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tv   The Contenders  CSPAN  August 6, 2016 8:00pm-10:03pm EDT

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new york al smith, democratic candidate in 1928. this two-hour program was sen. mccain: i come here tonight knowing i am the underdog in these final weeks. if you know where to look, there are signs of hope. even in the most unexpected places. even in this room full of proud manhattan democrats. i can't shake that feeling that some people here are pulling for me. [applause] i am delighted to see you here tonight, hillary. [laughter] pres. obama: i was thrilled to get this invitation. i feel right at home here because it is often said i share the politics of alfred e. smith
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and the ears of alfred e. newman. [laughter] it is an honor to be here with al smith iv. obviously, i never knew your great-grandfather. but from everything senator mccain told me - [laughter] the two of them had a great time before prohibition. [laughter] al smith: of course i am delighted, but not surprised, by the final repeal of the 18th amendment. i have said all along that when it was properly submitted to the rank and file of our people, they would readily see that it had no place in our constitution. it would be very difficult if not impossible to explain to those who come to this country from the lesson taught to the coming generation, to make it their business to see that no such matter as this is ever again made the subject of federal constitutional laws. a peter sien: you have been listening to the 2008
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presidential nominees talking at and that year's al smith dinner followed by al smith himself you talking about the lifting of prohibition in 1933. will welcome to "the contenders" series. we come to you from the state a assembly hall in albany, new york where al smith served for 12 years before being elected governor and becoming the democratic nominee for president. in our guests for the next two 1928. hours and the life and career of al smith, john evers. he is the former historian for the new york state assembly. he is a ph.d. candidate and is doing his dissertation on al smith. we are also joined by beverly gage of yale university. she is the author of "the day wall street exploded." she is a history professor. if you could, set the scene for us to begin. 1928, the united states.
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what was going on in this country? what are some of the issues we will be discussing? prof. gage: the 1928 election is one of the most interesting and also one of the most vicious elections in american history. we have two candidates who really embodied two different americas that are coming into conflict in the election. so we have al smith, the subject tonight. al smith is urban, he is from new york city. he is an irishman. he is catholic. he represents a kind of immigrant, urban america that has come of age in the last 30 years. on the other side, we have as a republican candidate herbert hoover who in many ways can hardly be more different than al smith. he is from the midwest. he is from iowa. he is very straitlaced. he is not urban.
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he is pious. he wears very starchy collars. these two men really encapsule some of the most important political and cultural clashes of that moment. clashes over prohibition. to some degree, clashes over the economy. in many ways, this turns out to be a cultural election that hinges on which of these two americas is the america that will be voted into office. peter: it was said that the three p's influenced this election -- prohibition, prosperity, and prejudice. prof. gage: i think they really do capture it. we have al smith who is one of the nation's biggest critics of prohibition. it has been in effect for almost a decade. it has been a real problem for
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most of that time, and throughout al smith has said it is a bad idea not only because it infringes on freedom, but because it is causing a law-enforcement crisis. there are many people who are concerned about this. by what is going to happen to 1928. prohibition is one of the big questions. we have herbert hoover on the other side. in terms of prosperity, of course, both of them are running in favor of prosperity. the problem for al smith is you had eight years of republican rule. in the presidency by that point. first warren harding, followed by calvin coolidge. the republicans have a leg up on the prosperity front. you had the 1920's. it has been a boom decade for wall street and for large segments of the economy, although less for farmers and agriculture at that point. i think the darkest part of this election and the reason i said it really is one of the most vicious elections in american history is our third "p," the question of prejudice.
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al smith -- i think most americans today are more familiar with john kennedy as a catholic candidate. that caused a real stir even in the 1960's. a real set of questions about the presidency. al smith raised all of those questions much earlier in 1928. it had already been a decade that had been seized with a lot of questions about immigration, immigration reform, the rise of the ku klux klan. those come into play. peter: how did the role of catholicism play out? john evers. john evers: it was a vicious campaign. this was not new to him. when he ran in new york state, he faced it then. in 1914, martin glenn faced anti-catholic prejudice. it showed up in the 1915 constitutional convention as a little bit of a whispering campaign. smith went into this years in
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advance of the election knowing this would be an issue. he addressed this issue in 1927 in his reply to the "atlantic monthly," discussing why a catholic man could be a president. it was a very good statement, but it was intellectual. it went over everybody's heads. it did not help his campaign. peter: as mentioned earlier, we are in the new york state assembly chamber in albany, new york in the new york state capitol building, finished in 1894. we are also pleased to have join us a studio audience of albany area residents. some college students and historians, some people interested in al smith. they will also have a chance to ask some questions about al smith and the 1928 election, as will you. we will put some phone numbers on the screen so you can start to dial in now. this is the 6th in our 14-week series.
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"the contenders," the focus the 1928 election and al smith. john evers, what kind of a candidate was al smith in 1928? john evers: he was a fighter. if you look at him and you see the short stature, the pugnaciousness of him, his gravelly voice comes out all across america. this is one of the first campaigns where radio plays a role. he campaigns from the back of trains which is very common. he goes out there and he tries to engage in america on issues that are important to americans. they did not want to talk about those issues. prosperity was there so he could not say they were the issues -- he was not the candidate of prosperity. that was the republican party. he wanted to talk about water power. he wanted to talk about prohibition. he came out as a fighter. his speeches were well reasoned. on paper he was a fantastic
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candidate. but he was swimming uphill the whole time. peter: beverly gage, the electoral vote count at the end. 444 for hoover, and 87 for al smith. which states did he win and why? prof. gage: it was definitely a blowout election. i think the real -- in some ways we can almost say al smith should thank his lucky stars he did not win the 1928 election. we might remember al smith's name a little more, but what would we remember him for? so it was really a blowout election. i think it was heartbreaking for smith and smith supporters in part because it had been such a nasty campaign. a lot of the big questions of the election ultimately became -- was it simply the fact that republicans take credit for this
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boom decade and therefore, smith never really had a chance? was it a rejection of all the things smith felt deeply and stood for? i think smith really took that to heart. he was very concerned about that and the real nastiness of that campaign. he had some support but not a whole lot. peter: there is a fourth "p" i want to talk about. that is progressivism. he was known as a progressive during his time in the legislature, as governor. did that play an issue at all? how are progressive politics identified back then? prof. gage: when you think about it, progressivism is a historical phenomenon. it is a turn-of-the-century phenomenon. it really begins at around 1900 with, say, teddy roosevelt. he is our pioneer progressive. what it means by the 1920's is very hard to define in many ways. there were people who call themselves progressives who supported prohibition and were very impassioned about it. there were people who call
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themselves progressives who opposed prohibition like al smith and who were also very impassioned about it. the basic idea of progressivism is a sense that had come about, and al smith really did stand for, that you could use government in new and proactive ways to deal with some of the really pressing social and industrial conditions that americans faced back in the early part of the 20th century. al smith as governor and running for president really tried to make that case. he changes his mind a little bit later when the new deal comes along. we will get to that. that was really the basic idea of progressivism with the idea that you could use federal power in some significant way to really change people's lives for the better. john evers: i think that is a key point. we talk about the new deal today. we talk about the programs and
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everything fdr brought in. when smith ran for president, he had experimented with these things in new york state. he was a champion of the labor issue. he was a champion of parks and recreation. he was a champion of hydroelectric power. he was wanting to spend money for the social programs of new york state. they were all forerunners to the new deal. in 1928, people did not want to hear that issue. it was overclouded by prosperity. there was a whispering campaign about his religion. he was an unknown candidate that had a thick new york accent coming out to the farm territory. even smith when he campaigned -- he had one funny story. he was driving on a train for wyoming. they were about one hour out. he sees a horse out in the field. he says, we must be getting close to civilization. somebody said, that is a wild horse and we have one hour to go. it showed how much smith was out of his element. he was used to new york. i think the country was used to somebody other than a new yorker. they were used to calvin coolidge and herbert hoover.
