The book has been around for years now. And though it always occupied the top of the “Books I Gotta Read” list, it sat on the shelf for far too long.
So while holed up at an Adirondack camp for a week, “Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith” by Robert A. Slayton finally cracked open earlier this month.
Sure, a detective thriller or the latest best seller might make better beach material. But for a grizzled political reporter who remains fascinated by the wonderful saga of New York politics, the story of Gov. Alfred E. Smith and his historic presidential bid of 1928 ranks as required reading.
Indeed, a sound theory lies behind the effort: in order to grasp the politics of today, you must know what came before. And Al Smith looms as a key figure in the way government and politics have evolved in New York State.
Slayton, a University at Buffalo graduate, gives us a thoroughly researched and wonderfully written history of the kid from Manhattan’s Lower East Side who rose from nothing to receive the Democratic presidential nomination. Along the way he used his talents of personality and charm – and the power of Tammany Hall – to become the revered champion of immigrants, minorities and city dwellers.
While that sounds like the perfect formula for a rising pol, it proved the ultimate obstacle in a time when much of America feared such groups – not to mention his Catholicism. Indeed, it’s hard to believe the bigotry toward Smith that Slayton painfully details. It all took place during the lifetime of some of our senior citizens.
But what makes Smith so relevant today is the positive imprint he stamped on Albany. As a lowly and ignored assemblyman, Smith resolved to become a player. So the eighth-grade graduate retreated into the recesses of the Capitol library, studying every code and law he could find. After many such nights, Smith emerged as a master of the art of government and politics.
One hundred years ago, the lowly assemblyman became speaker, and eventually a four-term governor who brought state government into the modern age. As governor he increased spending on education tenfold, and high school enrollment doubled. He introduced workers compensation and the concept of bond issues to finance big projects, expanded the state’s park system, brought electricity to poor and rural areas and established the system of motor vehicle regulation that guides the state to this day.
He paved the way for the great power broker Robert Moses to build highways and parks and dams (some will forever despise the governor for “creating” Moses) and redesigned the administration of state government into the modern system of departments and boards that he concentrated in the executive branch.
But what made this month’s beach read so enjoyable was Slayton’s portrayal of a thoroughly decent man who believed in the goodness of his people. The “Happy Warrior” (as FDR dubbed him) might have surpassed Ronald Reagan as the ultimate presidential optimist had he triumphed over Herbert Hoover in 1928, and you have to wonder what kind of champion of the downtrodden he would be today.
“Al took citizenship seriously, and he simply believed in a government that had basic, fundamental obligations to human decency, and that no individual, no group, should be excluded from that shelter,” Slayton writes. “Long before other politicians, he understood the importance of mutual tolerance, of diversity, of a society incorporating various ethnicities, races and genders. He fought for this last vision, not because of political opportunism, but because he sincerely felt that that was what America was about.”
It might prove fascinating cocktail party conversation this summer to determine if there is another Al Smith on the political landscape today. It is equally intriguing to wonder how he might fare in today’s environment, and whether such a good and decent person would even enter the fray in 2013.
However that argument goes, it’s fitting that the colossal edifice on the Albany skyline is named the Alfred E. Smith Building. If ever there was a colossal figure in the history of our state, it was Al Smith.