tv The Contenders CSPAN August 7, 2016 12:00am-2:03am EDT
now the contenders, our series on political figures who ran for president and lost and changed political history. tonight we feature al smith, the in 1928.c candidate this program was recorded at the new york state assembly chamber in albany, new york. this is american history tv on c-span3. sen. mccain: i come here tonight knowing i am the underdog in these final weeks. if you know where to look, there are signs of hope. even in the most unexpected places. even in this room full of proud manhattan democrats. i can't shake that feeling that some people here are pulling for me. [applause] link that some people here are pulling for me. [applause]
i am delighted to see you here tonight. >> i was thrilled to get this invitation. i feel right at home here because it is often said i share the politics of alfred e. smith and the ears of alfred newman. it is an honor to be here with al smith. i never knew your great- grandfather. everything senator mccain told me, the two of them had a great time before prohibition. [laughter] >> i am not surprised by the final repeal of the 18th amendment. when this matter was submitted, they would readily see it had no place in our constitution. it would be very difficult if not impossible to explain to those who come to this country to make it their business to
seek that no such matter as this is ever again peter sien: you have been listening to the 2008 presidential nominees talking at and that year's al smith dinner followed by al smith himself you talking about the lifting of prohibition in 1933. will welcome to "the contenders" series. we welcome to you from the state a assembly hall in albany, new york where al smith served for 12 years before being elected governor and becoming the democratic nominee for president. in 1928. our guests for the next two hours and the life and career of al smith, john evers. he is the former historian for the new york state assembly. he is a ph.d. candidate and is doing his dissertation on al smith. we are also joined by beverly gage of yale university.
she is the author of "the day wall street exploded." she is a history professor. if you could, set the scene for us to begin. 1928, the united states. what was going on in this country? what are some of the issues we will be discussing? prof. gage: the 1928 election is one of the most interesting and also one of the most vicious elections in american history. we have two candidates who really embodied two different americas that are coming into conflict in the election. so we have al smith, the subject tonight. al smith is urban, he is from new york city. he is an irishman. he is catholic. he represents a kind of immigrant, urban america that has come of age in the last 30 years. on the other side, we have as a republican candidate herbert hoover who in many ways can
hardly be more different than al smith. he is from the midwest. he is from iowa. he is very straitlaced. he is not urban. he is pious. he wears very starchy collars. these two men really encapsule some of the most important political and cultural clashes of that moment. clashes over prohibition. to some degree, clashes over the economy. in many ways, this turns out to be a cultural election that hinges on which of these two americas is the america that will be voted into office. peter: it was said that the three p's influenced this election -- prohibition, prosperity, and prejudice. prof. gage: i think they really do capture it. we have al smith who is one of
the nation's biggest critics of prohibition. it has been in effect for almost a decade. it has been a real problem for most of that time, and throughout al smith has said it is a bad idea not only because it infringes on freedom, but because it is causing a law-enforcement crisis. there are many people who are concerned about this. by 1928. what is going to happen to prohibition is one of the big questions. we have herbert hoover on the other side. in terms of prosperity, of course, both of them are running in favor of prosperity. the problem for al smith is you had eight years of republican rule. questions. we have herbert hoover on the in the presidency by that point. first warren harding, followed by calvin coolidge. the republicans have a leg up on the prosperity front. you had the 1920's. it has been a boom decade for wall street and for large segments of the economy, although less for farmers and agriculture at that point. i think the darkest part of this
election and the reason i said it really is one of the most vicious elections in american history is our third "p," the question of prejudice. al smith -- i think most americans today are more familiar with john kennedy as a catholic candidate. that caused a real stir even in the 1960's. a real set of questions about the presidency. al smith raised all of those questions much earlier in 1928. it had already been a decade that had been seized with a lot of questions about immigration, immigration reform, the rise of the ku klux klan. those come into play. peter: how did the role of catholicism play out? john evers. john evers: it was a vicious campaign. this was not new to him. when he ran in new york state, he faced it then. in 1914, martin glenn faced anti-catholic prejudice.