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peter: if you were elected governor of new york at that time, were you a shoe in or an automatic for consideration of the national stage? john evers: absolutely. al smith was nominated -- it was always the favorite son candidacies. when the first ballot thing happened in 1920, they nominated al smith for governor -- for president. it went one round and he dropped the votes. eventually, it was cox from ohio. in 1924, they really went out for smith. there were 123 ballots and he ultimately had to withdraw. they had a compromise candidate. also a new yorker. in 1928, he won the nomination. all throughout history, the new york governor -- this is even in modern history, the new york governor is automatically considered a presidential material. if you look at the people that have run and won, and those that have run and lost, you'll see new york all throughout the
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history. prof. gage: i was just going to jump in there. i think new york was just an incredibly important -- new york was one, and ohio was the other. it kept producing president after president. i don't think we have anything like that anymore. maybe we could look at something like texas. but it is not just within the democratic party. when you look at the republican party, all of these figures, teddy roosevelt, charles evans hughes, coming out of republican candidates. out of the democratic party, you see franklin roosevelt. new york as a state has two machines really going. it has a pretty significant effect. peter: two machines? prof. gage: the same as a machinist at tammany machine. the republicans had an incredibly powerful network as
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well. peter: what is tammany hall? prof. gage: tammany hall is technically just the new york city's democratic party. the manhattan democratic party. tammany hall from the mid-19th century was best known as the machine of machines in urban america. it was identified as a primarily irish machine. a machine that really depended on the neighborhood power, word power, and that was as much about taking care of your neighborhood and the coming up through the neighborhood as it was anything really about national politics. tammany hall is the most powerful force in new york city politics at that moment, but really in new york state, democratic politics. peter: how did tammany hall fit into the 1928 election? john evers: that was the brush that painted smith into a corner. we talk about the religion issue. this started at the convention in 1928. tammany hall would go to the conventions and they would always have -- new york was a key state. it would nominate the democratic
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candidates. many candidates -- we had both a democrat and republican candidate from new york like teddy roosevelt ran against alton brooks parker, the chief judge of the court of appeals in new york state. one was a republican and one was a democrat. tammany hall was always seen outside of new york state and sometimes in new york state as a corrupt machine. it was seen as boss tweed. people like william jennings bryan would rant and rave about tammany hall. he wanted their votes, but he did not want a tammany man there. they didn't want them pulling the strings. eventually, smith is a tammany man and a candidate. it shocked many people within the democratic party. peter: al smith lost new york in the 1928 election. john evers: he did. he had the sad fate of losing the race for president of the united states and seeing his hand-picked successor win for governor. fdr wins. it slips the dynamic of their relationship forever and
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ultimately, roosevelt winds up where smith wanted to be. smith winds up in retirement. peter: we will get into that. beverly gage, when we asked you prior to the show some issues you thought were important to the 1928 election, one you mentioned was the role of the media in 1928. prof. gage: i think particularly for al smith, he has come to age as a media battler. particularly, william randolph hearst, they were after him and after him, one of the most powerful newspaper tycoons in the country. smith had a certain amount of confidence by 1928 that he knew how to fend off these kinds of press attacks. ultimately in the election, one of the interesting things about the catholic issue is that we now understand it to have been absolutely crucial to this election. smith openly acknowledged it. a lot of it was done and talked about through innuendo -- john mentioned earlier about a whispering campaign.
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it was not something that would be said in the press, but the press would feed into these images. i think smith, from my reading of it, he was behind from the first with the press in part because there was so much coded language being used and in part because the press had this feisty, irascible personality that they liked to write about but were often quite contemptuous of it and really set a public narrative that did not afford him the respect he deserves. john evers: i think one of the things that is interesting about smith in the press is that he loved the press. he used to hold press conferences here in albany, the press corps got to be very close to him. he had a great relationship of what was on and off the record. except for the battles with hearst and his newspapers in new york state, he really enjoyed that. when he left the safe confines of new york state and the whispering campaign came out, there were papers that were not friendly to him. it would not cover the issues that were important, and smith
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was greatly hurt by that. he was also not used to the media of the day. the pie plate, he used to call the microphone that you speak into -- he would speak to the microphone. he did not like to read prepared speeches. he would take out of this coat pocket an envelope. he wrote everything on the backs of envelopes. long after lincoln, he would have the custom, he would say, these are the points i will make. i will address the nation on these things. i will speak from the heart. when the campaign became more of a prepared speech, he was not used to that. he was used to the old tammany hall way -- meeting people, greeting people, going out amongst them. prof. gage: just to jump in, you mentioned the rise of radio. i think that made a huge difference in how americans were able to perceive smith. he is this new york guy.
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i will not attempt -- will you attempt to do an al smith impersonation? john evers: i don't have a deep enough voice. prof. gage: a deep new york accent. but the fact that people could hear him, to many he sounded foreign. he did not sound like he came from a different country but he sounded different from them. that became another big issue in the campaign. peter: this was the first time ever people were able to hear in mass media, their candidates, correct? john evers: yes. as radio started to get bigger and as the media started to circulate, tv came much later. people would hear the campaigns from their ward leader, from the political machines, they would read it in the paper. they did not see the candidates, let alone hear the candidates. we have a candidate that comes out and pronounces radio as "reh-dio," hospital as "horse-pital," that added to the whisper campaign. people would say, is this guy an american?
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peter: again, we are live from albany, new york. "the contenders" with al smith. this is our sixth week. he is the four time governor of new york. 1928, the presidential candidate for the democrats. now, throughout these two hours we will be talking about al smith, we will return to the 1928 election as often as our callers want to. but we want to learn a little bit about where al smith came from. here is a little bit of al smith talking about how he was raised. al smith: i was born in a little house under the brooklyn bridge. the bridge was erected when i was a small boy. my father was at the opening ceremony. what he came home, he said, "i
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have just witnessed a great spectacle. at the same time, it was a very bitter disappointment." what did he mean? here is the story as he told it to me. he said, "son, this bridge has kept thousands of men working for years. the steel cables, the concrete, the wiring, the machinery, it costs millions of dollars. today was the opening. bands were playing. flags were waving. they cut the tape, and finally it happened." "what happened?" "they found all you could do was go to brooklyn." [laughter] >> this was the neighborhood where al smith grew up. he raised his children here. he went to school right around the block, st. james, until eighth grade. his father died, ao
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go off to work and support his mother and sister. this is where al smith's accent came from. this is where it all began for him. it was all irish and italian. they came from over off of ellis island and settled in here. he got involved in tammany hall. it grew from there. peter: the second speaker we heard was al smith iv, al smith's great-grandson. john evers, what is the lower east side and its importance for his career? john evers: i never knew vocal cords could be inherited. that sounded a little bit like his great-grandfather. the lower east side is the southern tip of manhattan, a little on the southeast side. that is where smith was from. it was a port. it was not like it is today. there were ships -- smith wrote that was his playground.
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he came from an irish family. it is interesting. it is not well-known, his father was actually from german and italian roots, but smith used to claim he did not know this. he probably did not. he grew up in this bustling area. the center of his neighborhood was the catholic church, st. james. he was an altar boy. he used to work and sell papers. the sad part about his early life was he lost his father very young. he was about 12. his father was a trucking man. a teamster. he would cart goods from the seaport up to the city. he died young. al never graduated, even from the eighth grade. if you trace his red book entries,which is the official biography, he always said he graduated from eighth grade, which was not true. he said he inherited his father's truck business. that also was not true. that might have been self consciousness of sitting around lawyers and doctors and
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businessmen from upstate. the real struggling diehard neighborhood shaped him forever, it made him tough. he enjoyed it. for the rest of his life, it was the catholic church, his family, and the democratic party. peter: so he went through the seventh grade. john evers: he had to leave a month or two before graduating eighth grade. it was too tough. peter: paint the larger picture. what was new york like and what was the country like in 1873? prof. gage: 1873 -- new york is growing increasingly different from the rest of the country in many ways. at that point we are eight years out from the end of the civil war. in new york, you are beginning to see the city change in all sorts of interesting ways.
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in the 1830's and 1840's and 1850's, you have the first massive wave of immigration. that was from places like ireland, germany, irish and german immigrants had settled the city. by the time you get into the 1890's, you are getting waves of immigration from new areas like italy, russia, eastern europe. new york is really becoming the way that we think about it, a kind of polyglot city. this is really the age at which that is beginning to congeal and become an important part of the city's politics. as part of this, all of the groups are beginning to organize. this is through the heyday of tammany hall, the irish machine getting its bearings in the middle of the 19th century. what were conditions like -- the lower east side is famous during these years, particularly as you get into the late 19th century
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as being the single most crowded place on the face of the earth. there are not much tenement regulations or sanitary regulations. it's kind of a free-for-all. you have enormously crowded conditions. often you have big problems with disease. sanitary conditions are poor. in many people's memories, you also have tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods which had some powerful institutions. you had churches, synagogues, labor union starting to emerge during these years. the lower east side at the moment is a tightly packed, very intense place in new york. for a lot of the country, it is a symbol of the urban ills that are really beginning to press upon the country. industrial strife, overcrowding, poor working conditions, disease.
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for many people, this continues onto the through the 1920's. immigration is a symbol of the way the country is changing. john evers: i think in smith's day it was the same. he would talk about sailors from different countries. he would meet people from all over the world. there were sections of his area where he lived. there were russians, jews, people from italy, people from chinatown up the road. he lived in a little enclave that was surrounded by all of this. he would go over a few blocks and there would be areas of the vice. if you go a block down the street, there would be ships from all over the world. this shaped his image. he thought he knew america by knowing all of these people. he knew what it meant to be tolerant and see different ethnicities. this was his world. later on when he went out in america, i think part of the shock was -- it is not all like this. he thought he knew -- new york state was -- when he first went to the assembly, he realized that he had seen a lot more in
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his neighborhood then what these people had seen. he could not bring everybody down to new york and manhattan. although he brought many members of the assembly to see, he said, this is how america really is. it is a melting pot. some of that came back to xenophobia, to anti-religion, his accent. it was almost a way of saying, you are foreign, you are not like us. peter: he went to work in 1886 at 13 years old. where did he go to work? john evers: he had probably one of the toughest careers i have ever heard of. he starts by leaving early. he goes and sells newspapers. he starts after school, i will sell newspapers. he gets a few dollars that way. it is not enough. his mother had to go and get a job the day they buried his father. she comes back from the funeral, goes back to the forelady in the
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umbrella factory where she worked prior to marrying al smith, sr. she gets her job back. it is not enough. she takes piecework home. it is not enough. eventually, he goes through a rapid series of jobs working in a small candy store that his mother was the proprietor of. he goes and works in a company truckspotting. he used to run along the south end and pick up different trucks for his company. he would report to them, don't come back, go to this area. eventually, he gets the most famous job he is known for. it is at the fulton fish market. he got up at 4:00 in the morning, rolled barrels, shoveling crushed ice, coming home smelling like fish. he would go there at 4:00 in the morning and get back to 4:00 in the afternoon. this led to him getting a job at tammany hall. he was not getting up at 4:00, smelling like fish. the good thing about it, he used to take all the fish he wanted.
