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|Perhaps no better example could be found of the "melting pot" that was America in the early 20th century than this German-Italian-Irish-American hero of the common man: "The Happy Warrior," Al Smith. Though nearly forgotten by most people, Smith was a towering figure in New York state politics for decades and the first Catholic to run for president. WGT's Kevin Gorman reports on a new biography of Smith by Christopher M. Finan.|
But Smith's own progressive ideas were notable in their own right, and his legacy, as both a folksy, self-educated populist and the first Roman Catholic to vie for President, is authoritatively and colorfully presented by Christopher M. Finan in his engaging biography, "Alfred E. Smith, The Happy Warrior."
Smith viewed government as the great dispenser of economic justice for the working class. His activism in the New York State Assembly and subsequently as three-term governor of the state for worker's rights -- particularly those of women and children; for the expansion of public places and parks for common people to enjoy; for water power; and for the issue of Prohibition to be settled at the state level blazed the trail for many of the policies later driven by Roosevelt as a response to the "economic emergency" of the Depression.
|ALFRED E. SMITH: THE HAPPY WARRIOR
by Christopher M. Finan
New York: Hill and Wang
$26 US (Buy now at Powells Books for just $16.95)
Smith was born on December 30, 1873 in the apartment occupied by his parents in Manhattan's Fourth Ward on the Lower East Side, not far from the famous Five Points. His mother was Catherine Mulvehill Smith, whose parents had emigrated from Westmeath to New York in 1841.
|Museum of the City of San Francisco|
Smith, looking every bit "The Happy Warrior"
Gregarious and curious as a child, Al Smith became famous in the Fourth Ward for his showmanship and ability to impress influential parishioners of St. James Church with his remarkable verbal abilities -- a gift passed down from his father. When Al Sr. passed away at a young age, Henry Campbell, a neighborhood philanthropist and prominent member of the Tammany Hall Democratic machine, stepped in to mentor Smith.
Tammany had become the official Democratic Party organization for all of Manhattan and had grown in popularity thanks to its reputation of fighting for the working man. It was that connection that led to Al's first political job, as a process server for the commissioner of jurors. "Smith was not only the most entertaining of the investigators in the office, he was also the smartest, and he eventually became a supervisor," Finan writes. With his success in his patronage position, people in the party were starting to notice Al Smith.
A series of alliances with key Tammany figures such as saloon keeper and district representative Tom Foley, as well as party boss Charles Murphy, helped to propel Smith to the New York State Assembly. Smith and Foley were determined to clean up the corrupt elements of the New York Democratic machine, as Campbell was, and in 1903, Campbell sold 29-year-old Al Smith as the "new kind of man" they needed. Street smart, eloquent and politically shaped by his membership in the St. James Union club, Al Smith was handed his Tammany membership card, and a train ticket to Albany as the district's representative to the New York State legislature.
|A banner from Smith's presidential campaign. (This item is for sale at Mark & Lyn's Antiques).|
Smith grew in influence and prominence in his years in the state legislature, but Finan points out the lightning rod for Smith's career may have been the devastating Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire in 1911. As vice chairman of the Factory Investigating Commission, Smith toured 1,800 factories across the state with other lawmakers and submitted more than 30 laws to protect workers, especially women and children. These were the first examples of Al Smith's desire to reign in the laissez-fair policies that led to conditions at the Triangle and other factories. Smith knew good government must mean service to citizens.
MEET THE AUTHOR
"The Happy Warrior" author Christopher M. Finan will be speaking about Alfred E. Smith and New York's Irish at two Manhattan venues this month -- NYU's Ireland House on Thursday, Feb. 13, and Saturday, March 8, at McNally Auditorium at Fordham University's Lincoln Center Campus. See WGT's Events page for further information.
Though always known as a Tammany Democrat, Smith was able to parlay trust as a member of the Assembly into the leadership of the body, and then as governor of the state. As his reputation blossomed across New York and the Northeast, the party turned to Smith for the greatest run of his life, the 1928 Presidential nomination, and a run against Republican Herbert Hoover.
Finan's book provides good detail on the 1928 campaign. Particularly illuminating is Smith's struggle against powerful anti-Catholic forces in the country, most notably the Ku Klux Clan. The Prohibition movement was also troublesome for Smith. It employed damaging "whispering campaigns," spreading rumors and accusations that put Smith on the defensive. He suffered a crushing defeat, according to Finan, because the nation was simply not ready for a Roman Catholic chief executive.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, left, and Alfred E. Smith. World War II would help mend their relationship.
Thanks to the common ground forged by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Smith settled his differences with FDR, then poured his energies into the war effort. In May 1944, Smith's wife Katie died and "threw Smith into a deep depression from which he would never recover," writes Finan. He died just five months later. Hundreds of thousands passed his casket in St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Smith, the first Roman Catholic to be nominated for the Presidency by a major party, deserves greater renown. His catastrophic loss to Hoover, and subsequent break with the party in 1936 over the New Deal, made him an afterthought for Democrats. Finan's book may help to change that perception, however, and other books such as Robert A. Slayton's "Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith" mean he may be making a posthumous comeback.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about politics, especially in New York, as well as for his portrait of Smith. Finan, president of the American Booksellers' Foundation for Free Expression and former executive director of the Media Coalition, points out that the book, his first, took years to write. I sensed that he had a deadline he just had to meet when I read the last few chapters of the book. The precise detail discovered early in the book is replaced by fast-moving closing chapters.
Finan's narrative is engaging, particularly portraying the ambivalences -- the torment and optimism -- that marked Smith, yet he spends little time delving deeply into Smith's relationships with his children or even his wife in the later years. It is a wonderful overview of one of the least known but greatest politicians in the nation's history.
About the Reviewer: Kevin P. Gorman is a Senior Marketing and Strategic Programs Manager with a global telecommunications provider. He graduated in 1986 from the State University of New York at Buffalo with a BA in History and Political Science. A native of Buffalo and a fifth-generation Irish-American, Gorman and his family are residents of Fairport, New York. A long-time reenactor and member of the Buffalo, N.Y.-based 155th New York Volunteers, he also served as one of WGT's three correspondents at the 140th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Antietam.
|A challenging biography of one of America's most controversial politicians, Alfred E. Smith, who lost the 1928 presidential election by a landslide. Herbert Hoover and the Republicans sailed into office on a wave of prosperity, the promise of a chicken in every pot, and the support of the Ku Klux Klan. The brash, Catholic, anti-Prohibitionist from New York's Lower East Side seemed never to have stood a chance. Buy ALFRED E. SMITH: THE HAPPY WARRIOR at POWELLS BOOKS. .|
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