Sunday, January 25, 2009

"What Must the Widow Feel?" The Compassion of Al Smith

This past Wednesday we went to the second of Robert Caro's lectures at the New-York Historical Society on "The Shapers of New York." This time the subject was Al Smith, the great New York Governor who served on and off from 1919 to 1928. (I had blogged about Al Smith in October when both McCain and Obama, at the height of the presidential race, appeared at the Al Smith Dinner which is held every year in the old Governor's memory to raise money for Catholic charities). Caro indicated that this was his favorite lecture to give because of his great admiration for Al Smith (1873-1944) .He also sad that, sadly, there are no great books about Smith so learning about him and how important he was is difficult.

In this lecture, Caro talked about Al Smith's incredible rise from being a street kid in the Bowery to New York's first Catholic Governor. Smith worked as a laborer and ran errands for the corrupt Tammany Hall machine. Eventually he worked his way into a seat in the State Legislature where he became one of the hardest working and most capable legislators Albany had ever seen (amongst other things, he actually read the legislation he voted on, something a lot of his colleagues didn't do). During his time in the legislature (he rose to Speaker before becoming Governor), Smith came up with ideas that were revolutionary in early 20th century America but are commonplace today: state farm insurance, worker's compensation and safety laws (following the terrible Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire of 1911), health insurance for the poor, and higher teacher salaries. His compassion for the working poor and working women in particular was extraordinary. In fact, his ideas were so revolutionary that when FDR implemented the New Deal in the 1930s, he told people that "What we're doing is basically what Al Smith in New York." If FDR was the Father of the New Deal, Al Smith was its Godfather.

Smith's life and career had great highs and crushing lows. Although a very successful governor, he never realized his dream of the Presidency. He was the Democratic nominee in 1928 but was crushed by Herbert Hoover. The reason? He was Catholic, and people outside of New York and the Northeast didn't like Catholics very much back then. (It's amazing to think that 80 years ago a Catholic couldn't elected president but now a black man can.) And when FDR became President, he ignored Smith completely and he was never able to bring his talents to the Federal level. However, in the early thirties, the retired Al Smith helped to build the Empire State Building. But his anger at Roosevelt made him abandon his Democratic party affiliation and become something of an angry reactionary late in life.

One other interesting thing about Smith. He had a young assistant whose career he nurtured named Robert Moses. When Smith was retired and Moses was at the height of his power, Moses re-built the Central Park Zoo just for him. Smith loved animals and Moses made him an Honorary Zookeeper. He also gave Smith a key to the zoo so that the old governor could leave his apartment across the street on Fifth Avenue any time day or night to go into the zoo and visit with the animals. Moses, who was a legendary egomaniac, loved to demonstrate his power by calling everyone, including the Mayors and Governors he supposedly worked for, by their first names (including even Nelson Rockefeller). But Moses always called Smith "Governor" and his respect for him never waned. And neither should ours.

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