Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lost in Histories 52: A New Yorker in the White House?

It’s too bad we’ve had to give up our wild mad dreaming of a three-way race to DC between three spectacularly different New Yorkers. What would’ve been a Subway Series for the political world would also have thrust New York back into the spotlight utilizing different talking points, as opposed to the standard triumvirate of money, media and fashion. Alas – it is not to be: for better or for worse (Florida was saying “for worse”, but we know better) we have “Benito” Giuliani finally out of the public eye, possibly for good. First strike, yerr out. Then our Mayor-turned-third party hopeful Bloomberg turned out to be treating the whole thing as a flight of fancy: if the man had been serious at any point in the game, then we wouldn’t have put up with over half a year of dilettantish media posturing and “will he or wont he” journalistic grab-assing. Second strike. I can certainly tell you that if I were to run for Prez, there’s no way I’d fool around for even a second in the stages of the setup — zero-sum game. And now, with the unstoppable juggernaut of Obama barreling through eleven straight state wins, it seems like our last shot with at putting a New Yorker into the White House — she might be from the Midwest, but Senator Hillary Clinton’s been working for New York — might not make it past March 4th. The whole thing reminds us of a little bit of forgotten NY history, most notably a brilliant, doomed politician named Al Smith, nicknamed “The Happy Warrior."

Born in 1873 in the multi-ethnic, multi-culti Lower East Side neighborhood, Al’s earliest memories were of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Smith had Irish, German, Italian and English grandparents, but he most closely identified with his Irish-American roots. When Al was fourteen, his father was killed, and Smith dropped out of St. James Parochial School (in today’s Chinatown, off Chatham Square) in order to work at the Fulton Fish Market — twelve-hour days, seven days a week to support his family. He never returned to formal schooling, so that later in life he was proud of boasting that he “graduated from Fulton Fish Market Academy.” It was here, in the heart of NY’s working-class shipping industry, that Smith decided to dedicate his life to serving the people as a public servant.

Smith soon became tight with Tammany bigwig Charles F. Murphy, also known as Silent Charlie, for his teetotaling and restrained personal lifestyle, also his clean(er than previous Tammany Hall Chief) political relations. Under the auspices of Tammany Hall, Smith was elected to the NY State Assembly, where his first big break was as vice chairman of the commission formed to investigate the horrendous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911. Smith, along with future Senator Robert F. Wagner Sr, were seen as practically starting FDR’s New Deal in NYC, pushing heavily for immigration and work hour reforms. Smith was elected Governor of NY State in 1918 and served four terms.

Smith was tremendously proud of his achievements in progressive politics: rent control, tenant protection, low-cost housing, improved workers’ compensation and work hours all forged forward under his stewardship; his oft-repeated catchphrase was “The cures for the evils of Democracy is more Democracy!” Moreover, Smith was damn proud of being the first Irish-American and Roman Catholic Governor in America, and saw himself as representing the teeming immigrant millions. He looked the part too, with a bulbous honker of a nose, a spattering Noo Yawk accent — “his was a voice with trumpets in it – it summoned people to a cause,” per Ric Burns — and a perpetual cigar end chomped out of one side of his mouth.

In 1928 Smith decided he could do more for the country than just for the city, and he ran in the primaries for the Democratic ticket, and won in a landslide. This, however, was the beginning of the end for Al Smith. What worked in NYC most certainly wasn’t working for the rest of the country, and as Smith traveled by train from state to state he learned that his big city ways of liberal accomplishments and pro-immigrant speechifying weren’t welcomed anywhere else. He was despised in some places — his campaign train route rode past burning crosses in Oklahoma, courtesy of the KKK. He was insulted, derided, savagely attacked, and seen as a caricature of the loathed NY immigrant face, which was a complete stranger to the Midwest and South. Smith’s campaign was a dismal failure — in a competition between the country and the city, the country won overwhelmingly. Although Smith carried the twelve largest cities in America, he lost practically every single state, including his own, to Republican candidate Herbert Hoover. Then, less than twelve months later, under the stewardship of President Hoover, the stock market crashed, and we all know what happened then.

(originally published on on 2/26/08)

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