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he said, if you pile all the fish up that he and his family ate, it would lift the rafters off the capital and slide it down state street 50 feet deep. that was how poor he was. they gave him a lot of the free food. peter: this is "the contenders" and we are talking about al smith. first off for our two guests, new york, wayne, you are on cspan. caller: hello. the question is two-fold. i am interested in what al smith's role and commitment was to the new york state civil services and labor. how he championed that when he campaigned on the federal level. what specific things did he do to help reform new york state politics, particularly the civil service and his commitment to
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labor. peter: thank you. john evers: that is a really good point that separated al smith when it came to labor issues. in 1911, there was the famous triangle shirtwaist factory fire down in manhattan. smith was on the commission to study labor law. he became good friends with francis perkins, all the reforming labor activists at this time. in this very chamber, the labor laws that would regulate fire escapes, hours of service, health codes, workers' compensation. hand in hand with that was probably the advent of civil service. being a tammany man, there were rumors he wanted to pack everything with democrats. but this became more prevalent as it got to the end of his gubernatorial career, the most
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qualified person should have the job. smith was well-known to having people in his cabinet that were republicans, that were not enrolled. people who had nothing to do with government at all. his highway commissioner was a military engineer who had republican affiliations. he wanted the most qualified people around. some of that lead into the civil service. he also wanted to have strong labor relations. he stood up for those that came to labor that were often shunted aside. the reactionary forces often embodied in the republican party fought him on this. he took that campaign, he had the support of the afl-cio. the afl, i should say, the cio joined later. the afl championed him in the state but not nationally in the 1928 campaign.
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peter: those issues that john evers was talking about, did it play out nationally? how strong were the forces behind the issues? prof. gage: i think al smith is a good example of somebody who was radicalized over the course of his time on a politician. he starts out as an unexceptional tammany guy who is not putting forth particularly creative ideas. no one knows much what he was doing as an early assemblyman. both through the social turmoil that he had during the progressive era and then through the triangle shirtwaist fire -- which does seem to have been this kind of eye-opening moment for him, 146 people died in this fire. they are mostly teenage girls, mostly teenage immigrant girls who are locked in on the eighth and ninth floor. they are forced to jump to their deaths. he ends up on the commission.
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he becomes a true progressive in what i would say is the radical and not radical sense of that word. when he begins to work on the commission, they revamp fire codes, they pass legislation to protect women and children. he becomes an advocate of paternalistic labor laws, revamping some building codes. he is never a super strong supporter of grass-roots organizing. one of the things left out of the triangle shirtwaist story is that there had been strikes underway at the factory and throughout the industry. that does not become something that he champions in quite the same way. he does champion legislation that will ameliorate industrial conditions. that is his stance by the time he is running for president in the 1920's. the 1920's are not a good decade for american labor.
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it is not one of the big issues of the campaign. nonetheless, he holds on to the progressive tradition. one other thing worth noting as well, i actually first encountered al smith when i was doing some research on a bombing that happened in new york in 1920, which was an attack on wall street at the time. i encountered al smith because he had just become governor, and this was during the midst of the red scare after the first world war. five socialist assemblymen who had been voted in from districts of new york were thrown out. al smith turned out to be a champion of their right to stay in the assembly. it was a lot of concern in the wake of the bolshevik resolution -- concern over radicalism. al smith stood up and said they had every right to be here. he was a great champion and a new voice that was speaking out in favor of a broad vision of democracy at that point.
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peter: knowing what you do about al smith, how do you think he would feel about the current occupy wall street movement? john evers: that would be interesting. he was an underdog. we talk about the socialists. smith would out there and took unpopular stances. he got up there in 1920 and told the assembly next day, i will put out a press release championing the rights of these people to hold their seats. they were flabbergasted. nobody would do that. we are in the middle of the red scare. these people are anarchists. the same with labor. smith would go and settle labor strikes by sending state employees from the labor department -- in one case, francis perkins, a woman who had to settle an upstate labor dispute. he is not only sending government people, he is sending women now. he was unconventional. he was a wedge for diversity.
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when it comes to something like that, i think he would look at it and say, what is it for the good of the people? he was not a big champion of big business. peter: francis in cincinnati. thanks for holding. you are on "the contenders" on c-span. please go ahead. caller: good evening. i have been privileged to have gone to school in albany. i would like to know if you could address the financial banking that al smith had from
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john j. rathscob, and the contention that was because smith was catholic and trying to be president. peter: francis, where did you go to school here in albany? we have several colleges in our audience. caller: i went to the academy of the sacred heart on south pearl street. unfortunately, it has been closed and is now for sale. peter: thank you very much. the financial question. on john evers: rathscob was a good friend of the dupont family. he was one of the key people in general motors. he was a multi millionaire. as i mentioned earlier, smith was not a huge champion of
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business. he voted as he was told to vote. later on, he drifted towards pro-business, that was after the roosevelt fallout. he wanted to be involved in politics. araskog became friends with al smith. smith makes him the head of his campaign in 1928. much to the consternation of many people, they said this guy is not a politician. he is not active in democratic politics. why are you doing this? a lot of people thought it was because of the money. he also became friends with many one people, bill kenny was one, rourden was another -- these new york irishman who made a lot of money and became millionaires. they gave smith jobs. at that time, smith wanted them as a friend. he brought a lot of money. prof. gage: i think it is true. the question that came up about what he would think about occupy wall street, it really depends what al smith we are talking about. as a young man, he is kind of a straightforward tammany politician. he voted as tammany told him to vote. he is coming up through the ranks. there are no glimmers of greatness during those years.
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then he becomes a progressive politician both as governor of new york and when he is running for president in 1928. but after that, he takes a turn in which he becomes deeply hostile not only to the new deal, but takes up some of the kind of red baiting tactics that he had fought so hard against. in terms of trying to judge how he will respond to the social movements of his day, some of which were deeply anti-wall street, it depends when you run into him. if you got him at the right moment, he would be exactly as john said. he would be gesturing support. later in his life, he would have been calling them communists. peter: before we got started, you pointed out where he sat in this chamber. he started out somewhere in the back, you said. john evers: way in the back. seat 143, i think it was. he said he used to get confused with the bystanders and the
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visitors. that was before they got microphones. for years, he never spoke, which is hard to believe. then he sat in two seats that are right here where we have two gentlemen. the man with the beard raising his hand when he served as majority leader. and this gentleman over here in the tie. that is what he was the minority leader. that was in 1911. smith became majority leader when the democrats took over. in 1912, they went into the minority. in 1913, he wound up being the speaker. peter: right behind this is the speaker's chair. maybe 20 steps from where we are sitting is the speaker's office that al smith used. the current speaker, sidney sheldon -- sheldon silver, i am so sorry about that.
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and there is a portrait of al smith. john evers: they came from the same district. they both are democrats. they both were speakers of the assembly. it is interesting when you talk about -- it is almost 100 years ago that smith was speaker. 100 years later we have a speaker from the same district and political party. the neighborhood is still a very diverse neighborhood. smith became speaker on a fluke. new york state reapportionment was so heavily weighted in favor of republicans, that his democrats rarely held in this chamber. he was here 12 years and was only in the majority twice. it only became democratic once in the 1930's. they had to go to the 1960's before the democrats took over. i think smith would be proud that they finally got equal representation. they changed the system to make it one-man, one-vote. you could then allow new york
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city to send its proper amount of legislators to new york and has resulted in another manhattan speaker. peter: we talked with speaker sheldon silver about al smith. here is what he had to say. speaker silver: i think he was a man ahead of his time. his reaction to that triangle shirtwaist fire, putting in legislation to deal with child labor, with labor generally. providing rights. we today commemorate that triangle factory fire. we commemorated the 100 anniversary of it. all of the legislation protecting workers are things that we in the assembly do today. al smith when he was the governor of the state, he talked about having the wealthier pay a little bit more. he had some great hopes about
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it. i remember i wrote one down because it was as appropriate today as it was in 1930. he said, what do we say about our colleagues who reject an income tax amendment? what do they say? they reject it. why? they are unwilling to say that the fortunate ought to share its share of the burden of government. they are unwilling to subscribe to the indisputable principle that he who benefits the most should pay the most. that was al smith in 1930 and that debate is taking place again today. peter: that portrait or that photograph of al smith that is in the office, when was that taken? john evers: that was probably taken when he was the speaker. he was a very young man.
