Category: Archive

Book Review Al Smith and the crime of Catholicism

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jim Mulvaney

EMPIRE STATESMAN, The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith, by Robert A. Slayton. Free Press, New York. 480 pp. $30.

Every New York Irish-Catholic school child in the early 1960s was taught that Al Smith was cheated out of the presidency because of religious bigotry. When it came to the nuns, we were trusting: tell us that St. Brendan beat Christopher Columbus to the New World, that we’d believe. But anti-Catholic discrimination? Hard to fathom.

Our relatives and co-religionists were the politicians, the judges, the cops, the firemen, the newspaper reporters. Maybe the mayor wasn’t one of us, but the president of the City Council and nearly everyone else that mattered was. Anti-Catholic discrimination was an unlikely a concept as anti-New York discrimination.

I didn’t experience anti-Catholic discrimination until I moved to Belfast in the 1980s. The account of the election campaign of New York State Gov. Al Smith vs. Herbert Hoover brought me back not to a New York that I’ve ever known, but, instead, to the Shankill Road.

Smith faced "the dirtiest campaign in American presidential history," writes Robert A. Slayton in the prologue of his powerful biography of the former New York governor, "Empire Statesman." "Parents were told that if a Catholic was elected, all Protestant marriages would be annulled, immediately rendering their children illegitimate. In Daytona Beach, Fla., the school board agreed to give each child a card to bring home to their parents. It read . . . ‘If he is chosen President, you will not be allowed to have or read a bible.’ Pictures of the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel were passed out around the country with captions explaining that it was a secret passageway to bring the Pope from Rome to Washington."

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Hardly as lyrical as things I heard bellowing from the Rev. Ian Paisley, but equally chilling in the depth of its hatred. The book evoked images of my grandfather Tom O’Keefe, who was an acquaintance of Smith. Grandpa told me about "Irish need not apply" and the rest. It didn’t seem real because Grandpa was a successful businessman who drove a leather-seated Packard and had an office halfway up the Empire State Building. It is a powerful book that makes people rethink their own past from a time before they were born.

Slayton does a remarkable job of recreating the time, a time not so long ago, when to be Irish Catholic was to be a second-class citizen (arguably a class cohabited by Italians and other Mediterranean immigrants and a class above that of blacks). Slayton writes history in a lyrical manner that at times reaches the prose heights of a William Kennedy novel. The tales of the Lower East Side teem with energy and the description of the Fulton Fish Market bristles with brine. Slayton makes the time come alive, introducing fascinating characters and allowing enough whiffs of hardship and degradation to set the tone without overwhelming.

He builds up Smith as a magnetic character and seduces the reader into near blind love for the man: the son of immigrants who dragged himself up by the bootstraps, who loved his mother and animals and loved his wife her whole life even when she went from stunning to fat. Smith was a man, Slayton tells us early in the book, who managed the political machine of Tammany Hall for the greater good of the working man, especially the Irish-American. Smith was the man who led the fight to change the workplace after the Triangle Shirtwaist Tragedy. Hurray for Al Smith.

But when the chronological tome reaches the election of 1928, Slayton allows the character to slowly unwind and faults to reveal themselves. Yes, Smith’s chances were slammed by anti-Catholic bigotry. But the reader is slowly introduced to the idea that Smith himself was as much to blame for the loss because of his failure to understand his potential constituents who lived beyond the five boroughs. Smith’s lack of political savvy was such that he lost New York State, even though he was the sitting governor (also interesting, is one of the few portraits I’ve seen presenting Herbert Hoover as an attractive candidate).

It is still a positive, captivating biography of an extraordinary man. And it is filled with tidbits, presenting a case that Smith was perhaps only half-Irish or less; speculating convincingly that he might even have been Jewish. One all too short passage glosses over Smith’s failure to take a strong stand on the question of Irish independence.

Al Smith after the loss is a tragic figure, like a retired ballplayer who can no longer hit a curve spending his days boring his friends with tales of his youth. But Smith remained a player, taking over management of the newly opened Empire State Building. And he took a final run at the former protégé who outshone him, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

This is a fascinating book about one of our century’s most fascinating characters. And even if his family tree wasn’t as green as we grew up believing, Al Smith was one heck of an Irishman.

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