Professor Robert Slayton - Al Smith
Henry Salvatori Professorship –History, Chapman University
Articles have appeared in Commentary, New Mobility, and Salon.
Beauty in the City, Gold Medal IPPY, 2018
Beauty in the City, Excelsior Editions (2017).
Arms of Destruction, Citadel, (2014).
Empire Statesman, Free Press (2007).
Back of the Yards, Univ. of Chicago Press (1988).
Q: Why Al Smith?
A: I’m very much a New Yorker, a Bronxite. Al Smith was the epitome of New York and politics and that’s what drew me to him. At the time I started there really wasn’t a strong biography; there was a gap in the literature. It was someone I always wanted to be involved with. I worked on the book for eleven years. I love every minute working on Al Smith.
Q: What was Smith’s background?
A: He was born on the lower east side of New York by the docks. He worked in the South Sea Seaport. His personality was formed by his mother. He was always a happy child. He would carry this through to his politics. He was very positive and he thought that America was a great place.
Q: What was NY like at that time?
A: It was poor and working class. It was mixed ethnicity; predominantly Irish, fair amount of Germans. These were people who worked on the docks.
Q: How did Smith get into politics?
A: The two major institutions in his neighborhood were the Catholic church and Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall was everywhere; it also took care of the people. They were incredibly corrupt. They were also the only damn thing taking care of people. Smith was an outgoing boy and he started “taking contracts” for Tammany. And he rose up the ranks and they sent him to Albany as an assemblyman.
Q: He jumps from assemblyman to governor?
A: No, there were a number of steps in between. But he goes on to become one of the truly great governors of New York state. He gets elected four times. He was a remarkable governor. He was a national leader. What made him one of the great governors was the remarkable combination of being a social reformer and an administrative reformer. He really made the modern New York state government.
Q: Why does Smith lose the 1928 presidential election?
A: The election, more than anything, was about prejudice. Foremost was the anti-Catholic vote. I cannot underestimate how strong the anti-Catholic vote was. Al played into every paranoia, every prejudice. He was Catholic. He was a “wet”, against prohibition. He was from an immigrant background. He was a New Yorker; anti-New York prejudice is widespread.
Q: Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt?
A: This is one of the saddest and ugliest episodes of Al’s life. As far as Al was concerned, FDR was a dilettante. He liked him; but didn’t take him seriously. After 1928 Al Smith is incredibly bitter. And then they turn to this pretty boy [FDR].
Q: What was Smith’s relationship with the Jewish community?
A: He had a fundamental sense of decency. You don’t truck with things that are just wrong. His three top advisors are all Jewish, Belle Moskowitz, Joseph Proskauer and Robert Moses. He was very comfortable around Jews. I think that comes from his East Side background. He was not a hater. These were his key allies and aides. And if he saw they were being mistreated, he would deal it, forcefully.