Democrats just aren’t fun anymore. Chuck Schumer? He’d trample his grandmother if she stood between him and a cable news camera crew. Nancy Pelosi? She tut-tuts at the nation like a frontier schoolmarm. Elizabeth Warren? She possesses all the charm of a witch-crazed Salem teenager who’s run out of neighbors to denounce.
Tip O’Neill was fun. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fun, in a brainy sort of way. (I still remember an interview in which the reporter referred back to the senator’s childhood, growing up during the Depression in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, and described the Moynihan family as “poor.” Moynihan bristled. “We were not poor,” he said. “We just didn’t have any money.”)
But for a truly good-time Democrat, we have to go back a little farther, to Al Smith, the original Happy Warrior. And Smith got that title from no less than FDR.
Aside from the years when he was governor of New York and was obliged to spend a lot of his time in Albany, Smith lived his entire life in Manhattan, a good part of it in a Lower East Side neighborhood that is today part of Chinatown. He was born in 1873, when New York City was up to its eyebrows in a never-ending flood of immigrants, and the Democrats of Tammany Hall were catering to all of them.
Yes. Tammany was corrupt. Exhibit A being the Tweed Courthouse, originally estimated to cost $250,000, but wound up costing $13 million. Graft on that scale takes your breath away. But on some level you’ve got to admire the audacity. How did they do it? By following the maxim of George Washington Plunkett, another lovable Tammany Democrat who confessed proudly, “I seen my opportunities, and I took ’em.”
But there was more to Tammany than gold-plating their pockets. In the city’s vast, teeming, poverty-ridden neighborhoods, the need for the most basic necessities could be desperate, and there was no organization — neither the blue-blooded philanthropic societies, nor the local church or synagogue — that had the personnel and the money to make a significant difference.
That’s where Tammany stepped in. If your husband was out of work, Tammany found him a job. If your son had been picked up by the cops, Tammany sent a lawyer. Somebody in the house is sick? A doctor knocked on the apartment door. No money for coal? A wagon with a full load showed up the next day. There were food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter. There were summer outings, often by boat, for thousands of families that always ended with free lavish, picnic lunches. The local ward boss showed up at every wedding and every funeral, and it wasn’t unusual for Tammany to pick up the tab for these events.
In exchange, Tammany asked for one teensy little thing: your vote. And they got it. Just one example, during the presidential election of 1888, in the reliably Democratic South, 62 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote for the Democrat, Grover Cleveland. In New York City, Tammany rallied the electorate and Cleveland got 86 percent of the vote.
Al Smith was only 13 years old when he saw first-hand just how intense loyalty to Tammany could be. Smith’s father climbed out of his deathbed and, assisted by a friend, managed to get to the polls and vote for all the Tammany candidates. Then the friend half-carried, half-dragged the elder Smith home where he and Al’s mother got the sick man upstairs and back into bed, where he died.
In his excellent biography of Al Smith, Robert A. Slayton argues that the Tammany ward bosses were successful because they were “more often than not, practical rather than ideological.” We could even go so far as to say that they had a conscience. As a rising New York politician, Smith mastered the art of practical politics from Tammany; the conscience he got from his mother and the priests of his parish, St. James.
As an assemblyman and then as governor, Smith used his authority to help the poor and the foreign-born — the constituency he identified with all his life — climb out of poverty and enter the American mainstream. His ideas were inspired by the ward bosses who would never let a widow and her kids freeze during winter. Once he got into the legislature and eventually the governor’s mansion, Smith could offer hand-ups on a grander scale.
Smith curbed the most outrageous excesses of urban industries. Three-year-old kids would no longer paste paper or silk petals together to make artificial flowers. Men and women would not drag themselves through an 80-hour work week (as a teenager working at the Fulton Fish Market, Smith put in 72 hours a week). The food industry would be sanitary. Factories would not be fire traps — an issue that became intensely personal after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, which took the lives of 126 women and girls, almost all of them Italian or Jewish immigrants, and almost all of them from Smith’s district.
And it wasn’t just working conditions that caught Smith’s attention. His father died when Al was 13, so he dropped out of St. James’ School to find work to help support his mother and sister. Smith never completed the eighth grade, and it stung. The cities of New York had public and parochial schools, but in many of the rural districts of the state there were none at all. So out in farm country, Governor Smith built a network of public schools.
His passion for state parks also grew out of his experiences as a kid trapped in the steaming streets of a tenement district. Open up the beaches, and the woodlands, and the mountainous areas where city dwellers could get out into sunshine and fresh air, away from the smells, and the noise, and the traffic of their neighborhoods.
By surrounding himself with talented people, Smith took Tammany’s practical politics farther than the ward bosses had ever imagined. His two closest confidants and most trusted political advisors were Frances Perkins, a Mount Holyoke-educated Congregationalist, who educated Smith on just how inhuman, not to mention dangerous, working conditions in New York’s factories were, and Belle Moskowitz, the daughter of Prussian Jews, who used her political savvy to find concrete solutions to serious social problems. That two women were Smith’s lieutenants rankled some of his more hide-bound Tammany colleagues, who had expected him to create an inner circle of Irishmen.
Smith wasn’t trying to be radical, he just wanted the best minds available, and two of the best happened to be women who were not Irish. Or Catholic. By the way, Smith’s sense of decorum never permitted him to address either of these ladies by their first names.
There are lots of reasons I like Smith, but especially because he didn’t pander to his constituents, he wasn’t cynical about life in public service. He did great things because there was a screaming need for them. And so many of the problems he tackled strike us as no-brainers. “Hey! I got an idea. Let’s pass a regulation that manufacturers must install flush toilets in their factories.” Or, “Gee, there isn’t a school within fifty miles of this little burg. Let’s build one.”
And Smith never forgot where he came from, nor tried to be anything other than he was. The brown derby hat, the stogie, the bulbous nose were part of his identity. (Okay. He couldn’t have done anything about the nose). Even when he was the Democrats’ candidate for the presidency, he still spoke like the urchin who went skinny dipping in the East River. He wanted to help make life “betta” for a “poisun.” And he encouraged patriotic Americans to dedicate themselves to public “soivice.”
Al Smith’s old neighborhood is still there in Lower Manhattan. And the atmosphere of the place has barely changed since Smith’s day. Yes, the residents today are overwhelmingly Chinese rather than Irish, but the teeming streets, the tiny shops that cater to a host of day-to-day necessities, the heavy traffic, are qualities that Smith would recognize.
It’s my favorite private walking tour, although as New York walking tours go, it’s pretty dinky. On James Street is the Church of St. James, where Al was an altar boy — sadly, the archdiocese of New York has shuttered the church. Across the street is the school from which Al never graduated — it’s still open. One block east, at 25 Oliver Street, is the plain red-brick row house where Al and his wife Katie raised their five kids. Two blocks south in the Alfred E. Smith Playground is a bronze sculpture of Al. It doesn’t capture the personality of this gregarious politician who got such out a kick out of his career. Still, Charles Keck, the sculptor, lightened the dignified mood by including on the podium Smith’s derby, as well as a sculpture inspired by the popular song, “The Sidewalks of New York,” which was Smith campaign theme song.
Please note, Smith didn’t pick some anthem to the abstract, such as “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” Smith’s song was like Smith himself — down-to-earth and entirely local.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of 101 Places to Pray Before You Die: A Roamin’ Catholic’s Guide.
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