By Harry Keaney
Al Smith is a name that reverberates through the history of U.S. presidential politics. A Democrat, he was, after all, the first Catholic candidate to run for president in 1928. But after a bitter — and many would say bigoted — campaign, he was emphatically defeated by his Republican opponent, Herbert Hoover.
When Al Gore announced Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate for the coming presidential election in November, few were as pleased as Al Smith’s great-grandson, Al Smith IV.
"I was thrilled, for a number of reasons," Smith said last week.
Both Smith and Lieberman are Connecticut residents as well as personal friends.
But there’s more.
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Just as Smith’s great-grandfather, who was governor of New York, was the first Catholic presidential candidate, Lieberman is the first Jew to be chosen for a national ticket.
Being a first in religious terms, particularly in the political arena, is a sure recipe for controversy. And while Lieberman has not had to face the same raw prejudice that Al Smith endured in 1928, the senator’s Jewish faith has been a lightening rod for some. But so searing was the campaign against Smith that it took another 32 years for another Catholic to run for president. Then, of course, it was John Kennedy who finally put the Catholic issue, if not the religious issue, to rest.
Al Smith IV was just 9 at the time, but he was well aware of the significance of the outcome, staying up until 3 a.m. to wait for the 1960 presidential results to come in from California.
"That bitter campaign [of 1928] was not for naught," he said.
Now, 40 years later, Al Smith IV, chairman of the Ireland Chamber of Commerce in the U.S., is watching another presidential campaign, and particularly Lieberman’s candidacy, from a unique and poignant vantage point. Indeed, Smith believes that it was his great-grandfather who "blazed the trail" along this political minefield all those years ago. Speaking of Lieberman’s nomination, Smith said: "It shows the impact Al Smith had. He had a terrible time."
Many of the stories about what Smith endured were handed down to his great-grandson by Walter Smith, Al Smith IV’s late uncle.
For example, traveling by train while campaigning in Oklahoma in 1928, Smith was met by rows of burning crosses. As those in Smith’s car grew silent, Smith himself turned to a Jewish colleague, Judge Proskauer, and resorted to humor to diffuse the tense situation. "Judge, how did they know you were coming? You’re killing me out here," he quipped.
In Florida, on a 95-degree day, the heat was turned up in an auditorium where Smith, then governor of New York, was speaking. And an anti-Smith leaflet urged: "We must prevent Al Smith from becoming president. If he does, you will not be allowed to have or read a bible."
Lieberman’s nomination has evoked some derogatory comment, and anti-Semitic messages had to be removed from the message boards and chat rooms of America Online. For Al Smith IV, however, being the victim of such bigotry is a part of his family’s history.
Speaking of his great-grandfather and Lieberman, Smith said that each would appreciate any comparison between the two. "I think Joe Lieberman would be proud to draw parallels between himself and my great-grandfather and I think my great-grandfather would be proud to draw parallels with Joe Lieberman. He [Smith] was considered a man of the people and so is Joe."
Al Smith IV, who is 48, is a specialist on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange for the firm Bear Hunter. It’s a far cry from the origins of his great-grandfather, who was born on the hardscrabble Lower East Side of Manhattan on Dec. 30, 1873. He was the son of Catherine Mulvihill, who herself was the daughter of an Irish father and English mother.
If Al Gore is elected president this November, it’s a safe bet that Al Smith IV will be among the VIPs invited to the January inauguration in Washington, D.C. The ghost of his great-grandfather would undoubtedly be smiling.