Book #6

Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith
by Robert A. Slayton, 2001

I’ve always had a soft spot for legendary New York governor Al Smith, mostly inspired by anecdotes I heard in stories about someone else where Smith made a cameo. Like the story of Smith threatening to run against corrupt NYC Mayor Jimmy Walker if the Tammany machine didn’t back FDR for governor. Walker (or someone) asked Smith what ticket he’d run on, and Smith said “I could run on a Chinese laundry ticket and beat your crew!”

My admiration increased tenfold after reading this book. Smith was a moral, naive, hard-working politician who never finished high school but became one of the best New York assemblymen in history by sitting up at night and memorizing the law. He was a progressive who turned against the New Deal because he viewed it as too big and too sloppy (or because he turned against FDR – pick your favorite reason). He was a wet (anti-Prohibitionist) and Catholic who boldly signed anti-Prohibition laws and took pictures with Cardinals, knowing that his enemies would use it against him but not caring.

Slayton’s book is the best history I’ve read of Smith’s life and of the 1928 presidential campaign, probably the nastiest in American history and certainly the only one wherein the KKK organized voters in swing states. It’s also a fine history of urban and Democratic politics in the early 20th century, as Al Smith played a starring role in creating that century’s Democratic coalition. As a presidential candidate he famously lost chunks of the racist South, but he destroyed the Republicans’ historical grip on urban voters and he registered millions of Catholics. For example, he was the first Democrat to win Massachusetts outright. (Woodrow Wilson won it in 1912 only because Taft and Roosevelt split the vote.) What was a solid “brahmin” Republican state voted narrowly for Smith on the strength of mammoth Boston Catholic turnout. And it’s voted for Republicans only four times since – twice for Ike, twice for Reagan.

Definitely one of the strongest political biographies I’ve read. It’s not in paperback, but used hardcover copies aren’t hard to find.

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