it showed up in the 1915 constitutional convention as a little bit of a whispering campaign. smith went into this years in advance of the election knowing this would be an issue. he addressed this issue in 1927 in his reply to the "atlantic monthly," discussing why a catholic man could be a president. it was a very good statement, but it was intellectual. it went over everybody's heads. it did not help his campaign. peter: as mentioned earlier, we are in the new york state assembly chamber in albany, new york in the new york state capitol building, finished in 1894. we are also pleased to have join us a studio audience of albany area residents. some college students and historians, some people interested in al smith. they will also have a chance to ask some questions about al smith and the 1928 election, as will you. we will put some phone numbers
on the screen so you can start to dial in now. this is the 6th in our 14-week series. "the contenders," the focus the 1928 election and al smith. john evers, what kind of a candidate was al smith in 1928? john evers: he was a fighter. if you look at him and you see the short stature, the pugnaciousness of him, his gravelly voice comes out all across america. this is one of the first campaigns where radio plays a role. he campaigns from the back of trains which is very common. he goes out there and he tries to engage in america on issues that are important to americans. they did not want to talk about those issues. prosperity was there so he could not say they were the issues -- he was not the candidate of
prosperity. that was the republican party. he wanted to talk about water power. he wanted to talk about prohibition. he came out as a fighter. his speeches were well reasoned. on paper he was a fantastic candidate. but he was swimming uphill the whole time. peter: beverly gage, the electoral vote count at the end. 444 for hoover, and 87 for al smith. which states did he win and why? prof. gage: it was definitely a blowout election. i think the real -- in some ways we can almost say al smith should thank his lucky stars he did not win the 1928 election. we might remember al smith's name a little more, but what would we remember him for? so it was really a blowout election. i think it was heartbreaking for smith and smith supporters in part because it had been such a nasty campaign. a lot of the big questions of
the election ultimately became -- was it simply the fact that republicans take credit for this boom decade and therefore, smith never really had a chance? was it a rejection of all the things smith felt deeply and stood for? i think smith really took that to heart. he was very concerned about that and the real nastiness of that campaign. he had some support but not a whole lot. peter: there is a fourth "p" i want to talk about. that is progressivism. he was known as a progressive during his time in the legislature, as governor. did that play an issue at all? how are progressive politics identified back then? prof. gage: when you think about it, progressivism is a historical phenomenon. it is a turn-of-the-century phenomenon. it really begins at around 1900 with, say, teddy roosevelt. he is our pioneer progressive. what it means by the 1920's is
very hard to define in many ways. there were people who call themselves progressives who supported prohibition and were very impassioned about it. there were people who call themselves progressives who opposed prohibition like al smith and who were also very impassioned about it. the basic idea of progressivism is a sense that had come about, and al smith really did stand for, that you could use government in new and proactive ways to deal with some of the really pressing social and industrial conditions that americans faced back in the early part of the 20th century. al smith as governor and running for president really tried to make that case. he changes his mind a little bit later when the new deal comes along. we will get to that. that was really the basic idea of progressivism with the idea that you could use federal power in some significant way to really change people's lives for the better.
john evers: i think that is a key point. we talk about the new deal today. we talk about the programs and everything fdr brought in. when smith ran for president, he had experimented with these things in new york state. he was a champion of the labor issue. he was a champion of parks and recreation. he was a champion of hydroelectric power. he was wanting to spend money for the social programs of new york state. they were all forerunners to the new deal. in 1928, people did not want to hear that issue. it was overclouded by prosperity. there was a whispering campaign about his religion. he was an unknown candidate that had a thick new york accent coming out to the farm territory. even smith when he campaigned -- he had one funny story. he was driving on a train for wyoming. they were about one hour out. he sees a horse out in the field. he says, we must be getting close to civilization. somebody said, that is a wild horse and we have one hour to go.
it showed how much smith was out of his element. he was used to new york. i think the country was used to somebody other than a new yorker. they were used to calvin coolidge and herbert hoover. peter: if you were elected governor of new york at that time, were you a shoe in or an automatic for consideration of the national stage? john evers: absolutely. al smith was nominated -- it was always the favorite son candidacies. when the first ballot thing happened in 1920, they nominated al smith for governor -- for president. it went one round and he dropped the votes. eventually, it was cox from ohio. in 1924, they really went out for smith. there were 123 ballots and he ultimately had to withdraw. they had a compromise candidate. also a new yorker. in 1928, he won the nomination. all throughout history, the new york governor -- this is even in modern history, the new york
governor is automatically considered a presidential material. if you look at the people that have run and won, and those that have run and lost, you'll see new york all throughout the history. prof. gage: i was just going to jump in there. i think new york was just an incredibly important -- new york was one, and ohio was the other. it kept producing president after president. i don't think we have anything like that anymore. maybe we could look at something like texas. but it is not just within the democratic party. when you look at the republican party, all of these figures, teddy roosevelt, charles evans hughes, coming out of republican candidates. out of the democratic party, you see franklin roosevelt. new york as a state has two machines really going. it has a pretty significant effect. peter: two machines? prof. gage: the same as a machinist at tammany machine. the republicans had an incredibly powerful network as
well. peter: what is tammany hall? prof. gage: tammany hall is technically just the new york city's democratic party. the manhattan democratic party. tammany hall from the mid-19th century was best known as the machine of machines in urban america. it was identified as a primarily irish machine. a machine that really depended on the neighborhood power, word power, and that was as much about taking care of your neighborhood and the coming up through the neighborhood as it was anything really about national politics. tammany hall is the most powerful force in new york city politics at that moment, but really in new york state, democratic politics. peter: how did tammany hall fit into the 1928 election? john evers: that was the brush that painted smith into a corner. we talk about the religion issue. this started at the convention in 1928.