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he was elected to the assembly when he was only about 30 years old. he would probably be in that picture, mid 30's or so. he might be close to 35 or 36. that might have been one of his official portraits as an assembly man. it might very well have been his portrait as the speaker. peter: how powerful was the speaker of the new york assembly, and how does that compare with the power today? john evers: the speaker is always the most powerful person. i would say it is most comparable. back then when smith was just starting out. he did not even meet the speaker, fred nixon, until three days before the session adjourned. the speaker back that was almost regal. today, there are more chairman. the power is more diffuse. it is not as arbitrary as it used to be. the speaker has tremendous
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control over the bills that come to the floor, over the chairmen who are made chairman, what the program will be. it still is a key job. one of the three most powerful people in the state. the senate leader, the assembly leader, and the governor. peter: beverly gage, state politics in the new york in the teens and today. prof. gage: as i said, new york is a key state nationally but it has its own political culture. i think it reflects the same things we see today. the difference between your urban core, your new york at that time largely dominated by a tammany machine, but not exclusively. upstate new york ,you have cultural differences, political differences there. because you had all of these differences, it was always a question of, what kind of issues you were actually going to deal with at the state level. one of the things that al smith ends up doing as governor, he tries to make it possible for
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the governor to do more than he has been able to do. it is not a particularly strong post at that point. for tammany hall, your power is concentrated in new york city. al smith is an ambassador for the city to the rest of the state in certain ways. he is trying to make it possible in this progressive impulse to actually make more things possible, to consolidate a little executive power in albany in ways he had not seen before. peter: we will talk about his career as four term governor after we take this call. from fort lauderdale -- hi, neil. you are on "the contenders." caller: first of all, a commentary and then a question. your forum is incredibly stimulating. i don't have the credentials you do. i fancy myself an armchair historian. as far as mr. smith is
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concerned, the catholicism should not enter into the picture. he was clearly a proponent of the middle-class and pro-labor. genuinely a well intended individual. i am wondering that if today, if we had a candidate running for the president of the united states, what candidate would mr. smith's mindset be able to pull off? despite that, thank you so much. i enjoy watching. peter: beverly gage. prof. gage: i think that is an interesting question. smith goes through a very weird political transition in the 1930's. after he lost the election, he does flip on a lot of what he stood for up to that point. i know we will get to talking about that a little later in the
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show. he was a populist of sorts. he is not an absolute populist. he was certainly not a william jennings bryan populist. if anything, he really did not like bryan around cultural issues. he was an urban populist. i think it is true that he is an advocate of the middle class. he is a figure that embodies and advertises that he embodies the kind of "working your way up to the american system from a childhood of poverty" success. would a candidate today who had that kind of populist message, or least pseudo-populist, would they be successful? i think it is hard to say. smith was not particularly successful in his day on the national stage. i think populism has had a kind of a mixed history in the united states. peter: is there a politician today you would compare to al
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smith? john evers: i don't know. today he might be more of the technocrat. i will explain that. populism itself that smith embodied was almost like a compassionate technocrat, he wanted to do the new deal prior to the new deal. he experimented with a lot of these programs in new york state. roosevelt once said, i don't know why al smith is complaining. i am just doing in washington, d.c. what he did in new york. with the way the economy is today and the debates over government, smith would probably lick his lips and say i would love to go to washington, d.c. and figure this out. that is what he did in albany. and he did it in a republican state with a republican legislature. even discussions now with the bipartisan gridlock, smith had that in new york. he would probably sell himself very well today by saying, i have done this in new york. i have battled the legislature that is hostile.
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i know how to get government under control. i know how to get the economy moving again. i think he would be seen as a technocrat. he was not flashy, but some of that would be a braintrust kind of guy. peter: james in dayton, ohio. good evening. caller: i was wondering -- in 1929 wall street collapsed, initiating the great depression. i was wondering if he had any party platform that might have avoided any of the abuses by the moneyed classes on wall street that led to the collapse and ultimately the depression. if he had been elected in 1928, would he have done anything that might have possibly avoided or diminished the effects of the depression that followed?
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peter: thank you, james. beverly gage. prof. gage: i would like to be able to say, yes, if al smith had been elected, none of the depression would ever have happened. i don't think that is true. i don't think of economic issues by 1928, the 1920's turned out to be a relatively conservative decade on things like labor policy. smith himself is not running an anti-wall street campaign in 1928. the real progressive candidates had been four years earlier. that had a much more vocal anti-wall street sentiment. it had a much more strict set of regulations and had more focus on economic issues. unfortunately, i don't think that smith would have done a
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whole lot significantly different. i am not sure that any president was really in a position to see what was coming or really had the tools at that point to prevent it from happening. evers: that is kind of what hoover at the end with his ideas of experimentation with government intervention -- i heard somebody say once that if smith had run and won in 1928, hoover would have been the obvious candidate in 1932. they would say, we need a businessman. we need somebody who is a model of getting the economy going. no matter who won, they would have been unprepared to stop the avalanche of financial ruin. peter: let's take it back to 1918. al smith is elected governor of new york for the first time. how?
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john evers: the accidental governor. it took al smith until 1925 or 1926 to get into the minds of the republican party that he was not going to lose. so he ran against charles whitman -- 1918. charles whitman, the d.a. of manhattan had come up and becomes governor of new york state. he runs twice and gets elected. he starts to look at the white house in 1920. we like to look back and say what if. maybe it would not have been harding. maybe it would have been charles whitman. smith unseats this governor largely because there is a flu epidemic. he campaigns around upstate new york. he turns out the new york city vote. he wins by a very slight margin. he gets in there. in 1920, the legislature crosses its arms and says we will not do any of these things.
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peter: the republican legislature? john evers: the republican assembly and senate. smith starts the campaign by saying, we will have a reconstruction commission capitalizing on the transition from a wartime economy to the private sector economy. he starts saying he is going to strengthen -- we are going to bond so we can have capital improvement spread out for many years instead of the infrastructure starts to crumble. he has a lot of these great ideas. the legislature says this guy will never win in 1920. that will be the presidential year. back then, new york governors ran at the same time the president ran. the coattails were long. smith gets reelected in 1920. he has very little to show -- he loses in 1920. he has very little to show what he goes up in 1920. they run a very conservative, upstate republican who wins. sure enough, al smith goes away.
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people thought he would never come back. he did run again in 1922, 1924, and 1926. he starts to avalanche his success. peter: at the same time, all of his elections are pretty close. john evers: they are close until the last two. they have a very close election which is 15,000 votes in 1918. he loses a close election in 1920. the national democratic ticket goes down by over 1 million votes. smith only loses by 75,000. that is what they said, it is like swimming up niagara falls. you came the closest anybody did. he comes back in 1922 and was a squeaker. in 1924 he starts to add to his totals and he went against teddy roosevelt, jr. it was only in the 1920's with his third, it starts to come to
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fruition. before then, he was seen as the accidental governor. peter: 1920, women get to vote. does that make a difference in al smith's career? prof. gage: he is interesting because as john indicated before, he actually staffed a lot of his inner circle with women at the moment when not many speakers are doing that. francis perkins, who becomes fdr's secretary of labor, is a close ally of smith. bell moskowitz is his make it happen woman up in albany. he actually has a fairly progressive outlook of women in government. the advent of the women's vote does not have a huge impact on national politics. it ultimately begins to build. it does not have the impact many
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people are predicting. in terms of new york politicians, john would know this better than i, i don't have perspective it really transforms -- john evers: not at first. at first, he was not in favor of women's suffrage. his mother said, i would never vote. there is no need for me to vote. but she does. she cast her first ballot for her son for governor. smith's hook is he gets a lot of these people involved. he starts to realize these are new voters. he says, how do i talk to these people? he says talk to them as you talk to a chamber of commerce or anyone else in the campaign. he starts to realize women's suffrage is a good idea. i can enlighten these people. i can get them to vote democratic. that is where he gets the braintrust for many of these people who will work for him, who becomes sturdy supporters of the democratic party. smith capitalizes on that.
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of here isocks south the governor's mansion. what was life like for al smith at the governor's mansion? >> hectic. walk up here? >> he would. when i worked for an assemblyman in his 80s, he would tell me the stories and he remembers the governor walking over from the governor's mansion to the capital, and saying, did you go to school with my son, yes. the governor would joke with him. he was very much, i guess you could say, a neighborhood guy. had five children, his own zoo. this is true, he had a zoo. he brought them all with him. a lot of things were given to him. he had a bear, he had deer, he
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had elk. at one point, someone gave him an alligator. smith always loved animals. when he was a kid, he used to collect dogs. down on the seaport, people would come in -- sailors would come in with exotic animals. they would give him monkeys and goats, and he would take them home and put them in his attic. and then he would have in his backyard. he never had less than two dogs, i think he used to say. in fact, when he came here for his first term, he brought with him his great dane and the great dane jumped up on charles whitman, and smith joked in his good sense of humor, it is the tammany tiger coming to take over. that was his love of animals. with all these children and animals, it was always a hectic place. he always had the neighborhood kids dropping in. it was a very friendly kind of atmosphere.
