Is the “Catholic Issue” Really Behind Us?

November 2001By John C. Chalberg

John C. Chalberg teaches American history at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith.  By Robert Slayton. The Free Press. 480 pages. $30.



Al Smith may have been the consummate “Happy Warrior.” But was he also a naïve “Happy Warrior”? It seems impossible. After all, Smith was a Tammany Hall product who climbed to the top of the Empire State’s greasy political pole. What’s even more impressive is that for the better part of a decade he managed to stay there as well. Happy or no, he surely must have discarded any hint of credulity along his precarious way. Not so, concludes his most recent biographer, Robert Slayton. Having chronicled the gradual rise, brief fall, and ultimate “redemption” of Al Smith, Slayton is convinced that his subject might well have become president, save for his refreshing, if politically debilitating, unworldliness. Then again, perhaps Slayton himself could be accused of naïveté for suggesting that the Al Smiths of America’s present and future do stand redeemed — and all because of the Al Smith who went before them.

Slayton’s portrait of Smith is at once endearing, even affectionately so, and jarring, even harshly so. His Smith is both hard-nosed and open- (if not exactly soft-) hearted. On his way up that greasy pole he was equally at home in smoke-filled rooms and on campaign trails. But in 1928 Tammany Hall’s Al Smith proved to be little more than a babe in the woods. At least such is Slayton’s judgment on Smith during and immediately after his campaign for the White House, a campaign which Slayton characterizes as the “dirtiest in American presidential history.” And it is this campaign that lies at the heart of, and provides the rationale for, this biography. In 1928 Governor Al Smith may have been perched atop New York’s greasy pole, but when it came to national politics he could never rise high enough to avoid drowning in a “sea of hate.”

No doubt every defeated presidential candidate attributes his loss to the dirty tricks and underhanded tactics of his opponent. And no doubt there have been occasions when that loser has been right. For that matter, there have been elections in which the winner could claim to have been the object of the most negative campaign in the history of the republic. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln spring immediately to mind.

Where does all of this leave Al Smith’s not exactly narrow defeat of 1928? In all likelihood, if he hadn’t drowned in that sea of hate, he would have been done in by an ocean of prosperity. Herein lies a problem for both Smith and Slayton: If the years between the Civil War and the Great Depression constituted an era of Republican dominance, the decade of the 1920s was a time of overwhelming Republican supremacy. Therefore, it’s hard to imagine that any Democrat could have defeated Herbert Hoover in 1928, especially since this was not the hapless Hoover of the Depression years, but the heroic Hoover of wartime famine relief and the heralded Hoover of the postwar Commerce Department.

That the size of Smith’s defeat in 1928 had something to do with his Catholicism almost goes without saying. The same might be said of his naïveté about how certain elements within the country were going to react to his Catholicism. But Smith’s crushing loss was also attributable to such factors as his New York twang, his stand on Prohibition, his Tammany Hall connections, all of which placed him on the non-WASP (and at that time losing) side of what constituted the culture wars of the 1920s. Come 1928, Al Smith’s basic dilemma was not simply who he was. Nor was it his refusal to disguise who he was. It was also who he was when and where he was. And those days may not necessarily be behind us.

Slayton would like to think otherwise. Hence his “redemption” for Al Smith. Of course, Smith had no personal political salvation. Come 1932 he did not get the second chance that he very much thought he deserved when the Democrats gathered to choose the candidate who would defeat the suddenly and permanently hapless Hoover. Instead his party turned to Smith’s protégé and successor as Governor of New York, Franklin Roosevelt, otherwise routinely referred to (by Smith) as “that boy” (both before and after his elevation to the presidency). Poor Al Smith. In 1928 he lost the White House to the man Calvin Coolidge contemptuously characterized as the “boy wonder.” Four years later he lost the nomination to the man he persisted in dismissing as a less than wondrous “boy.”

Embittered by the unfairness of it all, Smith could not even find temporary redemption away from politics. The presidency of the Empire State Building was to have been his ticket to financial security. Here was one pole that he didn’t have to climb. Instead he was simply handed a $50,000-a-year consolation prize only to find that both he and this monument to American optimism were together drowning in a sea of red ink.

By the mid-1930s this one-time progressive reformer and would-be man of wealth was consorting with anti-Roosevelt Liberty Leaguers, or men who had never lost their shirts and had never had progressive principles to spurn. It all would have been so sad had this “Happy Warrior” not been who he was.

And who was that? To Will Rogers, Al Smith was the “most sentimental prominent man” he had ever encountered. Neither a Harvard man nor a Yale man, Smith was simply a forthright “FFM man” (as in proud graduate of the Fulton Fish Market). He was also unabashedly proud of his country, his party, and his religion. An ambitious but unpretentious politician, Al Smith was, according to Slayton, at bottom a “trusting soul.” As such, he was inclined to take his country, his party, and his religion very much for granted. That is to say, he “believed in and trusted” an America that was truly tolerant of ethnic, racial, and religious differences, a Democratic Party that was a haven for various minorities, and a Catholic Church that was simply a part of him.

A man of religion, but not of theology, Smith never flaunted his Catholicism, “but it was always there.” And he always presumed that voters, whether New Yorkers or beyond, would understand that — and would never, never hold it against him. After all, if the Lower East Side of New York was a mosaic of tolerance, how could the whole of America not prove to be tolerant as well? Smith would learn otherwise in 1928.

