At the Al Smith dinner, both candidates cracked jokes—some more lame than others—and briefly paid homage to the New York governor the event is named after. In its wake, some Catholics found themselves asking if the event is even worth hosting anymore, given the risks of confusion and political opportunism.
What shouldn’t be lost, however, is the importance of the dinner’s namesake. What lessons does the life of Alfred E. Smith have for modern politicians?
First and most important, that immigrants can dream big dreams and make America a much better place. Smith’s father was of Italian-German descent, while his mother came from Westmeath County, near Dublin. Elected to the New York State Assembly as a Tammany stooge, Smith, like so many immigrants, followed the American way and studied hard, becoming a master of the Empire State’s laws.
Elihu Root, one of the great patricians of American government, remarked of his colleague that, “Of all the men…” he knew, “Al Smith was the best informed on the business of New York State.”
At the same time Smith never forgot his origins, he took care of his people, the immigrant masses of the cities. He co-chaired the commission that investigated the notorious Triangle Shirt Waist fire, that killed so many Jewish and Italian young women toiling in a sweat shop. As a result, Smith pushed through changes in the fire code that keep us safe even today.
Smith became one of the most important governors in the history of his state, elected by the people no less than four times.
He is known primarily as a social reformer, leading campaigns for improved housing, health, and education. But his greatest accomplishment was actually administrative, as he transformed an obsolete, archaic system that permitted corruption and expensive duplication of effort.
When Al first reached the executive mansion, New York was governed by a chaotic system of one-hundred-eighty-nine different agencies, with terrible overlap and no accountability. By the time he left office this had been consolidated into a modern system of thirteen executive departments, with a centralized budget system that enabled him to deliver a significant tax cut.
Walter Lippmann described Smith as “what a conservative ought to be, if he knew his business.” In a reminder to both leaders of his own age as well as ours, Smith explained, “I know how to cut..down..the expenses of the state. I can do it. But I want somebody to pick out for me what activities…must suffer when I do it. I will certainly never do it at the expense of the helpless and defenseless, who cannot come back at me.”
Al Smith was also the first presidential candidate to break one of America’s many glass ceilings, in his case whether or not a Catholic could run for the White House.
Innocent as that sounds today, most Americans in 1928 rejected the idea. A typical cartoon, posted on glued paper all over the country, titled, “Cabinet Meeting—If Al Were President” depicts a meeting room in the nation’s capital. At the head of the table sits the pope, surrounded by priests and monsignors. Al is approaching from the side, dressed in a bell boy’s uniform, carrying a tray with a jug of whisky.
Even though he lost badly, Al Smith fought this intolerance, declaring that every American had the right to seek any goal they dreamed of. In this way, he was the predecessor of, and laid down a pathway for such trailblazers as John Kennedy, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton.
Robert A. Slayton is the Henry Salvatori Professor of American Values and Traditions, Department of History, Chapman University.