tammany hall would go to the conventions and they would always have -- new york was a key state. it would nominate the democratic candidates. many candidates -- we had both a democrat and republican candidate from new york like teddy roosevelt ran against alton brooks parker, the chief judge of the court of appeals in new york state. one was a republican and one was a democrat. tammany hall was always seen outside of new york state and sometimes in new york state as a corrupt machine. it was seen as boss tweed. people like william jennings bryan would rant and rave about tammany hall. he wanted their votes, but he did not want a tammany man there. they didn't want them pulling the strings. eventually, smith is a tammany man and a candidate. it shocked many people within the democratic party. peter: al smith lost new york in the 1928 election. john evers: he did. he had the sad fate of losing the race for president of the united states and seeing his
hand-picked successor win for governor. fdr wins. it slips the dynamic of their relationship forever and ultimately, roosevelt winds up where smith wanted to be. smith winds up in retirement. peter: we will get into that. beverly gage, when we asked you prior to the show some issues you thought were important to the 1928 election, one you mentioned was the role of the media in 1928. prof. gage: i think particularly for al smith, he has come to age as a media battler. particularly, william randolph hearst, they were after him and after him, one of the most powerful newspaper tycoons in the country. smith had a certain amount of confidence by 1928 that he knew how to fend off these kinds of press attacks. ultimately in the election, one of the interesting things about the catholic issue is that we now understand it to have been absolutely crucial to this
election. smith openly acknowledged it. a lot of it was done and talked about through innuendo -- john mentioned earlier about a whispering campaign. it was not something that would be said in the press, but the press would feed into these images. i think smith, from my reading of it, he was behind from the first with the press in part because there was so much coded language being used and in part because the press had this feisty, irascible personality that they liked to write about but were often quite contemptuous of it and really set a public narrative that did not afford him the respect he deserves. john evers: i think one of the things that is interesting about smith in the press is that he loved the press. he used to hold press conferences here in albany, the press corps got to be very close to him. he had a great relationship of what was on and off the record. except for the battles with
hearst and his newspapers in new york state, he really enjoyed that. when he left the safe confines of new york state and the whispering campaign came out, there were papers that were not friendly to him. it would not cover the issues that were important, and smith was greatly hurt by that. he was also not used to the media of the day. the pie plate, he used to call the microphone that you speak into -- he would speak to the microphone. he did not like to read prepared speeches. he would take out of this coat pocket an envelope. he wrote everything on the backs of envelopes. long after lincoln, he would have the custom, he would say, these are the points i will make. i will address the nation on these things. i will speak from the heart. when the campaign became more of a prepared speech, he was not used to that. he was used to the old tammany hall way -- meeting people, greeting people, going out amongst them. prof. gage: just to jump in, you mentioned the rise of radio.
i think that made a huge difference in how americans were able to perceive smith. he is this new york guy. i will not attempt -- will you attempt to do an al smith impersonation? john evers: i don't have a deep enough voice. prof. gage: a deep new york accent. but the fact that people could hear him, to many he sounded foreign. he did not sound like he came from a different country but he sounded different from them. that became another big issue in the campaign. peter: this was the first time ever people were able to hear in mass media, their candidates, correct? john evers: yes. as radio started to get bigger and as the media started to circulate, tv came much later. people would hear the campaigns from their ward leader, from the political machines, they would read it in the paper. they did not see the candidates, let alone hear the candidates. we have a candidate that comes
out and pronounces radio as "reh-dio," hospital as "horse-pital," that added to the whisper campaign. people would say, is this guy an american? peter: again, we are live from albany, new york. "the contenders" with al smith. this is our sixth week. he is the four time governor of new york. 1928, the presidential candidate for the democrats. now, throughout these two hours we will be talking about al smith, we will return to the 1928 election as often as our callers want to. but we want to learn a little bit about where al smith came from. here is a little bit of al smith talking about how he was raised. al smith: i was born in a little
house under the brooklyn bridge. the bridge was erected when i was a small boy. my father was at the opening ceremony. what he came home, he said, "i have just witnessed a great spectacle. at the same time, it was a very bitter disappointment." what did he mean? here is the story as he told it to me. he said, "son, this bridge has kept thousands of men working for years. the steel cables, the concrete, the wiring, the machinery, it costs millions of dollars. today was the opening. bands were playing. flags were waving. they cut the tape, and finally it happened." "what happened?" "they found all you could do was go to brooklyn." [laughter] >> this was the neighborhood where al smith grew up. he raised his children here. he went to school right around
