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The Winds Of Political Change

June 2024
6min read

…And Why You Almost Never Feel Them Coming

The Democratic candidate was crushed. An urban, ethnic liberal from the Northeast, he had been caught flatfooted by the waves of vitriolic attacks that smeared his background, his years of dedicated public service, the character of his beloved wife, as well as his religious beliefs and cultural values. He lost the heartland, and even the traditionally Democratic South had turned against him in unprecedented numbers, and it looked as though Republicans would continue to control not only the White House but also both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court for a long time to come.

The Democratic candidate I’m referring to was Al Smith. He lost his run for the Presidency in 1928 by a much larger margin than the one that defeated John Kerry, yet within four years, millions of the same Southerners and Midwesterners who had voted against Smith were embracing the New Deal coalition that would dominate American politics for most of the ensuing half-century. The moral of the story is that after their big loss last November, Democrats might be better off sitting on their hands rather than wringing them. In America, shifts in power rarely occur without some significant outside event. Anticipating just what that event will be—war, recession, scandal—is impossible.

“This was the greatest vote, the greatest margin and the greatest percentage (61 percent) that any President had ever drawn from the American people; we shall live long before we see its like again,” the inventor of the modern campaign chronicle, Theodore H. White, wrote after Lyndon Johnson’s lopsided triumph over Barry Goldwater in 1964. In fact we would see its like again twice in the next 20 years, and from the Republican side, as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan swamped their opponents in 1972 and 1984, respectively. Nor was White alone in his nearsightedness.

“The result was one of the great landslides of American political history, raising ominous question marks for the future of the Republican Party,” opined that wild-eyed young liberal Robert Novak after Goldwater’s defeat. This is why we historians love having the benefit of perfect hindsight. It saves us from having to propound the sort of hasty, hip-shooting predictions that can be roundly mocked afterward (usually by historians).

Some issues in our history have simmered for years, arising predictably in one campaign after another. Slavery (and later civil rights) was certainly one. The question of “hard” or “soft” money was another, playing a major role again and again in elections from the end of the Civil War into the 1930s. The same could be said, in recent decades, for the Cold War and crime.

But just as often, presidential elections have been decided by issues and events that four years earlier no one dreamed would have been important. How many people, for instance, would have predicted in the wake of LBJ’s romp that Vietnam would dominate the 1968 campaign—and force him out of the race? Who could have guessed, before 1950, that the 1952 election would hinge on a war on the Korean peninsula? Or that the obscure governor of Georgia would rise to the Presidency in 1976 thanks to “a third-rate burglary”?

In our media age, of course, political handlers have learned how to help foment such abrupt changes in the national dialogue. Bush family retainers seem to possess a particular knack for this; perhaps it is not so surprising to see how much of the 2004 election revolved around gay marriage when one considers how mired the 1988 race was in Boston Harbor.

Al Smith fell victim to the Jazz Age version of a media blitz. Smith was something very new in our presidential politics, and something not really seen since—an unabashedly urban, working-class candidate. Only 12 when his father died, he had been forced to drop out of school, later joking that he had received his “FFM” degree at Manhattan’s Fulton Fish Market, sweeping up and hauling fish. Breaking into politics through Tammany Hall, he was indisputably of the machine, but he also came to transcend it, and even to sow the seeds of its demise, with a raft of vital social legislation he pushed through as leader of the New York State Assembly. Graduated to governor for an unheard of four terms, he ran a progressive administration widely admired for its honesty, efficiency, and innovation.

The defeated Smith never got over the venom that had been directed at him. Yet he was actually the wave of the future.

For all that, Al Smith was simply not what most Americans thought of as a President. Potbellied, large-nosed, sporting his trademark brown derby, his voice full of the intonations of his native Lower East Side, an avowed opponent of Prohibition and above all, a Catholic , Smith was as alien to many heartland voters then as latte drinkers supposedly are today. By the time he finally secured the Democratic nomination, he had little chance to win in any case, running as he was in a year of peace and general prosperity against an immensely popular, Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover.

