Frank and Al: FDR, Al Smith, and the Unlikely Alliance That Created the Modern Democratic Party By Terry Golway • St. Martin’s Press • 2018 • 336 pages • $29.99
Alfred Emanuel Smith is one of the buried treasures of American politics. He is remembered, if at all, as a loser. He lost the presidency to Herbert Hoover in 1928—was clobbered, in fact—primarily because he was a Roman Catholic, the first to receive a major party nomination. But also because he was the personification of urban America during the last moment when rural America still ruled. He talked in a Noo Yawk squawk, which sounded harsh and alien on the “raddio,” as he called it. He looked like an 1890’s bartender, hair parted in the middle, stogie planted in his mouth, derby hat jaunty. His was the Lower East Side equivalent of the traditional log cabin myth, a graduate of the Fulton Fish Market, and a loyal son of Tammany Hall. America simply wasn’t ready for such a creature in the Roaring Twenties.
What is not remembered about Al Smith is that he was probably the greatest governor in the history of New York—and, before that, the state’s greatest legislator. He surrounded himself with a brilliant team—Belle Moskowitz, Frances Perkins, Robert Moses, Joseph Proskauer, and others—and, together, they created the model for the American welfare state. He was, furthermore, a mentor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took what he learned from Smith and created the New Deal.
The tangled, tragic story of Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt is one of the great tales of American politics, and Terry Golway—author of Machine Made, the smartest history of Tammany Hall out there—has told it beautifully. This is a joyous book, a celebration of the roots of the modern Democratic Party. Golway loves both Frank and Al, and he brings both to life with passion and knowledge. Frank and Al is an especially important book now, given the unwelcome return to our national life of the same “all-American” bigots who opposed Smith.
The 1920s were a time of nativism, isolationism, and protectionism, just as ours is. The decisions made by the decade’s three Republican presidents—Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Hoover—salted the clouds for the Great Depression that followed. They produced the harsh immigration act of 1924 (aimed at halting the tide of Eastern and Southern Europeans—that is, Jews and Italians), which throttled population growth; the Smoot-Hawley tariffs (in 1930), which crippled economic growth; and an unregulated financial sector, which produced the stock market crash of 1929. The new Democratic Party of Smith and Roosevelt, the party of immigrants and idealists that dominated the next 50 years, was the antidote to that constricted, reactionary time—and the harbinger of a more diverse, urban, and cosmopolitan America.
Tammany Hall is at the heart of the story. Like Smith, it is easily caricatured, the ultimate big city machine. It was founded just after the American Revolution and led by Protestants—“Boss” William Tweed was the most notorious—but was overwhelmed by Irish immigrants in the late nineteenth century. It was a network of saloons and social clubs that performed the basic functions of a welfare state—providing jobs, food, clothing, housing, ice in the summer, and coal in the winter to the urban poor in exchange for their votes. It also was an extremely efficient protection racket, taking its share of the profits from the city’s prostitution and gambling parlors. But as a second generation of Irish leadership—the first born in America—came to power at the turn of the twentieth century, Tammany changed. It still made a fortune from “honest graft,” the skimming of profits from public works projects, but the new generation, led by Charles Francis Murphy—the sphinx-like saloonkeeper who became Tammany’s greatest boss—understood that their constituents needed protection from the excesses of the Industrial Revolution.
The catalyst was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, which killed 146 sweatshop workers, mostly immigrant women. Some of them jumped to their death from the eighth and ninth floors of the factory building, while others died trapped behind a locked door. Boss Murphy understood that Tammany had to respond. He directed his two most talented protégées, Al Smith of the Lower East Side and Robert Wagner from the German-American neighborhood of Yorkville, on the Upper East Side, to secure legislation that would prevent a recurrence. (It should be noted that the Irish and Germans had an alliance based on a common love of malt beverages and hatred of reformers like Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who tried to enforce a ban on the consumption of such beverages on Sundays.)
Al Smith had arrived in the state legislature in 1904, a reward for his assiduous political work in the city’s toughest neighborhood, Five Points on the Lower East Side. He was lost at first, embarrassed by his ignorance of how the place worked. He remedied the deficit by reading the entire state appropriations bill, line by line. Soon he was reading all the bills and, after that, conjuring up the strategies to pass those he (and Murphy) favored. By 1913, he had become the speaker of the Assembly; Wagner was the president of the state Senate. Together, the Tammany Twins, as they were known, passed historic fire safety laws, followed by limitations on the hours worked by women and children, workmen’s compensation, aid to widows and orphans; the rudiments of a welfare state. Joining them in this effort was Frances Perkins, a dynamic young social worker who staffed a commission that investigated factory conditions across the state. (She would go on to become FDR’s labor secretary, the nation’s first woman Cabinet member.) Smith was elected governor in 1918. Ultimately he served four two-year terms. By 1923, Golway writes, Smith’s agenda included money “for public health programs for rural counties, for new conservation programs and the creation of new state parks, for child welfare programs, for new laboratories for the state Health Department, and for a housing board to help finance slum clearance and the construction of new housing.” All of this was accomplished while Smith cut the state income tax by 25 percent.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt arrived in Albany in 1910, a charming yet feckless state senator. One of his first acts was to oppose a local emolument—a new bridge in Wappingers Falls, which was in his district. “You ought to have your head examined,” Tammany’s Big Tim Sullivan, a fellow state senator who had championed workplace reform legislation and would die of tertiary stage syphilis, remarked to Roosevelt. One of FDR’s next acts was to go to war against Tammany, calling Boss Murphy “a noxious weed.” His campaign had less than no effect. FDR was something of a joke to the Tammany boys, a perfect foil; he knew little about legislating and lacked Smith’s passion to learn. Frances Perkins would remember that Roosevelt had little interest in workplace reform, at first. “No no, more important things . . . can’t do it now,” he told her when she tried to lobby him. She thought him “absurd,” and the idea that FDR was nothing more than a handsome silly boy lingered among Al Smith’s closest associates even after he had proved otherwise. FDR made amends with Tammany by 1917 and supported Smith for governor in 1918. By 1922, Roosevelt was even giving the governor political advice. “[Roosevelt] even hinted, gently, that perhaps Smith might take a stab at national issues,” Golway writes. “Why not issue a statement about flood prevention in the Mississippi Valley? . . . [But] Smith always seemed to have something else to do.”