the block, st. james, until eighth grade. his father died, and he had to go off to work and support his mother and sister. this is where al smith's accent came from. this is where it all began for him. it was all irish and italian. they came from over off of ellis island and settled in here. he got involved in tammany hall. it grew from there. peter: the second speaker we heard was al smith iv, al smith's great-grandson. john evers, what is the lower east side and its importance for his career? john evers: i never knew vocal cords could be inherited. that sounded a little bit like his great-grandfather. the lower east side is the southern tip of manhattan, a
little on the southeast side. that is where smith was from. it was a port. it was not like it is today. there were ships -- smith wrote that was his playground. he came from an irish family. it is interesting. it is not well-known, his father was actually from german and italian roots, but smith used to claim he did not know this. he probably did not. he grew up in this bustling area. the center of his neighborhood was the catholic church, st. james. he was an altar boy. he used to work and sell papers. the sad part about his early life was he lost his father very young. he was about 12. his father was a trucking man. a teamster. he would cart goods from the seaport up to the city. he died young. al never graduated, even from the eighth grade. if you trace his red book entries,which is the official biography, he always said he
graduated from eighth grade, which was not true. he said he inherited his father's truck business. that also was not true. that might have been self consciousness of sitting around lawyers and doctors and businessmen from upstate. the real struggling diehard neighborhood shaped him forever, it made him tough. he enjoyed it. for the rest of his life, it was the catholic church, his family, and the democratic party. peter: so he went through the seventh grade. john evers: he had to leave a month or two before graduating eighth grade. it was too tough. peter: paint the larger picture. what was new york like and what was the country like in 1873? prof. gage: 1873 -- new york is growing increasingly different from the rest of the country in many ways. at that point we are eight years out from the end of the civil war. in new york, you are beginning
to see the city change in all sorts of interesting ways. in the 1830's and 1840's and 1850's, you have the first massive wave of immigration. that was from places like ireland, germany, irish and german immigrants had settled the city. by the time you get into the 1890's, you are getting waves of immigration from new areas like italy, russia, eastern europe. new york is really becoming the way that we think about it, a kind of polyglot city. this is really the age at which that is beginning to congeal and become an important part of the city's politics. as part of this, all of the groups are beginning to organize. this is through the heyday of tammany hall, the irish machine getting its bearings in the middle of the 19th century.
what were conditions like -- the lower east side is famous during these years, particularly as you get into the late 19th century as being the single most crowded place on the face of the earth. there are not much tenement regulations or sanitary regulations. it's kind of a free-for-all. you have enormously crowded conditions. often you have big problems with disease. sanitary conditions are poor. in many people's memories, you also have tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods which had some powerful institutions. you had churches, synagogues, labor union starting to emerge during these years. the lower east side at the moment is a tightly packed, very intense place in new york. for a lot of the country, it is a symbol of the urban ills that
are really beginning to press upon the country. industrial strife, overcrowding, poor working conditions, disease. for many people, this continues onto the through the 1920's. immigration is a symbol of the way the country is changing. john evers: i think in smith's day it was the same. he would talk about sailors from different countries. he would meet people from all over the world. there were sections of his area where he lived. there were russians, jews, people from italy, people from chinatown up the road. he lived in a little enclave that was surrounded by all of this. he would go over a few blocks and there would be areas of the vice. if you go a block down the street, there would be ships from all over the world. this shaped his image. he thought he knew america by knowing all of these people. he knew what it meant to be tolerant and see different ethnicities. this was his world. later on when he went out in america, i think part of the
shock was -- it is not all like this. he thought he knew -- new york state was -- when he first went to the assembly, he realized that he had seen a lot more in his neighborhood then what these people had seen. he could not bring everybody down to new york and manhattan. although he brought many members of the assembly to see, he said, this is how america really is. it is a melting pot. some of that came back to xenophobia, to anti-religion, his accent. it was almost a way of saying, you are foreign, you are not like us. peter: he went to work in 1886 at 13 years old. where did he go to work? john evers: he had probably one of the toughest careers i have ever heard of. he starts by leaving early. he goes and sells newspapers. he starts after school, i will sell newspapers. he gets a few dollars that way.
