13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on November 11, 2005
Growing up in New York, it was hard to avoid the name Alfred E. Smith. The huge housing development on the Lower East Side is just one structure that bears his name. But it wasn't until I had read Leon Stein's "Traingle Fire" (for a college paper), when I learned something about the man himself. Later, as another reviewer mentioned, Al Smith was highlighted in the Ric Burns "New York" documentary. Intrigued, I picked up Christopher Finan's "Happy Warrior", which was a very good introduction. However, Professor Robert Slayton's "Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith" has completed the picture for me.
Slayton painstakingly examines the complex relationships between Smith and many of the players in his political spectrum, especially FDR. How this contrasts with the simple but deep relationships he had with friends and family is astounding. One of Professor Slayton's main theses--that Smith embodied the best qualities of turn-of-the century immigrant New York--is smoothly argued. For New York, Smith was the right man at the right time. But then Slayton switches gears, with convincing authority, that Smith was the wrong man at wrong time for 1928 America. It is a devestating irony, and grippingly described.
I found the final sections about Smith's reconciliation with FDR and America extremely moving. The entire "Finale" section, including the deaths and funerals of Smith's wife, Katie, and then Smith himself, had me choking back the tears. Finally, there is Professor Slayton's reminder of the legacy that Al Smith left behind, both for New York City and the nation. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Author of The Five Points
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2001
Professor Robert A. Slayton has written a wonderfully rich and nuanced biography of one of the 20th century's great (and forgotten) political progressives. Unfortunately, Al Smith is remembered with a nod today for two interrelated reasons: 1.) As a lightning rod Roman Catholic who fell on his sword for the Democrats in a quixotic 1928 presidential run against Herbert Hoover and 2.) As the fellow who paved the way for fellow Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy's ascent to the presidency 32 years later. While these are significant portions of Smith's biography, he deserves to be remembered in the light that Professor Slayton casts him: as a political progressive who sought to improve the lives of his fellow New Yorkers, particularly poor and working class folks in need of a hand. As Slayton shows, much of the thinking that later resulted in FDR's New Deal programs had its genesis in Al Smith's New York. Slayton does a fine job covering Smith's early political career. In particular, the discussion of Smith's fight for labor and workplace reforms after the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 makes compelling reading. Some have accused Slayton of assuming too hagiographic a tone toward Smith, and though elements of that criticism may be true, Slayton's book is certainly no more fawning than Oscar Handlin's out-of-print classic, "Al Smith's America." In the end, Slayton's book deserves high commendation - if only because it throws the spotlight on a fellow who deserves a much larger place in the story of American progressive politics.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2003
The book does a very nice job of describing one of the more important, but forgotten, figures in US political history. Smith's role as governor of New York and the various groundbreaking reforms he introduced, his mentorship of various figures from FDR to Robert Moses, and of course being the first Catholic to run for President would be enough to rank him right up there with some of the more widely written about icons of America. When you consider two of his top four advisers were women (this is the 1920's, mind you), his role in building the nation's tallest building at the time, his emergence as a spokesperson for the immigrant masses who became a political force during his era (and the subsequent, seismic shift this caused in the nation's political landscape - he was the first Democrat to lose the Solid South since the Civil War), his being one of the first politicians to speak out against Hitler, and that he did all this without even attending high school, Al not only deserves a high quality biography but perhaps a major motion picture as well. John Cusack in the lead!