Here was a self-identified Irish-American (whose paternal grandfather was actually Italian) who did not so much learn politics as exude it. In full possession of “natural self-confidence,” the young Al Smith initially set out to craft a career in the theater. Having acquired a flawless memory and a flair for the dramatic, the budding actor then decided to become a politician. The only way for this New Yorker to begin his climb was through Tammany Hall. It is, however, important to note that this was not the Tammany Hall of William M. (“Boss”) Tweed, but rather the Tammany Hall of Charles Francis (“The Silent Boss”) Murphy. Patronage remained a crucial component of the Murphy regime, but under Murphy’s tutelage Smith learned that there was more to politics than graft and power. When it came to making appointments, Murphy often preferred experts to hacks. And when it came to progressive legislation, Murphy frequently aligned his machine with the reformers rather than against them. For example, workers’ compensation became a reality for New Yorkers only when Tammany Hall got behind it. In Slayton’s estimation, Murphy’s endorsement of “progressive thinking had an enormous impact on Al Smith.” So did the Triangle Fire of 1911. That inferno, which consumed the lives of 146 garment district workers, “fundamentally altered how Al Smith viewed the role of government.” State government, that is.

Here Slayton’s contribution is twofold. He amply demonstrates that Smith was anything but a late convert to progressive reform. And he correctly contends that Smith remained a progressive reformer until the end of his days, rather than to the onset of the New Deal. In other words, Smith’s objections to FDR’s New Deal were not those of conventional Liberty Leaguers. To Smith, the Rooseveltian error was that he federalized reform. Al Smith, in sum, was simultaneously an old-fashioned states’ rights Jeffersonian Democrat and a believer in the efficacy of governmental power, albeit state governmental power.

The contest of 1928, therefore, was between two old progressives who disagreed very little on the role of government in the economy, whether before the crash of ’29 or after (albeit between two old progressives who downplayed their reform-minded pasts in the campaign). Nonetheless, there was a contest in 1928, and it was waged between two men, Al Smith and Herbert Hoover, who represented two very different Americas.

Smith, of course, had sought the Democratic nomination in 1924 only to be rebuffed by the dry, Protestant, rural wing of the party. Four years later he had no strong opponent. But Slayton attributes his victory to something more than that. By 1928 Al Smith was “so identified with the principles of religious tolerance, personal liberty, and social equality that a refusal to nominate him would have been regarded as a rejection of those principles.” But the nomination was one thing and the general election quite another.

Smith was convinced that he could win if he carried the then Solid South plus New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. He also believed that his candidacy represented America at its best. After all, as a state legislator and as governor he had made assimilation work — and not by requiring that New Yorkers surrender their folkways, but by expecting (as Slayton puts it) that they “perform as citizens.” How refreshing!

When those same citizens rejected him in November, Citizen Smith was stunned. More than that, he never really recovered from that defeat. But biographer Slayton still insists that he was — and remains — redeemed. If only that might be so. If only a Catholic could run as a Catholic and be elected as a Catholic (and not deny his Catholicism as John Kennedy felt compelled to do in 1960), then Al Smith might actually stand redeemed.

Granted, Smith ran and lost as a cultural Catholic. The social issue of the 1920s pitted pro-wets against pro-drys, not prolifers against pro-choicers. (At the same time, Slayton notes that feminists tended to be pro-Hoover, because both Hoovers, Herbert and Lou, were solidly pro-contraception.) Nonetheless, Smith simply asked the voters to take him as he was — and was roundly defeated in the process.

“Let’s look at the record,” was the standard Smith rejoinder, no matter the issue. He would have preferred that that “record” be limited to matters of public policy. But it proved impossible to separate Smith the man from his record in what Slayton concludes was the “strangest and sickest” campaign in our history. One need look no further than the wet-dry divide to make this point. Were Smith’s dry opponents sincerely committed to their dryness or were they really anti-Catholic bigots or were they more than a little bit of each? The Smith camp had no way of answering that question. The result was a “diabolical trap” into which candidate Smith had no choice but to fall. In attempting to defend himself, Smith decided to attack what he thought was Republican-inspired bigotry in general, thereby alienating large numbers of voters who felt that they were being unjustly accused of prejudice.

One of those who felt that attack was Lou Hoover, the highly cosmopolitan wife of the Republican candidate who repeatedly insisted that she despised bigotry. But she was also highly loyal to her husband and “exquisitely sensitive” to any attack on him. As the campaign sludged on, her defensiveness “soon overwhelmed both her cosmopolitan edge and any charitable feelings” she may have had for Smith. In the end she found nothing wrong with denigrating Catholicism and denied that it was the mark of a bigot to think that Catholicism was a “grievous sin.”

In 1928 many Americans who were far less worldly-wise than Mrs. Hoover sincerely believed that they were free of prejudice. They also thoroughly resented being linked with, say, the KKK just because they questioned the loyalty of American Catholics. The result was a no-win situation for Al Smith. If he ignored the whispered (and at times openly) anti-Catholic campaign against him, he feared he was doomed to defeat. And yet if he confronted it, he risked antagonizing virtually all of non-Catholic America.

Either way, Al Smith faced defeat in 1928. More than the loss of a political office, he also “lost his innocence in that terrible season of hate.” At least such is the judgment of Robert Slayton. His only consolation — and Smith’s — is that innocence lost means redemption achieved. At least such is the fate of Al Smith in the hands of an innocent Professor Slayton. Innocent? Slayton would have us believe that because of Al Smith the “Catholic issue” has been put behind us. Really? If the dry issue was enough to torpedo a cultural Catholic in 1928, what will be the fate that awaits an orthodox, prolife Catholic who might seek the presidency in this presumably enlightened age? Nothing less than the savage fury of the most cosmopolitan bigotry that secular America can muster. They won’t wait for feelings of defensiveness to surface. Instead, they will be instantly on the attack, as they smugly declare their innocence of any charge of bigotry. Move over, Lou Hoover, and make way for the truly grievous sinners of today.



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