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FDR – The Man, the Leader, the Legacy, Part 6


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In the course of the 1920s, Roosevelt had grown close politically to the major figure in Democratic politics in New York, Alfred E. Smith. On the face of it, this was a curious alliance. Smith’s base was the powerful Tammany Hall machine, in New York City. In contrast, Roosevelt liked to pose as an independent and reformer, an enemy to everything Tammany stood for: wholesale patronage and systematic graft. Yet each man had something the other could use: Smith, Irish and Catholic, an adamant foe of Prohibition, was so rooted in the great city that his theme song was “The Sidewalks of New York.” Roosevelt, a Protestant from “upstate,” who could appease “drys” on the liquor question, offered his many connections among the social and financial elite. Franklin quickly patched up his old quarrel with the Tammany machine. In 1924, he was ready to lend Smith, now governor of New York, something of his patrician glamour, as he nominated him for president of the United States. The Democratic convention was held in the old Madison Square Garden, where the sweltering New York summer was particularly oppressive. Smith’s chief rival, William Gibbs McAdoo, had been treasury secretary under Wilson and was considered friendly to the Ku Klux Klan, then enjoying a great revival. In those days (and until 1936) a two-thirds majority was needed for nomination by the Democrats — a means of ensuring a southern veto over any candidate the party would select.

When the moment came to put Smith’s name in nomination, Roosevelt, supporting himself on crutches, made his painful way across the platform. It was his first political speech since he had fallen ill, and his courage and good cheer were palpable to the thousands of spellbound onlookers. Literally in the spotlight, he delivered his speech in his fine, strong tones. Clearly, here was a man who, in spite of dreadful physical disability, was vibrant and robust. The speech had been composed primarily by Judge Joseph Proscauer. In the end, what everyone remembered was the phrase from William Wordsworth, which Judge Proscauer had insisted on and which Roosevelt had found too “poetic”:

“This is the Happy Warrior, this is he Whom every Man in arms should wish to be.”

From then on, Al Smith would be known as the Happy Warrior.

The balloting went on for days — roll call followed roll call, each beginning with the head of the Alabama delegation famously intoning, “Alabama casts 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood.” Finally, on the 103rd ballot, the compromise candidate passed the two-thirds hurdle. He was John W. Davis, a wealthy corporate lawyer, hailing from West Virginia, but now associated with the J.P. Morgan interests and ensconced on Long Island. (It was a period when the reputation of big business was running high.)

Franklin was the only real star of the ill-fated convention. In the November election, Davis lost to the Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge by a landslide. Nearly 5 million votes were cast on the Progressive line for Robert La Follette, Woodrow Wilson’s bitter antagonist on war with Germany.

During the next four years, FDR kept building up his network of contacts in the national party. But everything seemed rosy for the Republicans for the foreseeable future, and Roosevelt’s plan was to make recovering his health his major concern. He purchased the establishment at Warm Springs, set up a foundation to run it, and spent more and more time there. In 1928, he once again put Al Smith’s name in nomination at the convention, in Houston, incidentally speaking for the first time to a national radio audience of millions. Radio was to be the medium of which FDR would become the acknowledged master. It created a sense of intimacy with the listeners that perfectly fit his personal style, besides allowing him to bypass the newspaper press, often controlled by his unrelenting enemies.

In Houston the nomination took only one ballot. But Al Smith’s candidacy was doomed. Not only was the country basking in what seemed to be an indefinite prosperity under the Republicans, but what had been advantages for Smith in New York hurt him badly in most of the rest of the country: his pronounced opposition to Prohibition (he was himself a notorious drinker), his links to Tammany, and his religion. It did nothing to dampen anti-Catholic suspicions when, on a visit by Smith and his wife to Rome, the Pope referred to him as “my beloved son, Governor Smith.” (Mrs. Smith was no asset either; to many, including Eleanor’s set, Katie was unspeakably vulgar — so Irish, you know.)

The Smith camp believed they had no chance at all if they failed to carry New York. Upstate, the religious issue swayed many. But with the Protestant Roosevelt on the ticket as candidate for governor, the chances would be good. (Herbert Lehman, candidate for lieutenant governor, could be counted on to attract the Jewish vote.) Roosevelt, however, demurred; he and his advisors feared a Democratic catastrophe that would sink the whole ticket, even in New York. Besides, Roosevelt had great hopes for the water cure at Warm Springs. Smith made a personal plea. Then John J. Raskob, the self-made tycoon and high DuPont executive Smith had appointed as Democratic national chairman, sweetened the pot by promising to cover the deficits of the Warm Springs center. The year before, a relative had left FDR a fortune of $600,000. Still, given his family’s lifestyle, money was always to some degree a problem for him. He accepted the offer, and Raskob made the first installment of $25,000. In the end, Raskob donated $100,000 to the cause so dear to Franklin’s heart.

