The man behind the dinner: Alfred E. Smith

THE HAPPY WARRIOR. Governor Al Smith and his wife, Catherine

Tonight political aficionados of every stripe will turn their attention to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City where the 71st Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner will take place.  

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In the midst of all the excitement surrounding the dinner and the speakers, there will be references made of the man for whom this dinner is named. Many people will read accounts of it or hear about it; there will be those who will manage to view the proceedings on C-Span and there will be many listeners and viewers who know very little of the man himself, other than the fact that he was a politician who wore a brown derby and smoked cigars.  

But there was more to Alfred E. Smith than that—he was a man who believed that faith in God was not incompatible with faith in the people. And whether it was in the halls of Tammany or the legislative ones of Albany, Al Smith never forgot who he was and where he came from. But before that all happened, life had to be lived first.

When he was born in December 1873 within sight of the soon-to-be Brooklyn Bridge, there was nothing to mark him as someone who would be influential in the pages of U.S. history. He came from poor stock who, like others in his time, struggled to make a living in an often harsh world of tenement living. His was a simple life and he did what he could to help his family make ends meet. He was a newsboy, hawking newspapers at street corners. But the most formative event in his life prior to politics was his work at the Fulton Fish Market, where he worked from 4 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon for the fulsome salary of $15 a week. By that time, he had dropped out of St. James parochial school to help out at home. His political life would find him in the halls of Tammany, as a clerk with the Commissioner of Jurors and as a sheriff of New York, before going on to the majestic Assembly halls of Albany and eventually, the governorship of New York.

Since he lacked a formal education, Smith, while in Albany, studied hard and worked hard. He stayed up very late so he could read every bill (each one more than 300 pages) until he could understand every nuance involved in the measure. By dint of such work, he eventually became a master tactician of the legislative as well as the political process. But it was also there that he felt the stings of social and class discrimination.

Often repeated as part of the Smith legend, the story goes that he was with a group of his fellow legislators who were discussing their social and educational backgrounds. As noted, Smith keenly felt his lack of a formal education and worked strenuously to remedy it by his own studies; yet he could not overcome the class distinctions of those who were “better off” than he was. While the other men were bragging about their educational accomplishments, he soon felt the eyes of his fellows upon him wondering what he would say about himself. They wanted to know his academic pedigree: what was it? Smith answered, “FFM.” Naturally, the others were flummoxed. The man from the Lower East Side replied: “Fulton Fish Market!” It was that “degree” that made Alfred E. Smith the man that he was, a man who grew to understand the workings of human nature and it was that specialized education that gave flesh to those dry words he read in books and legislative bills—and gave him an advantage over those with better “pedigrees.”

He served 12 years in the Assembly before he became New York’s 42nd governor. He would served four non-consecutive two-year terms (in 1918, 1922, 1924 and 1926) and was regarded as a progressive one for his time: Smith created programs that helped the poor and the middle class and the society as a whole. It was his programs that, in many ways, provided the template for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Smith lived in critical times for New York and the United States. By the time he ran as the Democrats’ presidential nominee for president in 1928, he would do so unsuccessfully. This was due in part to the apparent prosperity of the time but also to the underlying and latent anti-Catholicism that many people held, which Smith could never overcome. He was “The Happy Warrior” who beckoned people to “look at the record.”

His record, while stellar in many ways, wasn’t good enough to hold back the historical tides. In one sense, he was fortunate for having lost to Herbert Hoover then; the eventual Great Depression would become Hoover’s and not Smith’s. His New York parochialism unfortunately worked against him, too. When asked what he thought of a certain papal social encyclical, he later asked an aide, “What the hell is an encyclical?” And when he did lose that presidential election, he said dejectedly that it would be some time before a Catholic would be able to say his beads in the White House.  

Smith would later become known as the public face of the iconic Empire State Building. Yet it would take the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 to eventually remove the sting and the hurt that Al Smith long felt for being of Catholic and immigrant stock. Smith himself would die in 1944 at the age of 70, leaving behind the memory of a man who cheerfully fought for others while retaining his faith in God and his country.

I have a great fondness for Alfred E. Smith, for he was part of my Irish Catholic heritage and also for the fact that while growing up in St. Nicholas of Tolentine parish in the Bronx, I was fortunate to know Governor Smith’s namesake grandson, who not only was a spitting image of the great man himself, but who was also an Augustinian priest.

Father Smith taught in the parish high school and was the custodian of the chapel named in honor of Pope John Paul I. His office was next door to the chapel and like his namesake, he was accessible to all he met. He was friendly with my father Harry and, like my father, was a noted cigarette smoker (but Father Smith smoked cigars, too—after all, he was true to his heritage). My father once pointed out that what impressed him about Father Smith was that he could have been a politician with his looks and that voice, and could have had as storied a career like his grandfather, but instead chose service as a parish priest. And like his grandfather, Father Smith related to all he met and that made him so memorable. He was as dedicated a priest as his grandfather was a public servant.

Father Smith died of a heart attack at the age of 54 in Tolentine’s rectory a year after my family left the Bronx to live in the suburbs. He died on July 12, which in Irish history is known as “Orangemen’s Day,” a day where Protestants in Northern Ireland hold annual parades and protests against the native Catholics in commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Being ever mindful of his Irish Catholic heritage, Father Smith would surely have been cognizant of the irony of dying on such a day but being good humored as he was, he would have had gotten a good laugh out of it.

Every year when the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner comes on TV, I watch it with fondness, thinking of Governor Smith and Father Smith and of the good that they both did, and the good that lives on.

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Vincent Gaglione
12 months ago
Your paean to Al Smith leaves out a couple of interesting facts that people should know. After the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, Al Smith engineered the passage in New York State of progressive labor legislation that became the forerunner of the same nationwide in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Smith’s passion for immigrants and their plight is a reminder of the beneficial Catholic impact on the USA when Catholicism was still considered a foreign threat to the nation. In his final years Smith became a very conservative political individual, in contrast to his younger years. Having been ignored and rejected, he became an opponent of Franklin Roosevelt with whom he had once been a political partner and progenitor of the New Deal. But his later conservatism never detracts from his great contributions to the working conditions of USA labor, which most Republicans to this day seek to diminish or repeal. In the history of New York Al Smith might well be considered one of its prominent secular saints!
Joseph McAuley
12 months ago

Dear Mr. Gaglione, 

Thank you for writing. Yes, there were a number of things I could have written about Governor Alfred E. Smith's life and career but unfortunately, as you may know, we writers are limited by our editors as to how much we can write, even in cyberspace! 

Yes, he was profoundly influenced by the Triangle fire and that made him even more determined to make better the lives of others.  I'm sure you also know all the other stories about him, inclulding  his tussle with Robert Moses and the  famed "I am the rabble!" comment when it came to saving the New York City area beaches for the masses and about his falling out with FDR--but he did have a reconciliation of sorts when he supported the war efforts in World War II and when his wife Catherine died (just months before he did in 1944) Eleanor Roosevelt sent flowers in her memory. 

So, yes, there was much  I would have loved to have written about him but I hope that even in this sketch people will get a sense of who he was and why he still matters. 

Thank  you for reading America magazine!

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