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>> i could add on the animal front, we all owe smith a debt for his love of animals because one of his great allies first in city government and then state park was robert moses, the commissioner of parks of new york, the man who made new york in many ways. he and smith remained very, very affectionate well into the 1930's after smith was out of political life. that heof the reasons insists there be a zoo in central park is so that al smith can come and visit the animals. he's living up town at that point. there are poignant stories about smith at the end of his life, he literally had a key to the zoo , and he would go down there, sometimes in the middle of the night. he would take his grandchildren down and hang out with the animals at the central park zoo. in many ways, it's a tribute to
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al smith and his love of animals. >> honorary night superintendent was out smith, at the central park zoo. host: we've had a very, very patient audience here and in just a minute we're going to start taking questions from you as well. but we have a very patient tony from pleasantville, new york, who has been holding. tony, you are on c-span, on "the contenders." >> thank you for this series and for c-span. i've been watching for over 20 years, and i think if more people watch c-span, we would have better presidential candidates. but you beat me to the punch. i wanted to ask you about belle moskowitz. i wonder if they could expand on belle moskowitz's role and the job she had for governor smith. and also, earlier you mentioned al smith didn't speak for two years.
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eighth grade education. didn't speak in the assembly, intimidated by all the other lawyers there. can you tell us what al smith did at night while the others went down on state street to booze it up and carouse? how did he educate himself to become majority leader and speaker? >> we're going get john to answer those questions. but i know you are a new yorker. is that the reason for your interest in al smith and your knowledge? >> i read a great book called empire statesman. i didn't know much about al smith, even though i worked in albany for a wild. i knew the al smith building was there, the tallest building in the state before the empire state building, i believe. but i did not know much until i read the book called "empire statesman." peter: all right. thanks for calling in tonight. we've got belle moskowitz and what he did to educate himself? >> belle was the unofficial gate
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keeper. i think her job was the head of the pr for the democratic party. but she would serve as his advisor. it was probably the best way to describe it as, she was the person who would pass through all of these labor programs, all these reconstruction commissions. in fact, the reconstruction of new york state, which eventually led to the reforming of the state constitution and the establishment of a strong chief executive, was done with the reconstruction commission. that was belle moskowitz's brain child. she recruited bob moses into the administration. in fact, tammany hall became very jealous of moskowitz and robert moses and joe prochnauer. they joked that's the brains of tammany hall. they joked because they weren't irish catholics. they were jewish. the interesting thing about him not speaking in the assembly, smith said so far back and was
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so intimidated, and he was so lost, that he went back to new york after his second term and told tom foley, the tammany boss of his district, "i think i might be in over my head." he told him, "i might be able to find you a job, maybe superintendent of buildings in new york city, if you really can't hack it." that appealed to smith's ability to fight. he said, i'm not going to admit i can't handle something. so he went back with a mission. he took all the bills every night and read them, every bill introduced, so he could understand the legislature. he didn't have a high school or college degree. he wasn't a lawyer. the assembly at the time was prominently the legal field. smith made sure that he could do that. also, since he didn't have any money, he lived on the $1500 a year plus traveling expenses, he didn't have anything else to do. he didn't go out partying at night. he didn't do bad things. he missed his family. he would go back to his room at his hotel and read.
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and when he wasn't there, he would be in the legislative looking up the bills and what they affected. >> are appropriations bills still about 300 pages long? john: yeah, they could save a lot of trees by having them done electronically. smith was the chairman of ways and means. in 1911, he would read the appreciation -- the appropriation bill cover to cover, and he said not more than 10 people could explain the appropriations bill. thick, massive, he read that line by line. it ultimately led him to become a very good financial governor, because he had an understanding of the budget system. >> i have a question from our audience. this is dave petrusa. he is an author. did not know he was going to be here tonight. "bookw him from "otb." -- tv." he was a new book coming out about the 1948 election. go ahead. >> thank you.
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and your guests are doing a great job tonight. there are some constants in al smith's career. there is tammany hall, franklin roosevelt, and another fellow, william randolph hearst. specifically what can you say about that relationship, specifically the gubernatorial races and the 1932 presidential nomination process? >> let's start with beverly gage. prof. gage: hearst is one of the towering figures of this moment, and he turns into one of smith's great critics, and he's sort of the man around which smith learns how to deal with the press in many ways. i know you, we were talking earlier and you said you had been writing about this in great detail, about the milk issue and hearst's attacks on smith. >> oh, god. yeah. this is a great question. i'm glad dave brought this up, because william randolph hearst was probably one of the most controversial government figures or quasi-government figures in
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new york history. he was a two-term congressman from new york city. he basically bought the seat. he tried to get the nomination in 1904 for president of the united states. he lost that. he runs for governor in 1906 against charles evans hughes and loses. he runs for new york city mayor and loses. but he has control of the two newspapers, the evening journal and the new york american, and he turns out the basest appeal to people, and to try to tell them that i know better, i'm a reformer, i want municipal utilities that will lower your rates, i want transparent government, you can get that if you back me. in 1918, he wants the nomination for governor, and they try to figure out who is going to get this. they settle on smith. smith goes and gets elected.
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in 1919, immediately, william randolph hearst starts to poke at smith's programs. there's a milk strike in new york city. the upstate dairies can't get milk into new york city. they then have a milk strike upstate where the producers won't ship it to new york city. well, none of this is within the purview of the governor's powers. the governor tries to get his departments of farms and markets to act. they won't act because many they -- because they don't report to the governor. hearst won't take this answer, and he also says, you are moving too slow on municipal ownership. we want the utilities in new york to be owned. you are the governor, you should make them do this. they won't. so smith goes head-to-head with him. in 1919, he takes the stage at carnegie hall and has it out with hearst. he has a debate. hearst won't show up for the debate. he goes to san simeon and starts
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buying more artwork. smith loses control, screams and yells, red in the face, about this man and unmasks hearst. hearst then ironically comes out and backs smith for re-election. smith want nothing to do with it. he battles again in 1922. smith is going to make a comeback running for governor. hearst wants the nomination. smith says, i won't run on the ticket with hearst. i won't run on a take it he is going to be u.s. senate. won't you be u.s. senator? i won't run on a ticket with hearst at all. smith was one of those guys that was just, well, he's honest. he said i'm not going to change my mind left and right and be as despicable as hearst and deal in -- when it comes to character assassination. smith wins. he also unseats the new york city mayor, i now lie, one of hearst's allies, and replaces him with jimmy walker and takes over the party.
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but smith gets the last laugh , because in 1932 hearst uses his power to throw on the fifth ballot the nomination from the f.d.r.-smith battle. he takes his votes from california under mcadoo and give s them to roosevelt, knocks smith out and he loses the nomination because of hearst's behind the scenes. >> well, there were three he was -- three or four presidential elections that al smith was active in. 1920, 1924 and 1932. here is a newsreel recap from 1932 about the 1924, 1928, and elections. 1932 >> then the great political battle of 1924, where with alfred e. smith and john davis, he stood out as a leader. there never was a political convention to match the democratic national gathering of 1924 in new york for drama and color. mcadoo against al smith.
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day after day, terrific storms of passion shaking the delegates. the high note of all, franklin d. roosevelt's presentation of the name of alfred e. smith with the deathless phrase, "the happy warrior." >> the democratic convention attendees from the lone star state, and once more franklin roosevelt took the stage to praise as only he could do the man for whom he has always had such affection and respect, naming him again, the happy warrior, his friend, alfred e smith, the governor of new york. al smith will always have his own place in the hearts of the american people, but events were moving fast. l smith was a candidate for president in 1928 and wanted a
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good man to run for governor of new york. he persuaded franklin roosevelt to make the race. although smith lost by a narrow vote, roosevelt was elected to his first term as governor. already, franklin d roosevelt was the favorite for the nomination. the leading opponent, none other than his old friend al smith. >> franklin d. roosevelt, having received more than 2/3 of all the delegates, i proclaim him the nominee of this convention for president of the united states. president roosevelt: you have nominated me, and i know it and i am here to thank you for the honor. [cheers] president roosevelt: i pledge myself to a new deal for the american people. peter: and back live in the new york state assembly chamber,
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beverly gage, how did we get from 1928 f.d.r. calling al smith the happy warrior and supporting him, to the 1932 election? prof. gage: well they had been allies before that, both coming up through the same new york democratic party. a couple of things happened between 1928 and 1932, some of which are very personal and some of which are on a grand scale. the most important thing that happened is between 1928 and 1932. we entered the depression, so herbert hoover begins in 1929 as president. he gets stock market crash that year, and by 1932 you are really in the deepest, darkest moments of the depression. so that is bad news. but for the democratic nominee for president, that's actually really good news. so in 1932, al smith wants to be the candidate again. in fact, he's put forth as a possibility. but there's a lot of controversy
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about whether or not this is going to be a good idea. there are a lot of people who do not want to introduce into what looks like it's going to be a smashing democratic year all of the issues that you had seen in 1928, issues about catholicism, about prejudice, about prohibition. all these sorts of things. now franklin roosevelt has a little bit to say about these things, but when he's a candidate in 1932, he's kind of being as even-keel about all this as you possibly can be. so smith is gunning for this, and there is a lot of pushback about that, and it's not clear either that smith is a huge fan of roosevelt's. they've had a very, very cooperative relationship, but it's always been smith through the elder statesman with roosevelt the supportive, younger man. and it seems at this moment, and
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we should acknowledge a lot of people in the united states in 1932 viewed franklin roosevelt kind of as a dilettante, someone who is not willing to come out and take hard stands on things, he's come from a life of leisure. and here's smith who worked his way up. so you have this personal drama playing out at the same time you have the political drama playing out, and we know who wins that in 1932, and it doesn't take very long for smith to begin to attack roosevelt personally as well as politically. i think that it's easier to understand his personal animosity toward roosevelt as it begins to develop. i've always found it a little bit more puzzling to understand how, by 1936, he's actually endorsing the republican presidential candidate and is embracing a kind of politics he really hadn't embraced before. is it because he is heartbroken? is it because he doesn't like roosevelt? is it because he has actually changed his mind as he sees
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roosevelt actually an act -- actually enact the new deal? these are all sort of open questions about their relationship. peter: now back to your calls on "the contenders." sheridan, arkansas. please go ahead with your question or comment. yes, my grandfather albert godwin was a county democrat chairman, a state senator, and supporter of al smith. compare al smith's campaign for president and dewey's campaigns for president. peter: well, let's ask the former new york state assembly historian if he could do that in a minute or less. john: oh, sure! dewey will be the subject of a future "contenders," i think in two weeks.