The book is occasionally "cheerleady" - superlatives come landing out of left field in the midst of other, more traditional descriptions of events. It is, however, critical and frank in other areas of Smiths career, so it reads in a balanced fashion overall. It is a great read and one that should be read by anyone interested in the US political landscape and how it got to what it is today.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2001
This book takes us back to one of the forgotten greats of American politics in the early 20th century--Al Smith, poor boy from Oliver Street, Tammany Hall politician, Governor of New York State, 1928 Democratic candidate for President, the first Catholic candidate nominated for President by a major party, principal organizer of the effort to build the Empire State Building. Smith rose from obscure, immigrant roots and without the benefit of much formal education to become one of the leading politicians of his day. Much of his work on improving social and economic conditions for working people paved the way for FDR and the New Deal. The author, Robert Slayton, has clearly fallen for his subject, but not so far as to sacrifice all objectivity. The descriptions of life in New York's neighborhoods are hypnotic. The writing style is clear and forceful (a little too elegiac in places). Slayton captures the many sides of Smith's character: the idealist who will not leave his immigrant constituents behind, the blinkered New Yorker who believes that people who live in other states are "just kidding", the practical politician who can build coalitions even from the ranks of his enemies, the man of principle who will not lie or even remain silent, the leader of a presidential campaign we now know was doomed to fail on the rocks of fear and prejudice, and most unfortunately, the embittered egomaniac who threw in with the Republicans against FDR in the 30's after the Democrats pass him by. Slayton does not slight Smith's family life, his friendships, and his rather odd wardrobe choices (brown derby, maroon shirts, etc.) The reader will learn a lot he did not know before (like, for example, that Smith not all Irish butwas really part Italian on his father's side). The author also does a decent job of placing Smith in the context of his times (prohibition, female suffrage, machine politics, world war, the red scares). This is a great book about an undeservedly forgotten man who played a large role in the making of modern America. If you like this book, you'll also like the new book by James Farrell on Tip O'Neill.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 27, 2001
In the midst of a heated debate on the floor of the New York State Legislature, it's suddenly announced that Cornell has won a major boating race. "It means nothing to me, I'm a Yale man," one legislator intones. Bellows another: "means nothing to me either, I'm a Harvard man." "It doesn't mean anything to me," responds Al Smith, "I'm an FFM." What's FFM? "Fulton Fish Market," Smith says. "Now can we return to the debate?"
This is just one of the colorful anecdotes that lace Robert Slayton's excellent chronicle of Al Smith's rise from "The Sidewalks of New York" (his adoptive campaign theme song) to the New York Statehouse and beyond. Here's another story that caught my fancy. As Governor, Al visits a local elitist who's opposed to the expansion of public parklands on Long Island. "It will just bring more rabble from the City," the elitist protests. "Rabble? I'm the rabble," Smith rejoins.
My interest in Al Smith was recently piqued by the PBS "History of New York" documentary (episodes #4 and #5), and I picked up Mr. Slayton's new biography looking to learn more about this seminal public figure. Mr. Slayton delivered everything I expected and more: Smith, the street-wise Lower Eastsider who rises to Tammany leadership; the reformer who crusades for life-safety codes and work rules revisions in the wake of the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory inferno; the four-term Governor who achieves landmark administrative reforms and inveighs against Prohibition; his pathbreaking, but deeply disappointing 1928 Presidential campaign; his foray into the private sector and the construction of the Empire State Building -- just in time for the Great Depression; and Smith's bitter falling out, and eventual rapprochement with FDR.
All in all, it's quite a fascinating life.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on March 24, 2002
A great story, about an individual who personifies everything great about America. Alfred E. Smith was the son of immigrants, whose parents ended up in Manhattan's Lower East Side. His Father died early in his life, leaving Smith to take care of his family.
Take care of them he did, leaving school as a child to get a job in the Fulton Fish Market, and thereafter becoming a self-educated man, who never forgot his origins. He associated with
Tammany Hall, and found his way to Albany as a state representative. From there, he ran for and became Governor of The Empire State. He rose to greatness from the humblest of origins.
As noted, no less than Franklin Delano Roosevelt paid the highest compliment to Smith, saying that the foundation of his own New Deal came from what Smith had done first as Governor of
New York. He said: "Practically all the things we've done in the federal government are the things Al Smith did as governor of New York." Smith was the champion of the working man
and woman, first distinguishing himself after one of the country's worst industrial tragedies, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire.
Sadly, most Americans outside of New York who know of Smith learned of him through what biographer Slayton accurately called the nastiest and most vicious political campaign in the history
of the Republic, when Smith was the first Catholic American to run for President in 1928 against Herbert Hoover (ironically, the candidate called best for business at the time). According to the author, by any measure of analysis, the reason Smith lost was due to those narrow minded individuals who would not accept him as their President because of his choice of religion,
otherwise guaranteed him under the Constitution.
But for Smith, we'd have a different feeling about what makes America great. He blazed a trail which shamed America into revealing a level of greatness it had never acknowledged before his time; culminating in the election of John F. Kennedy more than thirty years later. The commitment he had for the least of Americans became the saving grace of the country after the
depths of the Depression. Before the buzzword of the day was diversity, Smith was unabashed about celebrating it in his City, State and Nation.
