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How Al Smith and FDR countered the KKK and anti-Catholic prejudice in politics


Jimmy Velkind | St. Martin's Press

Tony Rossi - published on 11/13/18

Author and historian Terry Golway discusses the unlikely alliance between Al Smith, the first Catholic to run for president, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Catholics in the United States should be deported because they can never be good American citizens due to their allegiance to Rome.

That was the argument made in 1928 by Democratic Senator Tom Heflin of Alabama in response to the Democrats wanting to nominate Al Smith as their candidate for president. Smith would make history by becoming the first ever Catholic on the ballot for the highest office in the land, but a contingent of his fellow Democrats – many of them members of the KKK – opposed him with all their might. So how was Smith able to make history despite his detractors? With the help of his friend Frank.

That would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Author Terry Golway tells the story of the “unlikely alliance” between the two men in his new biography “Frank and Al,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup.”

Al Smith may be best known today for the annual Catholic Charities fundraising dinner named in his honor, but Golway calls him “one of the greatest governors, if not the greatest governor, in New York history.”

Smith grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood which included Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Chinese immigrants. His family was working class, though many around him were poor. Financial hardship hit the Smiths when Al’s father died. His mother had to take a job to support the family, and Al himself dropped out of his Catholic grammar school (St. James) to find work.

Through political connections he made as a teenager with the Irish Catholics who ran Manhattan’s Democratic party, better known as Tammany Hall, he was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1903 and went on to become a self-educated politician who got things done, often in a bipartisan way, through his charisma, knowledge, and personality.

Despite making inroads into the halls of power in New York, Catholics weren’t always embraced on a national level. Golway explained, “The overt discrimination against Catholics, particularly the Irish, dates back to the 1840s when the first wave of Irish Catholic immigrants came over to the United States during the potato famine. By 1873, which is when Smith was born, there’s still a lot of contempt for Catholics based on religion, but also based on the fact that many of them were poor and didn’t speak English, like the Italians. Even some Irish came over speaking the Irish language. There was a great sense that Catholics were threatening the Protestant identity of the United States.”

Though Tammany Hall is often used as short-hand for corruption, Golway takes a more nuanced approach to its efforts because the Irish Catholic politicians who ran it helped a lot of people. “In the late 19th and early 20th century,” he said, “if tragedy struck your family or there was an injustice done by the justice system, there was nowhere to turn except your local district leader, your local Tammany Hall politician…[They] understood that poor people had a vote that counted as much as rich people.”

Smith was something special because he genuinely cared about people and he wouldn’t be bought off by rich businessmen. For instance, Smith supported issues like minimum wages, and joined forces with a woman named Frances Perkins to craft a bill that would limit women and children’s working hours to 54 hours a week. Golway writes, “Adults commonly worked a hundred hours a week; children worked until they dropped, literally.”

Many reformers were astonished, said Golway, “that an Irish Catholic machine politician would be in favor of something that’s good. They…were open-minded enough to realize, ‘Okay, you could be a kid from the streets, you could be a papist – as many Catholics were referred to – and still be on the right side of an issue.’ Smith was a paragon of that sort of thing.”

Franklin Roosevelt, on the other hand, was not that kind of paragon when he was elected to the New York Assembly in 1911 – and he probably didn’t like when the down-to-earth Smith started calling him Frank instead of Franklin.

Golway notes that the young FDR “didn’t have that empathy and warmth that many people associate with him as president.” And Frances Perkins described him as a snob “walking around the corridors of the state capital with his nose in the air.” (Perkins went on to become FDR’s Secretary of Labor during his presidency, making her the first female cabinet officer in U.S. history.)

Golway states, “I found that [Smith and Roosevelt] didn’t like each other at first. Smith is a Lower East Side guy, and Frank is the guy from Hyde Park, which is a very fancy, well-off part of the Hudson Valley here in New York. He’s a patrician, he went to Harvard. Smith dropped out of grammar school. Smith says to people that Roosevelt doesn’t understand politics. He was absolutely right, Roosevelt did not understand politics. Then in the 1920s, after Roosevelt contracts polio, they become very friendly. Smith is governor by now…I feel that Roosevelt learned from Smith how to be a politician. I think polio certainly humbled him, but I think he saw the way Al Smith and politicians like him were able to connect with people, and he learned from that. I think that many Roosevelt biographers haven’t given Smith the credit he deserves for his influence over Roosevelt…I think [their relationship] verged on friendship. Other historians would disagree with me, but I disagree with them because there are some letters they exchanged where they talk about being together up in Hyde Park.”

Without Roosevelt’s support, Smith might not have been able to convince the Democratic Party’s Protestants to vote for him. And that’s why Golway believes, as his book’s subtitle states, that Smith and Roosevelt’s friendship created the “modern Democratic party.”

Golway explains, “The notion of ‘modern’ doesn’t mean today’s Democratic Party…The Democratic Party of the 19th and early 20th century was very much free market – the government should stay out of the economy…It was small government…The party was also very much a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant party. Because of Al Smith – and because Franklin Roosevelt was open to this – the Democratic Party became, in the 1920s and ’30s, the party of Catholics and Jews.”

“The most dramatic part of my book,” continues Golway, “happens in 1924 when Smith is running for president. He doesn’t get the nomination. He gets it four years later. The convention in 1924 is in New York. Roosevelt is Smith’s campaign manager. The largest contingent at the Democratic National Convention was the Ku Klux Klan. They were determined to make sure a Catholic never became president of the United States. By 1928, a Catholic is nominated for president. The Klan lost. Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt won. That, in my telling, is where you see the creation of the modern Democratic Party so that Jews and Catholics have this home, have this civic space that they had been denied in the period before 1928.”

Smith, of course, didn’t win the presidency, but it was still a groundbreaking effort. Though the friendship between Smith and Roosevelt went sour for a time during the 1930s, there was a coming together again during World War Two. And the two men died less than a year apart in 1944 and 1945.

What message does Golway hope readers take away from his book? “I hope they’re reminded what a great man Al Smith was. He suffered through the most bigoted campaign in American history in 1928. He was deplored around the country because of his Catholic beliefs. I think that many Catholics may have forgotten that part of history, the history that affected maybe their grandparents and their great grandparents. I hope this reminds them of what it was like to be a Catholic in the United States 100 years ago. It wasn’t easy.”

(To listen to my full interview with Terry Golway, click on the podcast link):

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