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there really is no comparison. with dewey, the personalities couldn't be more different. they really couldn't be. first of all, smith is a democrat, dewey is a republican. smith is a progressive, pre-new deal campaigner. dewey takes over the reins in new york state after he beats the hand-picked successor of f.d.r. and al smith, and he runs new york state during the new deal, and he is, by all accounts, somebody that implements his programs. so he's not a rock-ribbed republican in the sense of a conservative. kind of like a nelson rockefeller republican. dewey wanted to be president. i think there were rumors he was going to run for president when when he was still, i think, new york district attorney. he had it in the cards that he wanted to do this for a long time. smith's campaign in 1928 had always been troubled from the start.
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he did get the nomination, and he did his whirlwind campaign from july onwards. dewey had more of the modern campaign. in fact, f.d.r. did this in 1932. he knew he would run early on and traveled the country getting his campaign in order. i think the biggest difference dewey and al smith is probably that dewey was out there with this campaign and preparation a lot more than al smith ever was. peter: we have a question here in our audience. if you would, if you feel comfortable, tell us who you are and where you are from. >> thank you. my name is amy, and i'm from clifton park, new york. besides the zoo that al smith brought to the governor's mansion, what was his most notable achievement for new york and the country? peter: as governor? >> as governor, as candidate for president. john: i think if i were to rattle them off, it would be kind of impressive but we don't have, like, three hours. probably smith's biggest achievements were to bring progressivism into the modern age.
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smith was that pre-new deal type of person. fdr certainly had his own programs, but smith had the modern labor code, he had parks and recreation, he had new york state vote on bonds, hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds, to improve roads, bridges, railroad crossings, parks, hospitals, prisons. he was ahead of his time when it came to criminal justice. smith's whole movement of government was not to downsize government, but to use government as a tool to provide people with services, instead of, it used to be more conservative where government was simply there. the federal government would deliver the mail. it had the military. in new york state, it really wasn't that much different. it did certain functions, but it didn't go out there and regulate industry. it didn't go out there and regulate utilities. it didn't provide parks and recreation. it didn't have the interaction with people that really needed it. so i think smith's overall accomplishment in new york state
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was to launch us on a social welfare in the best positive senses of the word. peter: we are here in the new york state capital, beautiful building, finished in 1984, here in albany, surrounded by state government office buildings, many built in the 1960's, 1970's, etc. would al smith -- what would he think about the growth of state government in new york? >> i think he would be ok with state government as it is. when smith was governor, it was 10 million, 10.5 million people. he realized state government needed to be housed. in fact, he was one of the people who said, you've got to get all these agencies not only coordinated, but he used to joke and say, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year renting little offices. can't we build state office buildings? can't wait professionalize the state workforce? smith really believed that using the government to organize the
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m and deliver services, that's the proper role of government. he stood with that his whole life. he thought the new deal just went too far. peter: beverly gage, you wanted to add something? prof. gage: i just wanted to add that, on the national stage, i think he plays a very different but equally important role in the sense that smith's candidacy in 1928 comes after a decade where we sort of had already issues about immigration, about race. you had immigration reform passed in the early 1920's, in part targeting people from places like italy, russia. people who are considered ethnically different. the other great social phenomenon of that decade was the rise of the ku klux klan. the ku klux klan in the 1920's is a mass organization. it's not kind of the southern targeted plan that we think of in the 1950's and 1960's. it's a mass organization with millions of members. its stronghold is really in indiana, a lot of midwestern states.
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although a lot of urban centers, even in the east, have large klans too which are targeting catholics and jews. these are the main issues driving the klan. and smith as a candidate, though he loses, is a person who stands up on the national stage and says no to all of that. he says no, that's not what the united states is supposed to stand for. all those people you are talking about restricting, talking about pushing out, who you are describing as foreign, those are my people, we are all americans, and he stands for that very powerfully on the national stage, even though he's rejected as the president. peter: and in just a minute, we're going to ask our guests what they think al smith's biggest failures were. but helen in new jersey, you are on "the contenders." please go ahead. caller: i was so excited to hear that you are going to have al smith on. my grandfather was part of the irish catholic republican bear
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machine. they didn't split ranks in 1928 and voted -- they did split ranks in 1928 and voted for al smith. my question is after the election, al smith had really harsh words to say both about president roosevelt, and the new deal, and the democratic party. do you think it's because he feared the democratic party was edging too close to socialism and away from true progressivism? peter: john? john: i think that his initial responses in 1928 were more of a emotional response, basically saying, and he admitted it, he says, i'm done, i'm not going to run again. ironically, he comes back in 1932 and says, i changed my mind. but he wanted to set the record straight and say, i think i could do a good job on this. his split with roosevelt is hard to explain. a lot of historians have really struggled with this. he alternately says it's gone
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too far, but in certain things he says that's ok. he supports preparation for the war in the late 1930's, but then inwon't support roosevelt 1940. it's kind of hard to pin smith down at the end, except that he thinks the federal government is growing too big. he blames alphabet agencies or how the government has gotten off track, and he hides a little bit behind the states' rights issue. , through the constitution, correct or police people's individual behavior, and often he said it's a state's issue when it comes to the democratic party but he stretched it with the new deal by saying "states rights" when he realized a lot of these programs were implemented in new york state as well. peter: we've heard from johnny devers, a new york state is --
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we've heard from the former new york state historian and from a history professor at yale university about the f.d.r.-al smith relationship. alf landon he supported in 1936, and wendell wilkie in 1940 over f.d.r. in fact, here is al smith on the radio, talking about his support for wendell wilkie. >> i'd just like to make a little observation. i'd like to wonder what could be going through the mind of the 16 million men that are in the draft. i wonder if they're not saying to themselves, if this becomes serious, if it becomes necessary that we have to face an enemy, who, upon the record, would you sooner be behind? the third-time candidate or a wilkie? [crowd roars] >> in my opinion, the only hope for the people is the election of wendell wilkie, who believes
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-- [applause] >> who believes in the constitution of the united states and the principles upon which it was founded. when he is chosen to guide this nation, then, and then only, will the stars and stripes again wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave. [applause] peter: beverly gage, what's your reaction to hearing that? prof. gage: well, it's really remarkable how quickly and how viciously al smith ends up going after the people who had once been his greatest supporters. i was trying to think if there has ever been another major party presidential candidate who , in less than a decade after he
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had run on his party's platform, is actually endorsing actively the candidate of the other party -- >> joe lieberman? >> i guess so. joe lieberman is sort of hard to read. was joe lieberman ever really a democrat? i don't know. but, so, going around and actually doing these endorsements in 1936 and 1940, and i think in this way that is incredibly outspoken and vicious, i mean, he makes this speech in 1936 where he's accusing the new deal and f.d.r. themselves, as i mentioned earlier, of being communists, of being socialists. he picks up the most vitriolic anti-new deal language. he calls roosevelt a tyrant, says he's abusing the constitution, and becomes one of the standard-bearers of the liberty league, basically a business funded -- really funded by the dupont family, a group that begins in the mid-1930's to attempt to push back the new deal. it really is a puzzling,
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puzzling moment in his career. people who have tried to trace, well, he always had these platforms, he believed in state -level power, not federal-level power, or he had a more limited view of government, but i just don't think that those are answers. i think he went through something personally at that point, and that his circle in new york, as he becomes head of the empire state building and begins to solidify these alliances with businessmen, that really becomes his world in the 1930's. peter: and we're going to talk about that part of his life in just a minute. but we have another questioner in the new york state assembly. tell us who you are and what you're doing. >> good evening. i'm a professor at schenectady community college. i teach administrative law. as my students and i are talking about government and how
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government is getting larger, we discussed state agencies. we talk a lot about immigration reform as it relates to department of homeland security. so as we're talking about al smith and his background, having come from new york city, south street seaport, being raised amongst a lot of ethnically diverse groups, i wonder what an immigration policy would look like today for a governor al smith? what would he think in terms of, one, the ethnicity of the immigrants coming in are vastly different than what he grew up with, but also, largely we are looking for policies in today's immigration platform that would deal with labor issues, you know, whether or not people that have been here illegally should have the right to work after having been in the country for a certain number of years. so i wonder, where would al smith stand on that type of issue, immigration as it relates to labor, and also racism as you talked about? you know, we don't really see
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much in terms of the ku klux klan anymore, but we do see lot of internal racism in agencies as it relates to immigration. peter: let's start with john. john: i think smith would be very understanding of loose immigration, probably because of where he grew up. smith was exposed to all kinds of ethnicities, all kinds of different immigrants. his mother was the daughter of immigrants. his father was a son of immigrants. he worked in an area that had sailors from all over the world. he worked in a neighborhood that had all kinds of people from all over the world. in fact, he joked at one time that even representatives from chinatown came up for one of the marriages of his daughter. so i would say he would be more understanding of open immigration or more widely construed programs for immigration, just because that's
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what he grew up with. do you wantly gage, to add significant one thing i -- add anything significant? one thing i remember as a student was compare and contrast, immigration then and immigration now. prof. gage: right, i think that's really at the core of who al smith presented himself to be to the world. this question of immigration and labor was one of the hot issues, so immigration law when it was being, immigration restriction, which is passed in the 1920's, you had decades of debate about the relationship between wages , and labor, and immigration, and in fact during al smith's day, immigration policy was actually under the department of labor. and so these things were really intimately tied then. as i said, when he ran in 1928, it was really in the wake of a wave of nativist sentiment. if he stood for anything as a presidential candidate, it was a pushback against this reactive nativism.