Roosevelt was, in fact, a political genius. He never got around to studying the bills; he studied people instead. And he became a man of compassion, ballast, and steely strength after he was crippled by polio in 1920. Indeed, the Smith team soon realized that Roosevelt had his uses: He could be Al’s upstate Protestant beard. By 1924, FDR was posing as chairman of Smith’s first presidential campaign—the real boss of the operation was Belle Moskowitz, another former social worker—and, slowly, proving his worth and loyalty, selling Smith to Democratic Party delegates from the mountains and prairies. It was a tough sell: The Ku Klux Klan had more delegates than any other faction at the 1924 convention. Smith had enough strength to block the Klan’s candidate, William Gibbs McAdoo, but not enough to win. A compromise candidate, John W. Davis, snagged the nomination on the 103rd ballot.
The most memorable moment of that long, sweaty ordeal was the public resurrection of Franklin Roosevelt, who struggled to the podium in heavy leg braces to nominate Al Smith, “the Happy Warrior”—a line Roosevelt hated privately—for the presidency. His presence was electric. The New York World called him the “real hero” of the convention. And FDR’s speech is the hinge point of Frank and Al, a story that becomes more poignant as Roosevelt ascends and Smith recedes.
Smith won the nomination in 1928, but was pummeled nationally by a basket of anti-Catholic deplorables. “The whole Puritan civilization which has built a sturdy, orderly nation is threatened by Smith,” wrote William Allen White, the famed Kansas editor. This was one of the more decorous attacks. Even those who weren’t bigots had trouble imagining Smith as President: He was the remnant of a bygone era before automobiles and microphones. There was no way he could win. At the same time, FDR ran for governor of New York, at Smith’s insistence—Roosevelt didn’t think his legs were strong enough yet. He won, despite Hoover’s Republican landslide. Moskowitz and Robert Moses, whom Smith had launched as the czar of New York’s public spaces, assumed they would continue to run the show in Albany, but they were shut out after Eleanor told her husband that he must decide “whether you are going to be Governor of this state, or whether Mrs. Moskowitz is going to be Governor of this state.”
A split ensued. Many of Smith’s inner circle—Frances Perkins, Bronx boss Ed Flynn, political fixer James Farley and, ultimately, U.S. Senator Robert Wagner—joined Roosevelt’s team; Moskowitz and Moses stayed loyal to Smith. The Happy Warrior himself was anything but happy. He challenged FDR for the presidential nomination in 1932 and lost, then lapsed into jealousy, bitterness, and ugly politics, joining the right-wing Liberty League in opposition to the New Deal. Smith and Roosevelt finally reconciled in the late 1930s, mutually appalled by the rise of European fascism. But Smith’s reputation was permanently damaged by his flirtation with the right—and by his inability to understand Roosevelt’s sly political genius. “He was the kindest man who ever lived,” Smith would later say of FDR, “But don’t get in his way.”
Golway’s triumph is to make the long neglected case that Roosevelt was, ultimately, the product of Boss Murphy’s Tammany reform movement. “In making Al Smith’s cause his own,” Golway writes, “Roosevelt bridged a chasm between the party’s elite progressives and its working class liberals, between Hyde Park and the Lower East Side . . . ” It was a coalition that dominated for the next 50 years, until another politician with a first-rate temperament, yet very different politics—Ronald Reagan—stole the white working class from the Democrats.
Obviously Frank and Al has great relevance now, as Democrats struggle to regain a governing coalition. It is an argument for politics, not purism; for favors, for vote trading, for “earmarks,” like the bridge in Wappingers Falls, that lubricate the legislative process. It is also a reminder that conviction without charm is a dead end in American public life (with one notable, current exception, who succeeded despite his complete lack of both). The most successful Democratic presidents—like Roosevelt, Truman, Clinton, and Obama—have shared this combination of expansive spirit, emotional intelligence, and stubborn strength necessary to lead a diverse nation. In 2016, neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders had the size to win. Being “likable enough” is not enough.
Tammany is remembered as an Irish-American institution, but it was more than that: It was the exemplar of the cosmopolitan, New York model of American expansion, rather than the withered “Puritan” society that William Allen White celebrated. Its goal was inclusion. Al Smith’s passion was that the new immigrants, the Jews and Roman Catholics, be assumed Americans, not treated differently. The welfare state he created benefited Protestant cannery workers in upstate New York, as well as immigrant garment workers in the city. His Democratic Party, and FDR’s, stood for the proposition that government had a role to play in protecting the innocent, but that American diversity could only thrive when all people were treated equally, without tribal distinctions.
The past cannot be recaptured, nor should it be. The New Deal, along with the Great Society, created an elaborate industrial age safety net (minus a much-needed universal health-care system) that needs to be customized for the digital age. But there is a greater challenge. The Democratic Party has slipped into an identity trap; it has become a creature of caucuses, rather than a force for creative heterogeneity. This fragmentation cripples its ability to counter the reactionary enemies of American greatness—the nativists, protectionists, racists, and isolationists—who, sadly, remain the same as they were in Al Smith’s day. In America, you don’t fight tribalism with tribalism, or anger with anger. You fight fear with optimism, myopia with vision, and bigotry with the Declaration of Independence.