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Empire Statesman: The Rise And Redemption Of Al Smith

by Robert A. Slayton
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publishing date: 25/06/2007
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9781416567776
  • ISBN: 1416567771

Synopsis

Franklin Roosevelt is said to have explained Al Smith, and his own New Deal, with these words: "Practically all the things we've done in the federal government are the things Al Smith did as governor of New York." Smith, who ran for president in 1928, not only set the model for FDR, he also taught America that the promise of the country extends to everyone and no one should be left behind.

The story of this trailblazer is the story of America in the twentieth century. A child of second-generation immigrants, a boy self-educated on the streets of the nation's largest city, he went on to become the greatest governor in the history of New York; a national leader and symbol to immigrants, Catholics, and the Irish; and in 1928 the first Catholic major-party candidate for president. He was the man who championed safe working conditions in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. He helped build the Empire State Building. Above all, he was a national model, both for his time and for ours.

Yet, as Robert Slayton demonstrates in this rich story of an extraordinary man and his times, Al Smith's life etched a conflict still unresolved today. Who is a legitimate American? The question should never be asked, yet we can never seem to put it behind us. In the early years of the twentieth century, the Ku Klux Klan reorganized, not to oppose blacks, but rather against the flood of new immigrants arriving from southern Europe and other less familiar sources. Anti-Catholic hatred was on the rise, mixed up with strong feelings about prohibition and tensions between towns and cities. The conflict reached its apogee when Smith ran for president. Slayton's story of the famous election of 1928, in which Smith lost amid a blizzard of blind bigotry, is chilling reading for Americans of all faiths. Yet Smith's eventual redemption, and the recovery of his deepest values, shines as a triumph of spirit over the greatest of adversity.

Even in our corrosively cynical times, the greater vision of Al Smith's life inspires and uplifts us.


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  • Quality research and analysis hobbled by compositional gaffes
    From Amazon

    In his short 1958 study of Al Smith, Oscar Handlin noted that "[t]he written word did not come as easily to Al Smith as the spoken word." Because of this, there it no great body of correspondence or private papers for Smith biographers to consult, ultimately hampering any effort to understand "the Happy Warrior." In this respect, Robert Slayton's book stands as a major achievement. Having conducted extensive archival research and interviewed the children and grandchildren of many of the key figures, he presents what is the most thoroughly researched work on Smith that we are likely to have, and easily the most definitive one currently available. Slayton uses this material to present a compelling interpretive portrait of his subject. Tracing his idealistic, even naive view of America to his upbringing, Slayton argues that Smith never grew beyond viewing the world through the prism of the lower East Side. This was not a problem in the context of New York state politics, where he rode the crest of a wave of change in the state, one which brought him into the governor's office as the first holder representing the urban immigrants who were to plan an increasingly important role in politics during the twentieth century. When Smith ventured onto the national stage in 1928, however, his naivete about America's essential decency and tolerance crashed up against the prejudices of an America still dominated culturally by rural Protestant values. Slayton sees Smith's defeat as a decisive event transforming his character, leaving a streak of bitterness that only grew as he saw Franklin Roosevelt - a man he dismissed as his political junior - capture the prize that Smith would never obtain. Yet for all of its strengths of research and analysis, Slayton's book suffers is in its writing. Throughout much of the book Slayton peppers his text with unnecessary slang, and at points such as when he is discussing Tammany or Smith's old neighborhood he adopts a more casual, colloquial tone. The effort jars with the more readable narrative of the rest of the text, appearing as if he were attempting to evoke the conversational style with which Smith was most comfortable. Instead of appearing atmospheric and creative, however, it comes across as amateurish and ham-handed, hobbling rather than helping the rest of the work. These compositional gaffes can distract from the overall quality of this book. Slayton as provided a biography of Smith filled with insight into his character and his times. It is a book, however, that doesn't quite embody the legendary nature of this political figure, who dominated Democratic politics in the 1920s and who heralded many of the changes that America would undergo. Until the book that can capture this is written, Slayton's biography is the best work available for anyone seeking to understand this fascinating individual.