it is not enough. his mother had to go and get a job the day they buried his father. she comes back from the funeral, goes back to the forelady in the umbrella factory where she worked prior to marrying al smith, sr. she gets her job back. it is not enough. she takes piecework home. it is not enough. eventually, he goes through a rapid series of jobs working in a small candy store that his mother was the proprietor of. he goes and works in a company truckspotting. he used to run along the south end and pick up different trucks for his company. he would report to them, don't come back, go to this area. eventually, he gets the most famous job he is known for. it is at the fulton fish market. he got up at 4:00 in the morning, rolled barrels, shoveling crushed ice, coming home smelling like fish. he would go there at 4:00 in the
morning and get back to 4:00 in the afternoon. this led to him getting a job at tammany hall. he was not getting up at 4:00, smelling like fish. the good thing about it, he used to take all the fish he wanted. he said, if you pile all the fish up that he and his family ate, it would lift the rafters off the capital and slide it down state street 50 feet deep. that was how poor he was. they gave him a lot of the free food. peter: this is "the contenders" and we are talking about al smith. first up for our two guests, new york, wayne, you are on cspan. caller: hello. the question is two-fold. i am interested in what al smith's role and commitment was to the new york state civil services and labor. how he championed that when he campaigned on the federal level.
what specific things did he do to help reform new york state politics, particularly the civil service and his commitment to labor. peter: thank you. john evers: that is a really good point that separated al smith when it came to labor issues. in 1911, there was the famous triangle shirtwaist factory fire down in manhattan. smith was on the commission to study labor law. he became good friends with reforming labor activists at this time. in this very chamber, the labor laws that would regulate fire escapes, hours of service, health codes, workers' compensation. hand in hand with that was probably the advent of civil service.
being a tammany man, there were rumors he wanted to pack everything with democrats. but this became more prevalent as it got to the end of his gubernatorial career, the most qualified person should have the job. smith was well-known to having people in his cabinet that were republicans, that were not enrolled. people who had nothing to do with government at all. his highway commissioner was a military engineer who had republican affiliations. he wanted the most qualified people around. some of that lead into the civil service. he also wanted to have strong labor relations. he stood up for those that came to labor that were often shunted aside. the reactionary forces often embodied in the republican party fought him on this. he took that campaign, he had the support of the afl-cio. the afl, i should say, the cio joined later.
the afl championed him in the state but not nationally in the 1928 campaign. peter: those issues that john evers was talking about, did it play out nationally? how strong were the forces behind the issues? prof. gage: i think al smith is a good example of somebody who was radicalized over the course of his time on a politician. he starts out as an unexceptional tammany guy who is not putting forth particularly creative ideas. no one knows much what he was doing as an early assemblyman. both through the social turmoil that he had during the progressive era and then through the triangle shirtwaist fire -- which does seem to have been this kind of eye-opening moment for him, 146 people died in this fire. they are mostly teenage girls, mostly teenage immigrant girls
who are locked in on the eighth and ninth floor. they are forced to jump to their deaths. he ends up on the commission. he becomes a true progressive in what i would say is the radical and not radical sense of that word. when he begins to work on the commission, they revamp fire codes, they pass legislation to protect women and children. he becomes an advocate of paternalistic labor laws, revamping some building codes. he is never a super strong supporter of grass-roots organizing. one of the things left out of the triangle shirtwaist story is that there had been strikes underway at the factory and throughout the industry. that does not become something that he champions in quite the same way. he does champion legislation that will ameliorate industrial conditions.
that is his stance by the time he is running for president in the 1920's. the 1920's are not a good decade for american labor. it is not one of the big issues of the campaign. nonetheless, he holds on to the progressive tradition. one other thing worth noting as well, i actually first encountered al smith when i was doing some research on a bombing that happened in new york in 1920, which was an attack on wall street at the time. i encountered al smith because he had just become governor, and this was during the midst of the red scare after the first world war. five socialist assemblymen who had been voted in from districts of new york were thrown out. al smith turned out to be a champion of their right to stay in the assembly. it was a lot of concern in the wake of the bolshevik resolution -- concern over radicalism.
al smith stood up and said they had every right to be here. he was a great champion and a new voice that was speaking out in favor of a broad vision of democracy at that point. peter: knowing what you do about al smith, how do you think he would feel about the current occupy wall street movement? john evers: that would be interesting. he was an underdog. we talk about the socialists. smith would out there and took unpopular stances. he got up there in 1920 and told the assembly next day, i will put out a press release championing the rights of these people to hold their seats. they were flabbergasted. nobody would do that. we are in the middle of the red scare. these people are anarchists. the same with labor. smith would go and settle labor strikes by sending state employees from the labor department -- in one case,
francis perkins, a woman who had to settle an upstate labor dispute. he is not only sending government people, he is sending women now. he was unconventional. he was a wedge for diversity. when it comes to something like that, i think he would look at it and say, what is it for the good of the people? he was not a big champion of big business. peter: francis in cincinnati. thanks for holding. you are on "the contenders" on c-span. please go ahead. caller: good evening. i have been privileged to have gone to school in albany. i would like to know if you could address the financial banking that al smith had from john j. rathscob, and the contention that was because smith was catholic and trying to be president.