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now, if he had actually been elected president, would he have been able in his day to push back immigration restriction? it seems unlikely. but this period in the 1920's is . intensive around these issues, and it lasts for 40 years. during al smith's childhood, there had been almost no restrictions on immigration. so we have seen this kind of constriction, and that constriction was not reopened until the 1960's, when, as you said, you begin to get very different groups of immigrants coming in. peter: about 25 minutes left in our program on al smith. howie in philadelphia, you're on the air. caller: yes, good evening. i wanted to shed some light on prohibition and how president parting -- president harding did not force prohibition on states that did not do the job themselves. it was 1926, around may when al smith actually signed the repeal of the prohibition act. can you also shed some light on
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kansas politics leading to the 1936 election, where al smith blew the whistle on the new deal? thank you. peter: johnny there'> evers? john: i think prohibition is something heavily identified with al smith. he never favored prohibition. it was not an issue he championed. he didn't like how new york state ratified it anyway. they did it by simple resolution through the legislature. he thought it should be a referendum. i believe it was 1924, they had a referendum in new york state on, what you think about prohibition? should you change the percentage of alcohol? they wanted beer and light wines to be allowed. it passed overwhelmingly, but it didn't mean anything. smith himself was elected the president of the convention in new york state in 1933 to repeal
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the prohibition amendment officially in this chamber. the 150 delegates that gathered overwhelmingly voted, and they overwhelmingly voted for al smith to be president. so he got the last laugh on that. in fact, they brought out 88-year-old elihu root to come out and second the nomination and pat him on the back. but prohibition shaped him because he thought it was almost ridiculous to say that you could use the constitution to control individual behavior. it actually took a right away from people, rather than the bill of rights giving rights to people. and he also thought it was hypocritical. he used to say he saw more people that would come out there dries, that they were and more wets trying to repeal the law, so he thought it was
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ridiculous. prof. gage: and it was very intimately tied to all these questions about immigration and rural versus urban america. a lot of the imagery that have been used promote prohibition was about the german saloon, or about drunken immigrants running wild in the city. smith also took objections to that as a real urban institution, but also to the kinds of imagery that have been mobilized to get prohibition passed. peter: beverly gage, was prohibition a christian right issue in the 1920's, kind of like abortion or gay marriage today? prof. gage: i think it was an issue that a lot of people -- it was certainly a cultural issue that mobilized certain sections of the population, but i wouldn't necessarily call it a right-wing issue in its day. it got a lot of its base of support from protestant groups, certainly from protestant fundamentalists during that day,
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this again being one of the great issues of the 1920's, with the scopes trial, and questions about fundamentalism really also are at the forefront of american political debate, but you also had a lot of progressive reformers, particularly women who had been suffragettes, who had been progressive on any number of other issues, who were also supporters of prohibition. partly as a feminist issue, saving you from your drunken husband. it's a complicated issue, and i think it doesn't line up very neatly on this left-right spectrum. >> john evers, in between presidential runs, 1928 and 1930, what happens to al smith in 1930? al smith, after he retires from the governorship here in
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new york, actually, as a little bit of a side note, he believes, and a lot of people attribute this to him, that he's going to help f.d.r. out, f.d.r. is going to need help. he's going to draft the budget for him, to hold his hand. that turns out not to be the case. f.d.r. wants to stand on his own and doesn't want anything to do with smith. smith goes back to new york city and gets the job to run the empire state building. it's going to be built. peter: had it been built in 1928? prof. gage: not -- john: not yet. they were knocking down the waldorf astoria and were going to break ground for this right around the time the stock market crashes. but they continue through. the dupont family and all the moneyed interests that wanted this built, this huge building that goes up just as the depression happens, just as the rents are, everybody is leaving their leases and nobody wants to rent anything. it's dubbed the empty state building, and smith who is making $50,000 a year as the president of the corporation -- peter: a large amount? john: a large amount, but he's
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running, like, $1 million deficit as a year because nobody renting. he goes to f.d.r. and says could you put some people in there? he goes hat in hand, by the way, could you put someone in the empire state building? that is his job, and he holds that job until he dies. of course, the economy changes and he does recover, but at first it was a very difficult job to have, trying to rent space when no one is buying office space in new york city. prof. gage: one of his greatest failures is really bad timing. he ends up as democratic candidate in 1928. if it had been 1932, he would have been a shoe-in. he ends up taking over this building that breaks ground on in something like august of 1929. he had a timing problem in the early 1930's. peter: we had another question from the audience. >> hi. on jonathan. i'm a junior political science major at suny-albany. i just have a question. when andrew cuomo first came to
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office as governor, he said he wanted to emulate some of the qualities of alfred smith. and earlier in the program, we talked about how at one point the governor's office was a very weak political office. can you just, if anything, go over what he did to make the office of governor stronger and, what example did he leave behind for others to follow? peter: thank you, sir. john: that is probably one of the lasting legacies of alfred e. smith, and when governor cuomo entered office he put smith's portrait behind the rostrum so that all the press conferences will see al smith, and he replaced teddy roosevelt, who was there for the last three governors. governor cuomo also instituted a sage commission which would investigate government and try to make it more efficient, which is also like smith's reconstruction commission.
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the point that smith is probably being emulated most for is efficiency in government. smith took 187 massive rolling bureaus, boards, commissions, departments, and rolled them into the 20 departments of government, and had the legislature pass the constitutional amendments, and then they were ratified by the people to make the governor a strong governor, and this is prior to f.d.r. reforming the executive office of the presidency in d.c. smith wanted to make sure that if he appointed a commissioner he would be answerable to him. prior to smith's reforms, commissioners' terms overlapped. the health care commissioner had a six-year term. certainly commissioners could be appointed by the previous governor, like the insurance commissioner. so the governor can't remove him. certain boards or bureaus, like the department of agriculture, were appointed by a board that
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was appointed by the legislature. the short answer is that smith really reformed government. he right-sized it. he made it responsive to the executive, who in turn is responsive to the people. that's probably his most lasting legacy. and that's been emulated i a lot of states. and had a little bit of the template taken to d.c. when f.d.r. reformed the office of the presidency. peter: albany, new york. mark, we're here in your hometown. what's your question on al smith? caller: well, my question is this. by the way, i do work for state government. i'm an internal audit director for a public authority, and i teach a two-day class to state employees about the state budget process. one of the things i teach them and, as i understand it, smith also reformed how budgeting is done in new york. prior to him, the budgeting
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wasn't done very well, and the budget may have been put forth budget may have been put forth by the legislature, and now we have a very strong executive being put forth by the governor and that's another legacy that exists to this day for al smith. in my opinion, that's one of his real strong contributions to the whole structure of government in new york. i wonder if you would comment on that. peter: mr. evers? prof. gage: yeah, prior to smith, budgeting was done by the legislature. basically the legislature would get together all the budget estimates of what they thought it would take to run government. very inefficient. you had executive agencies reporting to the legislature to say, this is what i need, whereas they technically reported to the governor. smith used to joke about it and say when the initial been bill was presented, it was then added to by the legislature so that the original budget bill could almost be unrecognizable. they would laden it down with pork.