  • A compelling and moving biography of a great American
    From Amazon

    Growing up in New York, it was hard to avoid the name Alfred E. Smith. The huge housing development on the Lower East Side is just one structure that bears his name. But it wasn't until I had read Leon Stein's "Traingle Fire" (for a college paper), when I learned something about the man himself. Later, as another reviewer mentioned, Al Smith was highlighted in the Ric Burns "New York" documentary. Intrigued, I picked up Christopher Finan's "Happy Warrior", which was a very good introduction. However, Professor Robert Slayton's "Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith" has completed the picture for me. Slayton painstakingly examines the complex relationships between Smith and many of the players in his political spectrum, especially FDR. How this contrasts with the simple but deep relationships he had with friends and family is astounding. One of Professor Slayton's main theses--that Smith embodied the best qualities of turn-of-the century immigrant New York--is smoothly argued. For New York, Smith was the right man at the right time. But then Slayton switches gears, with convincing authority, that Smith was the wrong man at wrong time for 1928 America. It is a devestating irony, and grippingly described. I found the final sections about Smith's reconciliation with FDR and America extremely moving. The entire "Finale" section, including the deaths and funerals of Smith's wife, Katie, and then Smith himself, had me choking back the tears. Finally, there is Professor Slayton's reminder of the legacy that Al Smith left behind, both for New York City and the nation. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Rocco Dormarunno Author of The Five Points

  • Mr. Smith Goes to.........Albany
    From Amazon

    The election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency occurred when I was in the seventh grade of my local parochial school. In the Catholic/Democratic atmosphere of East Buffalo, and probably in Tim Russert's South Buffalo as well, the resulting ascendancy of a Catholic to the White House was a vindication. We knew that a Catholic had run once before; in fact, he had been governor of our own state. The popular wisdom of the Catholic grass roots held that the first intrepid candidate had lost because he was a Catholic, and a lot of America did not like Catholics. It did not occur to a seventh grader that people vote for lots of reasons, and that this was true in 1928 as in 1960. Alfred E. Smith, a man of no small accomplishment, lost miserably to Herbert Hoover in a 1928 presidential election that added little to the American character. It may be true that his Catholicism was a major factor in his defeat, but biographer Robert A. Slayton provides a balanced study of Smith that gives reason to pause. We see early in this work that Smith [particularly when compared to Hoover] suffered from major deficiencies in his political upbringing that affected his judgment and contributed to a naiveté about the nature of the American electorate. Born in 1873 in New York's infamous Fourth Ward, there was no way that young Smith would not be baptized into the two religions of his neighborhood: the Roman Catholic Church and Tammany Hall. At his local St. James Parish he received his elementary school education from the Christian Brothers. It is doubtful that he absorbed any particularly subversive tendencies of church and state at St. James. Catholic schools of the time were a laborious financial undertaking for Catholic bishops of the day, who considered them a necessary refuge against the virulent anti-Catholic attitudes of many public school curriculums. What Smith certainly absorbed from his Catholic upbringing was New York's multiculturalism, a phenomenon not understood and generally feared in the predominantly agricultural and Protestant Middle America. Tammany Hall, one of America's most notorious yet beneficent Democratic political machines, would also demonstrate in Smith's day that same ability to adapt to cultural diversity despite its Irish heritage. Tammany was the incarnation of Tip O'Neill's dictum that "all politics is local." Slayton has no argument with this philosophy except to note that it is notorious bad presidential politics. Thus from the formative years Smith emerges as the Catholic/Tammany wounded duck. But Smith postponed his inevitable denouement for a long time. For much of his life his personality, loyalty, affability and attention to detail, not to mention his "made man" status with the Tammany war horses, were enough to see him through his political climb. Despite its size and stature, New York State government was Byzantine and unwieldy. The legislature itself was a purgatory for a man without some kind of particular agenda, and Smith found his in the very organization of state government. With little to do, he became that body's best studied member and probably the best informed of the lot; he had something of Bob Taft's feel for the paper of legislation but with a much more extroverted personality. His counsel became cherished and his respect among his peers flourished. And, he was lucky, though it is also true that men can make their own luck through hard work. On March 25, 1911 a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire in New York killed 146 workers. The dimensions of this tragedy and the accompanying neglect of worker safety made labor reform a statewide issue, allowing Smith to conduct emotional public hearings throughout the state. This exposure, and his public advocacy for a popular issue, put him into the New York State governor's mansion in 1919. With the invaluable help of Belle Moskowitz, Frances Perkins, and Robert Moses, among others, Smith continued his program of reform of the state constitution and generally pleased voters enough to maintain office more often than not in the dreadful decade of 1920's national Democratic defeats. When William McAdoo declined to seek the presidential nomination in 1928, Governor Smith was virtually unopposed within his party. Suffice to say that once he stepped onto the national stage, however, all of his assets of many years became liabilities. His New York bonhomie, his Catholicism, his parochial accent, and his enjoyment of spirits in the age of the Volstead Act doomed his campaign from the start. He was running against the extremely popular Coolidge legacy, against a candidate who knew how to avoid mistakes. To borrow a metaphor from this century, the "red states" were really red, and there were many more of them in 1928. Having said that, there is no denying that the 1928 campaign set the twentieth century low water mark for bigotry and ugliness. Slayton points out that the KKK of the 1920's was primarily an anti-Catholic movement; Jim Crow laws made Negro intimidation relatively unnecessary at the time. Catholicism was understood as a foreign invasion of lower class degenerates who drank excessively and usurped the jobs of present American citizens. The Democratic ticket was seen as an endorsement of this demographic shift, and voters turned upon the top of the ticket with a particular vehemence. Smith's parochialism had not prepared him for this, and the intensity of feeling against him, along with the size of the defeat, seems to have left psychological scars that remained with Smith for the rest of his life. After this grueling ordeal, it galled Smith all the more that the perceived savior of his party was a man he considered a political lightweight, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As long as FDR lived, Smith would never get his electoral revenge. Coupled with the debacle of managing the day's tallest white elephant, the new Empire State Building, Smith's "redemption" makes only a cameo appearance in this work.