peter: francis, where did you go to school here in albany? we have several colleges in our audience. caller: i went to the academy of the sacred heart on south pearl street. unfortunately, it has been closed and is now for sale. peter: thank you very much. the financial question. john evers: rathscob was a good friend of the dupont family. he was one of the key people in general motors. he was a multi millionaire. as i mentioned earlier, smith was not a huge champion of business. he voted as he was told to vote. later on, he drifted towards pro-business, that was after the roosevelt fallout. he wanted to be involved in politics.
rathscob became friends with al smith. smith makes him the head of his campaign in 1928. much to the consternation of many people, they said this guy is not a politician. he is not active in democratic politics. why are you doing this? a lot of people thought it was because of the money. one he also became friends with many people, bill kenny was one, rourden was another -- these new york irishman who made a lot of money and became millionaires. they gave smith jobs. at that time, smith wanted them as a friend. he brought a lot of money. prof. gage: i think it is true. the question that came up about what he would think about occupy wall street, it really depends what al smith we are talking about. as a young man, he is kind of a straightforward tammany politician. he voted as tammany told him to vote. he is coming up through the
ranks. there are no glimmers of greatness during those years. then he becomes a progressive politician both as governor of new york and when he is running for president in 1928. but after that, he takes a turn in which he becomes deeply hostile not only to the new deal, but takes up some of the kind of red baiting tactics that he had fought so hard against. in terms of trying to judge how he will respond to the social movements of his day, some of which were deeply anti-wall street, it depends when you run into him. if you got him at the right moment, he would be exactly as john said. he would be gesturing support. later in his life, he would have been calling them communists. peter: before we got started, you pointed out where he sat in this chamber. he started out somewhere in the back, you said.
john evers: way in the back. seat 143, i think it was. he said he used to get confused with the bystanders and the visitors. that was before they got microphones. for years, he never spoke, which is hard to believe. then he sat in two seats that are right here where we have two gentlemen. the man with the beard raising his hand when he served as majority leader. and this gentleman over here in the tie. that is what he was the minority leader. that was in 1911. smith became majority leader when the democrats took over. in 1912, they went into the minority. in 1913, he wound up being the speaker. peter: right behind this is the speaker's chair. maybe 20 steps from where we are sitting is the speaker's office that al smith used.
the current speaker, sidney sheldon -- sheldon silver, i am so sorry about that. and there is a portrait of al smith. john evers: they came from the same district. they both are democrats. they both were speakers of the assembly. it is interesting when you talk about -- it is almost 100 years ago that smith was speaker. 100 years later we have a speaker from the same district and political party. the neighborhood is still a very diverse neighborhood. smith became speaker on a fluke. new york state reapportionment was so heavily weighted in favor of republicans, that his democrats rarely held in this chamber. he was here 12 years and was only in the majority twice. it only became democratic once in the 1930's. they had to go to the 1960's before the democrats took over. i think smith would be proud
that they finally got equal representation. they changed the system to make it one-man, one-vote. you could then allow new york city to send its proper amount of legislators to new york and has resulted in another manhattan speaker. peter: we talked with speaker sheldon silver about al smith. here is what he had to say. speaker silver: i think he was a man ahead of his time. his reaction to that triangle shirtwaist fire, putting in legislation to deal with child labor, with labor generally. providing rights. we today commemorate that triangle factory fire. we commemorated the 100 anniversary of it. all of the legislation protecting workers are things that we in the assembly do today. al smith when he was the
governor of the state, he talked about having the wealthier pay a little bit more. he had some great hopes about it. i remember i wrote one down because it was as appropriate today as it was in 1930. he said, what do we say about our colleagues who reject an income tax amendment? what do they say? they reject it. why? they are unwilling to say that the fortunate ought to share its share of the burden of government. they are unwilling to subscribe to the indisputable principle that he who benefits the most should pay the most. that was al smith in 1930 and that debate is taking place again today. peter: that portrait or that photograph of al smith that is in the office, when was that
taken? john evers: that was probably taken when he was the speaker. he was a very young man. he was elected to the assembly when he was only about 30 years old. he would probably be in that picture, mid 30's or so. he might be close to 35 or 36. that might have been one of his official portraits as an assembly man. it might very well have been his portrait as the speaker. peter: how powerful was the speaker of the new york assembly, and how does that compare with the power today? john evers: the speaker is always the most powerful person. i would say it is most comparable. back then when smith was just starting out. he did not even meet the speaker, fred nixon, until three days before the session adjourned. the speaker back that was almost regal. today, there are more chairman.
