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Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith Hardcover – March 15, 2001

4.7 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Harold Evans author of The American Century Rich and relevant: Robert Slayton's portrait of the colorful and appealing Al Smith is rich in new detail -- and very relevant to the political controversies of today. The 'Happy Warrior' nominated by FDR for the Democratic ticket in 1924 (and again in 1928), New York Governor Smith was a populist Catholic who confronted the KKK bigots with tolerance, integrity, and humor, long before John F. Kennedy finally exorcised the anti-Catholic demons from American politics...or did he? An America in search of heroes will find sustenance in this honorable man of the city. Al Smith was one of those people who make a reality of American ideals. -- Review

About the Author

Robert A. Slayton is Associate Professor of history at Chapman University. A New Yorker by birth, he is the author of Back of the Yards: The Making of a Local Democracy and New Homeless and Old: Community and the Skid Row Hotel. He lives in Orange County, California.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (March 15, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684863022
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684863023
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #278,717 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rocco Dormarunno on November 11, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.

Rocco Dormarunno

Author of The Five Points
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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By A Customer on April 14, 2001
Format: Hardcover
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).Read more ›
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