  • Underappreciated
    From Amazon

    The book does a very nice job of describing one of the more important, but forgotten, figures in US political history. Smith's role as governor of New York and the various groundbreaking reforms he introduced, his mentorship of various figures from FDR to Robert Moses, and of course being the first Catholic to run for President would be enough to rank him right up there with some of the more widely written about icons of America. When you consider two of his top four advisers were women (this is the 1920's, mind you), his role in building the nation's tallest building at the time, his emergence as a spokesperson for the immigrant masses who became a political force during his era (and the subsequent, seismic shift this caused in the nation's political landscape - he was the first Democrat to lose the Solid South since the Civil War), his being one of the first politicians to speak out against Hitler, and that he did all this without even attending high school, Al not only deserves a high quality biography but perhaps a major motion picture as well. John Cusack in the lead!

    The book is occasionally "cheerleady" - superlatives come landing out of left field in the midst of other, more traditional descriptions of events. It is, however, critical and frank in other areas of Smiths career, so it reads in a balanced fashion overall. It is a great read and one that should be read by anyone interested in the US political landscape and how it got to what it is today.

  • the man & the monument
    From Amazon

    there is a largely-forgotten statue of al smith on the lower east side at the corner of monroe & catherine streets, but i like to think of the empire state building as the true monument to al smith. at the time perhaps the building was a financial failure, but it was simultaneously a symbol of hope even during the depression when it was being built. only a man like al smith had the vision to help create a monument of such optimism during such bleak times - but more importantly, he did so with the intention of providing a symbol of hope to his fellow nyers. (a symbol, i might add, that has renewed importance in post-9/11 ny.)

    i appreciate & love the fact that reading lists in nyc have been expanded to include the writings & histories of all the races & creeds & cultures that have come to nyc. but as a white, working-class, catholic nyer, i have noticed a real lack of identity awareness or cultural heritage. this biography of al smith fills that void: by presenting al smith and his beliefs, it not only describes the immigrant experience of catholics at the turn of the century, but shows too how great men like al smith were key in helping the various catholic immigrant groups (irish, italian, polish, etc) to become mainstream, integrated americans in this formerly predominantly-protestant country. the anti-catholic impulse in america is largely forgotten, & in fact it is also forgotten that there was a time when white catholic americans were certainly not considered part of the white ruling class.

    in addition, i love the fact that al smith's life & legacy point to another subculture: the progressive catholics. this term is not an oxymoron; at one point in american history, catholics were on the frontlines of many progessive agendas. this book provides an insight into a church that might have been.

    i strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in american history or politics, but moreso to anyone who wants to examine the relationship of ny to the rest of america or how the aspects of class and religion (& not just race) influenced the poltical and cultural climate of america in the 20th century.

    al smith was a hero of the working class, a hero of immigrant groups, a hero for catholics, for liberals, for new deal democrats, and ultimately for all americans. it is a shame that most people - even nyers - don't even know his name. this book is a huge step toward remedying that tragedy.

    very highly recommended!

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