the power is more diffuse. it is not as arbitrary as it used to be. the speaker has tremendous control over the bills that come to the floor, over the chairmen who are made chairman, what the program will be. it still is a key job. one of the three most powerful people in the state. the senate leader, the assembly leader, and the governor. peter: beverly gage, state politics in the new york in the teens and today. prof. gage: as i said, new york is a key state nationally but it has its own political culture. i think it reflects the same things we see today. the difference between your urban core, your new york at that time largely dominated by a tammany machine, but not exclusively. upstate new york ,you have cultural differences, political differences there. because you had all of these tammany machine, but not differences, it was always a question of, what kind of issues
you were actually going to deal with at the state level. one of the things that al smith ends up doing as governor, he tries to make it possible for the governor to do more than he has been able to do. it is not a particularly strong post at that point. for tammany hall, your power is concentrated in new york city. al smith is an ambassador for the city to the rest of the state in certain ways. he is trying to make it possible in this progressive impulse to actually make more things possible, to consolidate a little executive power in albany in ways he had not seen before. peter: we will talk about his career as four term governor after we take this call. from fort lauderdale -- hi, neil. you are on "the contenders." caller: first of all, a commentary and then a question.
your forum is incredibly stimulating. i don't have the credentials you do. i fancy myself an armchair historian. as far as mr. smith is concerned, the catholicism should not enter into the picture. he was clearly a proponent of the middle-class and pro-labor. genuinely a well intended individual. i am wondering that if today, if we had a candidate running for the president of the united states, what candidate would mr. smith's mindset be able to pull it off? despite that, thank you so much. i enjoy watching. peter: beverly gage. prof. gage: i think that is an interesting question. smith goes through a very weird political transition in the 1930's. after he lost the election, he does flip on a lot of what he stood for up to that point.
i know we will get to talking about that a little later in the show. he was a populist of sorts. he is not an absolute populist. he was certainly not a william jennings bryan populist. if anything, he really did not like bryan around cultural issues. he was an urban populist. i think it is true that he is an advocate of the middle class. he is a figure that embodies and advertises that he embodies the kind of "working your way up to the american system from a childhood of poverty" success. would a candidate today who had that kind of populist message, or least pseudo-populist, would they be successful? i think it is hard to say. smith was not particularly successful in his day on the national stage.
i think populism has had a kind of a mixed history in the united states. peter: is there a politician today you would compare to al smith? john evers: i don't know. today he might be more of the technocrat. i will explain that. populism itself that smith embodied was almost like a compassionate technocrat, he wanted to do the new deal prior to the new deal. he experimented with a lot of these programs in new york state. roosevelt once said, i don't know why al smith is complaining. i am just doing in washington, d.c. what he did in new york. with the way the economy is today and the debates over government, smith would probably lick his lips and say i would love to go to washington, d.c. and figure this out. that is what he did in albany. and he did it in a republican state with a republican legislature. even discussions now with the
bipartisan gridlock, smith had that in new york. he would probably sell himself very well today by saying, i have done this in new york. i have battled the legislature that is hostile. i know how to get government under control. i know how to get the economy moving again. i think he would be seen as a technocrat. he was not flashy, but some of that would be a braintrust kind of guy. peter: james in dayton, ohio. good evening. caller: i was wondering -- in 1929 wall street collapsed, initiating the great depression. i was wondering if he had any party platform that might have avoided any of the abuses by the moneyed classes on wall street that led to the collapse and
ultimately the depression. if he had been elected in 1928, would he have done anything that might have possibly avoided or diminished the effects of the depression that followed? peter: thank you, james. beverly gage. prof. gage: i would like to be able to say, yes, if al smith had been elected, none of the depression would ever have happened. i don't think that is true. i don't think of economic issues by 1928, the 1920's turned out to be a relatively conservative decade on things like labor policy. smith himself is not running an anti-wall street campaign in 1928. the real progressive candidates had been four years earlier. that had a much more vocal anti-wall street sentiment.
