Tony Rossi, Director of Communications, The Christophers

How Al Smith Faced Anti-Catholicism (Part 2)

     In my last column, I shared some background about Al Smith, the New York Governor in the early

1900s, who went on to become the first Catholic to run for president in the U.S. But he faced opposition

due to a thread of anti-Catholicism that still ran through his own Democratic party. The main person

who helped him overcome that bias was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who Smith dubbed “Frank.”

     In his biography “Frank and Al,” author Terry Golway notes how unlikely an alliance this was. Smith grew up in New York’s working class. Roosevelt, on the other hand, came from money and prestige. And when FDR was first elected to the New York Assembly in 1911, the two men didn’t think much of each other.  Golway notes that the young FDR “didn’t have that empathy and warmth that many people associate with him as president.” Someone else described him as a snob “walking around the corridors of the state capital with his nose in the air.” During an interview, Golway told me that polio humbled Roosevelt, who came to appreciate all the traits that made Smith a successful politician who was beloved by so many.  The two became friends. And without Roosevelt’s support, Smith might not have been able to convince the Democratic Party’s Protestants to vote for him. That’s why Golway believes, as his book’s subtitle states, that Smith and Roosevelt’s friendship created the “modern Democratic party.”

     Golway explains, “The notion of ‘modern’ doesn’t mean today’s Democratic Party…The Democratic Party of the 19th and early 20th century was very much free market – the government should stay out of the economy…It was small government…The party was also very much a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant party. Because of Al Smith – and because Franklin Roosevelt was open to this – the Democratic Party became, in the 1920s and ‘30s, the party of Catholics and Jews.”

     “The most dramatic part of my book,” continues Golway, “happens in 1924 when Smith is running for president. He doesn’t get the nomination. He gets it four years later. The convention in 1924 is in New York. Roosevelt is Smith’s campaign manager. The largest contingent at the Democratic National Convention was the Ku Klux Klan. They were determined to make sure a Catholic never became president of the United States. By 1928, a Catholic is nominated for president. The Klan lost. Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt won. That, in my telling, is where you see the creation of the modern Democratic Party, so that Jews and Catholics have this home, have this civic space that they had been denied in the period before 1928.”

     Smith, of course, didn’t win the presidency, but it was still a groundbreaking effort. Though the friendship between Smith and Roosevelt soured for a time during the 1930s, there was a coming together again during World War Two. And the two men died less than a year apart in 1944 and 1945.

     What message does Golway hope readers take away from his book? “I hope they’re reminded what a great man Al Smith was. He suffered through the most bigoted campaign in American history in 1928. He was deplored around the country because of his Catholic beliefs. I think that many Catholics may have forgotten that part of history, the history that affected maybe their grandparents and their great grandparents. I hope this reminds them of what it was like to be a Catholic in the United States 100 years ago. It wasn’t easy.”

 

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