He remains to my mind one of the greatest statesmen the Country ever produced. Biographer Slayton has done a phenomenal job in bringing his story to life.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
In his short 1958 study of Al Smith, Oscar Handlin noted that "[t]he written word did not come as easily to Al Smith as the spoken word." Because of this, there it no great body of correspondence or private papers for Smith biographers to consult, ultimately hampering any effort to understand "the Happy Warrior." In this respect, Robert Slayton's book stands as a major achievement. Having conducted extensive archival research and interviewed the children and grandchildren of many of the key figures, he presents what is the most thoroughly researched work on Smith that we are likely to have, and easily the most definitive one currently available.
Slayton uses this material to present a compelling interpretive portrait of his subject. Tracing his idealistic, even naive view of America to his upbringing, Slayton argues that Smith never grew beyond viewing the world through the prism of the lower East Side. This was not a problem in the context of New York state politics, where he rode the crest of a wave of change in the state, one which brought him into the governor's office as the first holder representing the urban immigrants who were to plan an increasingly important role in politics during the twentieth century. When Smith ventured onto the national stage in 1928, however, his naivete about America's essential decency and tolerance crashed up against the prejudices of an America still dominated culturally by rural Protestant values. Slayton sees Smith's defeat as a decisive event transforming his character, leaving a streak of bitterness that only grew as he saw Franklin Roosevelt - a man he dismissed as his political junior - capture the prize that Smith would never obtain.
Yet for all of its strengths of research and analysis, Slayton's book suffers is in its writing. Throughout much of the book Slayton peppers his text with unnecessary slang, and at points such as when he is discussing Tammany or Smith's old neighborhood he adopts a more casual, colloquial tone. The effort jars with the more readable narrative of the rest of the text, appearing as if he were attempting to evoke the conversational style with which Smith was most comfortable. Instead of appearing atmospheric and creative, however, it comes across as amateurish and ham-handed, hobbling rather than helping the rest of the work.
These compositional gaffes can distract from the overall quality of this book. Slayton as provided a biography of Smith filled with insight into his character and his times. It is a book, however, that doesn't quite embody the legendary nature of this political figure, who dominated Democratic politics in the 1920s and who heralded many of the changes that America would undergo. Until the book that can capture this is written, Slayton's biography is the best work available for anyone seeking to understand this fascinating individual.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
The election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency occurred when I was in the seventh grade of my local parochial school. In the Catholic/Democratic atmosphere of East Buffalo, and probably in Tim Russert's South Buffalo as well, the resulting ascendancy of a Catholic to the White House was a vindication. We knew that a Catholic had run once before; in fact, he had been governor of our own state. The popular wisdom of the Catholic grass roots held that the first intrepid candidate had lost because he was a Catholic, and a lot of America did not like Catholics. It did not occur to a seventh grader that people vote for lots of reasons, and that this was true in 1928 as in 1960.
Alfred E. Smith, a man of no small accomplishment, lost miserably to Herbert Hoover in a 1928 presidential election that added little to the American character. It may be true that his Catholicism was a major factor in his defeat, but biographer Robert A. Slayton provides a balanced study of Smith that gives reason to pause. We see early in this work that Smith [particularly when compared to Hoover] suffered from major deficiencies in his political upbringing that affected his judgment and contributed to a naiveté about the nature of the American electorate.
Born in 1873 in New York's infamous Fourth Ward, there was no way that young Smith would not be baptized into the two religions of his neighborhood: the Roman Catholic Church and Tammany Hall. At his local St. James Parish he received his elementary school education from the Christian Brothers. It is doubtful that he absorbed any particularly subversive tendencies of church and state at St. James. Catholic schools of the time were a laborious financial undertaking for Catholic bishops of the day, who considered them a necessary refuge against the virulent anti-Catholic attitudes of many public school curriculums. What Smith certainly absorbed from his Catholic upbringing was New York's multiculturalism, a phenomenon not understood and generally feared in the predominantly agricultural and Protestant Middle America.
Tammany Hall, one of America's most notorious yet beneficent Democratic political machines, would also demonstrate in Smith's day that same ability to adapt to cultural diversity despite its Irish heritage. Tammany was the incarnation of Tip O'Neill's dictum that "all politics is local." Slayton has no argument with this philosophy except to note that it is notorious bad presidential politics. Thus from the formative years Smith emerges as the Catholic/Tammany wounded duck.