it had a much more strict set of regulations and had more focus on economic issues. unfortunately, i don't think that smith would have done a whole lot significantly different. i am not sure that any president was really in a position to see what was coming or really had the tools at that point to prevent it from happening. mr. evers: that is kind of what hoover at the end with his ideas of experimentation with government intervention -- i heard somebody say once that if smith had run and won in 1928, hoover would have been the obvious candidate in 1932. they would say, we need a businessman. we need somebody who is a model of getting the economy going. no matter who won, they would have been unprepared to stop the avalanche of financial ruin. peter: let's take it back to
1918. al smith is elected governor of new york for the first time. how? john evers: the accidental governor. it took al smith until 1925 or 1926 to get into the minds of the republican party that he was not going to lose. so he ran against charles whitman -- 1918. charles whitman, the d.a. of manhattan had come up and becomes governor of new york state. he runs twice and gets elected. he starts to look at the white house in 1920. we like to look back and say what if. maybe it would not have been harding. maybe it would have been charles whitman. smith unseats this governor largely because there is a flu epidemic. he campaigns around upstate new york. he turns out the new york city vote. he wins by a very slight margin.
he gets in there. in 1920, the legislature crosses its arms and says we will not do any of these things. peter: the republican legislature? john evers: the republican assembly and senate. smith starts the campaign by saying, we will have a reconstruction commission capitalizing on the transition from a wartime economy to the private sector economy. he starts saying he is going to strengthen -- we are going to bond so we can have capital improvement spread out for many years instead of the infrastructure starts to crumble. he has a lot of these great ideas. the legislature says this guy will never win in 1920. that will be the presidential year. back then, new york governors ran at the same time the president ran. the coattails were long. smith gets reelected in 1920. he has very little to show -- he loses in 1920.
he has very little to show what he goes up in 1920. they run a very conservative, upstate republican who wins. sure enough, al smith goes away. people thought he would never come back. he did run again in 1922, 1924, and 1926. he starts to avalanche his success. peter: at the same time, all of his elections are pretty close. john evers: they are close until the last two. they have a very close election which is 15,000 votes in 1918. he loses a close election in 1920. the national democratic ticket goes down by over 1 million votes. smith only loses by 75,000. that is what they said, it is like swimming up niagara falls. you came the closest anybody did. he comes back in 1922 and was a squeaker. in 1924 he starts to add to his totals and he went against teddy
roosevelt, jr. it was only in the 1920's with his third, it starts to come to fruition. before then, he was seen as the accidental governor. peter: 1920, women get to vote. does that make a difference in al smith's career? prof. gage: he is interesting because as john indicated before, he actually staffed a lot of his inner circle with women at the moment when not many speakers are doing that. francis perkins, who becomes fdr's secretary of labor, is a close ally of smith. bell moskowitz is his make it happen woman up in albany. he actually has a fairly progressive outlook of women in government. the advent of the women's vote
does not have a huge impact on national politics. it ultimately begins to build. it does not have the impact many people are predicting. in terms of new york politicians, john would know this better than i, i don't have perspective it really transforms -- john evers: not at first. at first, he was not in favor of women's suffrage. his mother said, i would never vote. there is no need for me to vote. but she does. she cast her first ballot for her son for governor. smith's hook is he gets a lot of these people involved. he starts to realize these are new voters. he says, how do i talk to these people? he says talk to them as you talk to a chamber of commerce or anyone else in the campaign. he starts to realize women's suffrage is a good idea. i can enlighten these people. i can get them to vote democratic.
he stood out as a leader. there never was a political convention to match the democratic national gathering of 1924 in new york for drama and color. mack doo dense al smith. day after day, terrific storms of passion shaking the delegates. the high note of all, franklin d. roosevelt's presentation of alfred e. smith with the deathless phrase, "the happy warrior." the democratic convention ab tendees from the lone star state and once more franklin roosevelt took the stage to praise as only he could do the man for whom he has always had such affection and respect, naming him again, his friend, al smith, the happy whoorks the governor of new york the al
smith will always have his own place in the hearts of the american people, but events were moving fast. he wanted a good man to run for governor of new york. he persuaded franklin roosevelt to make the race. although smith lost by a narrow vote, roosevelt was elected to his first term as governor. already roosevelt was the leading favorite for the nomination. the leading opponent, none other than his old p friend al smith >> frank len d. roosevelt, having received more than 2/3 of allle delegates, i proclaim him the nominee of this convention for president of the united states. >> you have nominated me and i know it and i am here to thank you for the honor. i pledge myself to a new deal
leading to the 1936 election where 58 smith blew the whistle on the new deal? >> i think prohibition is something heavily identified with al smith. he never favored prohibition. it was not an issue he championed. he didn't like how new york state ratified it anyway. they did it by simple resolution through the legislateure. he thought it should be a referendum. 29 -- i believe it was come abo?
republicans. it's really a memorial dinner for smith and at this -- i think it's smith -- thing that if anyone's heard al smith's name at this point in time that that's where you probably heard about al smith unless you hang around these hallowed halls. in general it's probably his most lasting public legacy,ars. it's a memorial dinner. it's a catholic charity dinner and a place where people get together and try to assess the legacy be al smith and presidential candidates