority -- Catholics, Jews, and the residents of cities. He fought Prohibition because he saw it as an imposition on the rights of the minority by Protestant fanatics. So, when the New York Assembly expelled five Socialists in 1919 during the Red Scare, it is not surprising that Governor Smith came to their defense. He also vetoed legislation creating a loyalty oath for teachers and licensing schools based on philosophy.
Smith was also an opponent of movie censorship. However, he did sign legislation requiring the Ku Klux Klan to register with the state and identify their officers. The Klan claimed this was a violation of its members' First Amendment rights. At the time, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Smith, but it later came to appreciate the importance of protecting "anonymous" speech.
BTW: What impact did he have on New York politics -- as a legislator and a governor?
CF: New York politics were extremely corrupt and undemocratic when Smith entered politics. While Tammany Hall has been justly vilified for its crimes, there is little appreciation for the corruption of New York State government. Republicans representing rural portions of the state gained nearly total control of state government by enacting a constitutional amendment that denied urban voters a fair share of power. Smith confronted that system and reorganized it, making it far more responsive to workers and city dwellers.
BTW: The first sentence of the book is "Alfred E. Smith committed political suicide on January 25, 1936." How did the "Happy Warrior" -- the name given to him by his friend, Franklin Roosevelt, who nominated him for president -- get to that terrible point and why?
CF: On that date, at a large gathering of the well-heeled Republicans who called themselves the American Liberty League, he attacked President Roosevelt and the New Deal and appeared to turn his back on the common people he had always championed as "the rank and file." I spend a lot of time on the question of how this unthinkable break occurred. I argue that Roosevelt abandoned Smith long before Smith broke with the New Deal.
I also think that the way Smith was defeated in 1928 made him defensive about the expansion of federal powers under the New Deal. Smith knew he was an underdog -- that it would have been difficult for any Democrat to win in that year -- but he and many others were shocked by the explosion of anti-Catholic bigotry that greeted his nomination. Smith had thought that religious prejudice was a thing of the past, but what else could explain the loss of his own state or the defection of states in the South that had never supported a Republican? In the years after 1928, he became fearful that the Protestant majority would use its power to discriminate against Catholics, Jews, and other minorities, and he began to oppose the growth of federal power during the New Deal. He became stuck on this personal tragedy and lost sight of the need for radical reform to save the nation during the Depression.
BTW: Have you correctly attributed all your quotations, or can we expect a scandal?
CF: To the best of my knowledge, I have. When I started this project, I was using a chisel and stone. Then I switched to a pencil and pen -- I was an early adopter. I took notes on five-by-seven index cards. It's also a lot easier to avoid misquoting or not quoting at all when you have no staff.
Interview by Nomi Schwartz