But Smith postponed his inevitable denouement for a long time. For much of his life his personality, loyalty, affability and attention to detail, not to mention his "made man" status with the Tammany war horses, were enough to see him through his political climb. Despite its size and stature, New York State government was Byzantine and unwieldy. The legislature itself was a purgatory for a man without some kind of particular agenda, and Smith found his in the very organization of state government. With little to do, he became that body's best studied member and probably the best informed of the lot; he had something of Bob Taft's feel for the paper of legislation but with a much more extroverted personality. His counsel became cherished and his respect among his peers flourished.
And, he was lucky, though it is also true that men can make their own luck through hard work. On March 25, 1911 a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire in New York killed 146 workers. The dimensions of this tragedy and the accompanying neglect of worker safety made labor reform a statewide issue, allowing Smith to conduct emotional public hearings throughout the state. This exposure, and his public advocacy for a popular issue, put him into the New York State governor's mansion in 1919. With the invaluable help of Belle Moskowitz, Frances Perkins, and Robert Moses, among others, Smith continued his program of reform of the state constitution and generally pleased voters enough to maintain office more often than not in the dreadful decade of 1920's national Democratic defeats.
When William McAdoo declined to seek the presidential nomination in 1928, Governor Smith was virtually unopposed within his party. Suffice to say that once he stepped onto the national stage, however, all of his assets of many years became liabilities. His New York bonhomie, his Catholicism, his parochial accent, and his enjoyment of spirits in the age of the Volstead Act doomed his campaign from the start. He was running against the extremely popular Coolidge legacy, against a candidate who knew how to avoid mistakes. To borrow a metaphor from this century, the "red states" were really red, and there were many more of them in 1928.
Having said that, there is no denying that the 1928 campaign set the twentieth century low water mark for bigotry and ugliness. Slayton points out that the KKK of the 1920's was primarily an anti-Catholic movement; Jim Crow laws made Negro intimidation relatively unnecessary at the time. Catholicism was understood as a foreign invasion of lower class degenerates who drank excessively and usurped the jobs of present American citizens. The Democratic ticket was seen as an endorsement of this demographic shift, and voters turned upon the top of the ticket with a particular vehemence. Smith's parochialism had not prepared him for this, and the intensity of feeling against him, along with the size of the defeat, seems to have left psychological scars that remained with Smith for the rest of his life.
After this grueling ordeal, it galled Smith all the more that the perceived savior of his party was a man he considered a political lightweight, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As long as FDR lived, Smith would never get his electoral revenge. Coupled with the debacle of managing the day's tallest white elephant, the new Empire State Building, Smith's "redemption" makes only a cameo appearance in this work.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 21, 2001
Robert Slayton has written a great political biography about a truly great,but sadly forgotten, Statesman,Al Smith. Professor Slayton is a master storyteller who writes with verve and humor. The best parts of the book are about Smith's Governorship and His wonderful family life.Smith was probably New York's greatest Governor and Slayton clearly shows us why.The book has two minor flaws; The account of Smith's failed 1928 campaign for the presidency is excellent except for Slayton's attempt to prove that Smith was defeated solely because of his religion.His attempt falls short.Clearly Smith's catholicism was an issue and it did hurt him. But Slayton fails to make the case that given the great prosperity of the twenties, for which the Republicans were generally credited, that any Democrat could have been elected that year.The book's other shortcoming is it's attempt to explain Smith's drift to the right in His final years. After clearly establishing the considerable ideological differences between Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt Slayton attempts to explain Smith's rightward tilt in psychological ,or should I say psychobabble terms. It is really very simple,some people become more conservative as they get older.But taken as a whole this is a great book, a fascinating biography of a statesman of vision and integrity that all of us should know more about than we do.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
This book deserves five stars, tho I had some quarrels with it. There is a lot of original research, but I thought its reliance on a book like The 103rd Ballot, which itself relies too much on secondary sources, was unfortunate. It has footnotes, but no bibliography as such--to get the books relied on one would need to go through the 63 pages of fotnotes and note the first time a book was noted, which should have been done for the reader by including a bibliography. Outside of these faults this book tells a great story and recounts the fantastic career of Al Smith in a very readable and interesting way. Especially good are the chapters on the 1928 campaign and on the years thereafter. One cannot help but be appalled at the awful bigotry which marked the 1928 campaign--I am sure glad I did not have to live through it: I would have been very sad for my country.