Yet it was the way he lost that was to leave Smith permanently scarred. The attacks started even before the 1928 race was under way. The Ku Klux Klan, still powerful in much of the South and Midwest, issued 10 million pieces of “literature” that repeated all the ancient calumnies against the Catholic Church and accused Smith of fronting a plot by the Pope to take control of the United States.

Nor was the Klan alone in this absurd fearmongering. The Methodist bishop of Buffalo warned that “no governor can kiss the papal ring and get within gunshot of the White House.” The Reverend John Roach Straton, one of the earliest broadcast evangelists, used his popular radio show to claim that the election of Smith would encourage “card playing, cocktail drinking, divorce, dancing, Clarence Darrow, nude art, prize fighting, [and] greyhound racing.” No less than William Alien White, the legendary, independent-minded editor of the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette , took it upon himself to serve as a sort of one-man Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, repeatedly smearing Smith for having supposedly protected saloons, gambling, and prostitution: “The whole Puritan civilization which has built a sturdy, orderly nation is threatened by Smith.”

Herbert Hoover chose mostly to keep himself above the fray, even in-toning sanctimoniously—and irrelevantly—about how his own Quaker faith had occasionally been ostracized. Meanwhile, Republican-party operatives quietly funded some of the worst attacks on Smith.

Smith met the campaign of slander head-on. He affirmed explicitly in The Atlantic Monthly , “I believe in the absolute separation of Church and State,” and, anticipating John F. Kennedy by 32 years, took his case right into the heart of hostile territory. Traveling to Oklahoma City, a town then all but dominated by the Klan, he gave a national radio address before an audience that included Straton and other anti-Catholic evangelicals. In a bold speech, brimming with barely contained fury, he reiterated his belief in the separation of church and state and condemned all attempts “to inject bigotry, hatred, intolerance and un-American sectarian division into a campaign.” He thundered, “Nothing could be so out of line with the spirit of America. Nothing could be so foreign to the teachings of Jefferson. Nothing could be so contradictory of our whole history.”

In a truly spectacular piece of political jujitsu, Republicans criticized Smith for thus bringing religion into the campaign. Smith’s train into Oklahoma had been greeted with a burning cross. Another one appeared near Billings, Montana. Cops assigned to protect him in Louisville insulted him to his face. Vicious whispering campaigns claimed that he was an alcoholic and mocked Katie, the matronly, shy wife he was devoted to, for her weight, how she dressed, the jewelry she wore.

For once Smith’s keen political ear had failed him. The animosity directed toward him went beyond fears of papalring kissing or greyhound racing, and it would not be soothed by declarations of his fealty to Jefferson or the Constitution. The 1920s in an America still shaken by a world war were characterized throughout by an emotional backlash against the previous decades of ethnic immigration and by a deep suspicion of the urban world so many of those immigrants had settled in.

Then, as now, all the “negative” campaigning that we supposedly despise produced a record turnout at the polls, and for Al Smith, the verdict was crushing. He received less than 42 percent of the popular vote and carried only eight states. For the first time since Reconstruction, much of the South went Republican. So did Smith’s beloved New York.

Smith never got over the venom that had been directed at him. He would be further embittered by the fact that in 1932, three years into the Great Depression, he lost the Democratic nomination to Franklin Roosevelt, a man viewed as his political protégé, and in a year when America really might have been desperate enough to vote for a Catholic New Yorker.

Yet for historians, it has become clear that Al Smith was actually the wave of the future. His campaign scored solid victories in cities from New York to San Francisco, Boston to San Antonio, and made serious inroads in such traditionally Republican citadels such as Philadelphia and Detroit. Once the shock of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression brought Midwestern farmers and Protestant Southerners into the fold, the New Deal coalition was complete.

Those gripped by either despair or euphoria over the 2004 election might want to reflect on how quickly, and unforeseeably, political fortunes have changed in the past. As to just what the next catalytic shock will be, and how it will affect the 2008 election, I would be happy to make my own predictions. Just come see me 20 or 30 years from now.

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