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in fact, they joked at the 1915 constitutional convention that at one point, they claimed a clerk passing the bill from one house to the next actually added his own item in there. the inefficiency was so bad that smith said, let the governor submit the budget to the legislature based on estimates from his own executive departments that the legislature did can act on -- then can act on. that made budgeting much more responsive to one individual, the governor of new york, and that's how it is today. peter: beverly gage, we began this program with a little video from the al smith dinner. what is the al smith dinner, and how did it come about? prof. gage: the al smith dinner is most famous as a place the presidential candidates show up every four years. they show up, democrats and republicans. it's really a memorial dinner for smith. if anyone has heard all smith's
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name at this point in time, that's where you probably heard about al smith, unless you hang around these hallowed halls. in general, it's probably his most lasting public legacy, the place where his name gets out. but it's held every year, not just every four years. you have prominent figures coming in. it's really a memorial dinner. it's a catholic charity dinner, and a place where people get together and try to assess the legacy of al smith and presidential candidates always try to crack good jokes about each other. peter: and they show up together most times. they show up, both the democrat and republican nominees, show up together. we want to show you some of the past al smith dinners. >> might i ask if monsignor clark might come up here because either the president of the united states or i am without a seat -- [laughter] >> and i have no intension of standing. [laughter] >> i must say, traveled the
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banquet circuit for many years. i've never quite understood the logistics of dinners like this and how the absence of one individual could cause three of us to not have seats. >> mr. vice president, i'm glad to see you here tonight. you said many, many times in this campaign that you want to give america back to the little guy. [laughter] >> mr. vice president, i am that man. [laughter] >> as i looked out at all the white ties and tails this evening, i realized i haven't seen so many people so well-dressed since i went to a come as you are party in kennebunkport. >> we just had really good news out of yugoslavia. especially pleased that mr. milosevic has stepped down. that's one less polysyllabic name for me to remember. [laughter] [applause] president bush: you know what
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this world really needs? it really needs more world leaders named al smith. [laughter] >> it is an honor to share the dais with the descendants of the great al smith. al, your great, great grandfather was my favorite kind of governor. [laughter] mr. gore: the kind who ran for president and lost. [laughter] peter: about 15 minutes left. glen in freeland, michigan, you are on the contenders. please go ahead. caller: thank you very much. the question i have is, with all the anti-roman catholic racism and his being the first major american presidential party candidate that was roman catholic and everything, how
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much international attention did this get? specifically, did the pope at the time ever weigh in or comment on any of the campaign he ran, or anything like that? thank you very much. peter: thank you, glenn. beverly gage, if you want to start? prof. gage: right, well, in terms of polls you didn't really have the same kind of polling mechanisms you have today, so these things are a little bit harder to gauge in the 1920's. you know, which percentage cares -- what percentage do you care about more? it's tough for historians, actually not knowing that much about the electorate. on the international question it's really interesting because, yes, there was a lot of attention paid to this, and it came in the wake of two trials as well that really raised these questions about america's national character. the first was the scopes trial
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in 1925, and the second, the trial had happened earlier, but the second was the execution of sacco and venzetti, two italian immigrants, italian anarchists, that had happened in 1927. so these questions of what the united states' presentation to the world in terms of race, in terms of immigration policy, in terms of its attitudes towards radicalism and political tolerance, all these were really out there already by the time smith became the candidate. so his candidacy then on the world stage becomes another moment to ask those questions and call the questions. john: well, after the election and he loses, he does eventually go to europe at one time. he does meet the pope. he recounts on a few occasions that on many of his travels around italy, they thought he was the president because they knew he had run. he goes to the house of commons. he had a very good relationship with winston churchill.
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it certainly did catapult him to the world stage. so in that sense he was a famous also-ran around the world as well. peter: beverly gage, catholicism, 1928. african-american president, 2008. a serious woman contender in 2008. a potential mormon contender in 2012. is it a fair comparison? prof. gage: i think it is a fair comparison in certain ways. in that sense, al smith was absolutely, he was a trail blazer on this front, and i think in many ways it's hard for people today to understand the depth of anti-catholicism in the united states at that moment. when al smith was on the campaign trail, particularly in places like oklahoma, places he had never been before and he didn't know much about, his train would pull into town and there would be crosses burning. he faced physical danger around these sorts of questions, and he also faced all sorts of
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conspiracy theories about what his role was going to be, if he was going to be taking orders from the pope, or that they were building secret tunnels from the vatican. all these kind of really intense conspiracy theories that are very hard to remember, although in certain ways we've seen other conspiracy theories come up in recent years. but the intensity of the anti-catholic sentiment he faced is hard to remember. that's a nice way to kind of bring in some of these parallels. peter: another member of our studio audience has a question. >> hello, i'm kathy, and i'm a junior american studies major at lauderdale college in seneca, new york. how has president obama al smith in his legacies so far? i went to siena. so very good. one of the things that's a great parallel between the two is working with a legislature that is seen as hostile, that is seen
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as the two-party, the partisanship. smith faced that every year that he was in office here in albany. he only had control of the senate for two years, and that was by a single vote. the other eight years, it was eight years of republican dominance here in this chamber, and in the other house he only had the one term. so i would think that the problem of dealing with the other party is something that smith had to battle with and undertake. that's something that the current president has a problem with as well. the other thing he has is, it's remarkable, the sense of humor. president obama has a very good sense of humor and handled press conferences very well. al smith was the same way. he knew he could be funny on occasions, but not all the time because then people wouldn't take you seriously, so he could
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really play a very good statesman with a sense of humor, which is another good parallel. peter: beverly? prof. gage: only thing i might add is i'm not sure barack obama has quite learned how al smith learned how to make it all happen. not sure he's learned his lessons for dealing with a hostile legislature. peter: thank you, cassie. next call from houston, texas. joe. good evening to you. please go ahead. caller: oh, thanks for taking my call. my first question, i know smith lost new york in 1928 to hoover. how well did he do in the five boroughs? i also wanted to know, was anti-catholicism vote more prevalent in the southern states as compared to like the midwest, say, kansas, nebraska, etc.? and i also wanted to know, he had a fallout with f.d.r., i was surprised to hear he endorsed wendell wilkie in 1940, but i'd like to know how did he feel about social security? peter: all right.
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caller: thank you. peter: john? john: he did well in new york. he always did well in new york city. he did extraordinarily well in his own district. but he just couldn't make it up over the whole state. the other question, what was the other? peter: well, did he win new york city? do you know off hand if he won in 1928? john: oh, i don't recall. i don't think he did. peter: not even in new york city? john: new york city also had outer boroughs that had republican dominance, which is still the case in staten island. but in but in pockets of queens as well. peter: social security? john: the issue on social security is something that smith had tried to implement in new york state when it came to widows and orphans' pensions. he tried to experiment with health insurance for industrial workers, and he also tried to do all kinds of social security issues when it came to trying to support those that were
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downtrodden, make-work projects were something that he had experimented with, and it might have been one of those programs he would have carried into the new deal had he won. johnprof. gage: i just wanted to address one other aspect that came up, which is about the south. one of the strange things that emerges, was anti-catholicism more powerful in the south than in the midwest? that's a hard question to answer. but we've been talking about democrats versus republicans here. one of the things that was really difficult for smith were the divisions in the national democratic party. the whole south at this point is still a democratic south with smith as their national candidate, so you had real tensions within the democratic party between this kind of urban core smith was coming to represent and the more southern wing, as well as other wings of the democratic party. so there are intraparty tensions that are as important as these tensions between republicans and democrats.
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peter: herbert hoover, 444 electoral votes. al smith, 87 electoral votes. herbert hoover won 40 states. al smith won eight. those eight states, arkansas, louisiana, mississippi, alabama, georgia, south carolina, massachusetts, and rhode island. another question? >> if you were to grade his governorship, what letter would you assign? and as the first catholic presidential candidate, did he view religion as a factor there? i would give governor smith an "a" because he faced a tremendously uphill battle. new york was a republican state at the time, and as i mentioned, he had a very tough time dealing with the legislature which was overwhelmingly republican.
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in 1920, when they expelled the socialists, i never understood why because they had 110 republicans out of 150 seats and it didn't really matter when if came to the votes. but i would give smith an "a." he created so many things, the budget, the short ballot, to stop voting for six or seven statewide offices and have some appointed. the state engineer and the like. the public authority was one thing he tried to undertake. also, the port authority in new york and new jersey was one of his ideas, a bi-state authority. he had a lot of interesting things. peter: john evers? biggest failure of smith? john: some of it might be that he overthought things. i think from a political science point of view, public authorities were something he wanted to deal with. he created those, and now there's debates over public authorities. and bonding. governor smith was a huge proponent of bonding. that has created a propensity for dependence on bonding.
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it could create state debt. peter: what difference did al smith make in national politics? prof. gage: i think al smith called certain questions and faced them down. his candidacy raised questions that had been percolating in various ways throughout the 1920's. these questions that we've been talking about, immigration, nativism, all these sorts of issues, and he really calls the question. he takes a very sort of powerful stand about who is going to be an american, who ought to be included as an american, and becomes a great symbol for that. i think within the democratic party, he's also a very powerful figure in sort of consolidating what we now talk about as the roosevelt coalition, but it begins with al smith bringing this urban core into the party. yale university history professor beverly gage and john evers, former new york state assembly historian, thank you so
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much for being on "the contenders." we also want to make sure to thank speaker sheldon silver and the people here at the new york state assembly for allowing us to broadcast live. we want to thank our studio audience and our cable partner up here in albany, time warner. we're going to leave you with a few of al smith's own words on his career and life. >> i was elected to my first public office in 1903. i was elected [indiscernible] of new york county. in fact i ran office 22 times. ands elected 20 times defeated twice. i've worked for the county, i've worked for the city, i've worked for the state. and you will probably remember that i've try to get a job down in washington, but something happened to me.
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