Roosevelt was once again in his element as he threw himself into campaigning up and down the state, and, thus, not coincidentally, demonstrated that his paralysis was no disqualification for high office. Yet there was a strong Republican tide running, and the Roosevelt camp was deeply worried.

Although Herbert Hoover had never held elective office before, he was the heavy favorite in the election of 1928. He had what nowadays would be called “very low negatives.” He was widely respected as a successful engineer (the world’s richest, it was said) and even more as the food relief administrator in Europe during the World War and in Russia during the first Soviet famine. Woodrow Wilson, whom he admired greatly, made him “food czar” of the United States. Oddly, no one knew whether Hoover was a Democrat or a Republican, until he agreed to serve as secretary of commerce in Harding’s and then in Coolidge’s cabinet.

The election was a triumph for Hoover, who managed to carry a number of states in what was then the “Solid [Democratic] South.” Smith even lost New York, by more than 100,000 votes. At first it looked as if Roosevelt would be buried in Smith’s debacle. But after a tense night of ballot counting, he squeaked through with a margin of 25,000 over his Republican opponent, Albert Ottinger, out of the 4.2 million votes cast. A defeat would probably have ended Roosevelt’s political career. Instead, he now found himself — like his cousin Teddy before him — governor of the Empire State.

Al Smith expected that Roosevelt, of whose talents, aside from campaigning, he had no very high opinion, would allow himself to be guided by his older, more experienced ally. But the new governor soon made it clear that he was the power in Albany. It was the beginning of Smith’s enmity towards his former protégé, which lasted to the end of his life.

Roosevelt brought with him to Albany a coterie of loyal aides and supporters who would later accompany him to Washington, among them: Frances Perkins, to head the state labor department; his Hyde Park neighbor Henry Morgenthau Jr., to help deal with agricultural matters; Samuel Rosenman, lawyer and sometime state politician, to ghost-write his speeches; and Marguerite (Missy) LeHand, his faithful personal secretary. Felix Frankfurter, still a Harvard Law School professor, was an eager source of frequent advice. But Roosevelt fired Robert Moses, who had thwarted his attempt to get his friend Louis Howe on the state payroll as a parks commissioner. Roosevelt never forgave the highhanded but scrupulously honest Moses for his refusal to countenance a bit of cronyism and continued his vendetta for years.

With a state legislature controlled by the Republicans, Roosevelt could not have accomplished much of a program, even if he’d had well-thought-out ideas. He continued the mildly interventionist policies of Al Smith in regard to labor unions and working conditions, expanded workmen’s compensation, and spoke out for state generation of electric power and a state-controlled unemployment insurance system. Roosevelt boasted that one of his greatest achievements was prison reform, which emphasized rehabilitation rather than punishment of the criminal. Attica prison, in western New York, was the showcase of his efforts in this field.

At that time, governors of New York stood for election every two years. The 1930 campaign raised once more the thorny question of Prohibition. By now it was clear that the “noble experiment” had not only failed utterly, but would soon be a thing of the past. Still, Roosevelt was cautious. While the delegates to the Democratic state convention — mostly Al Smith Democrats — insisted on outright repeal of the 18th Amendment, Roosevelt favored a new constitutional amendment, permitting liquor to be sold (in states that legalized it) only through state-run stores. His great fear was the return of the “saloon.” It goes without saying that through the whole period of Prohibition, Franklin, along with the rest of the elite, enjoyed their cocktails whenever they wished. (His own favorite tipple was the fashionable martini.)

In the election, the Republicans put up Charles H. Tuttle, a New York City district attorney who had fought Tammany corruption. He was no match for Roosevelt, who was reelected by a margin of 725,000, carrying even the upstate vote. FDR’s circle of friends and advisors, now including James A. Farley, the former boxing commissioner whom Roosevelt made the head of the state Democratic party, was ecstatic. Back then, New York, with 47 electoral votes, enjoyed roughly the same position in national politics that California does today. FDR was the clear front-runner for the presidential nomination in 1932.

There were still problems, though. Roosevelt was embarrassed by the scandals erupting in the Tammany machine. On the one hand, he needed Tammany support for 1932; on the other, his mild reputation for “liberalism” would suffer if he was seen to curry favor by overlooking the turpitude of the New York City bosses. Unfortunately, there was no way he could stop the investigations of the implacable Judge Samuel Seabury (a kind of Kenneth Starr of the time). But he was able to dawdle in bringing charges against the main culprits. Finally, Jimmy Walker, Tammany mayor of New York, resigned, and let Roosevelt off the main hook.

All subsidiary issues were overshadowed, however, by one great fact: the Depression had begun. Republican prosperity was over, and suddenly Hoover was vulnerable in the upcoming presidential election. But first Roosevelt, as governor, would have to cope as best he could with the consequences of the Depression in his own state.

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    Ralph Raico is originally from New York City. He received his B.A. from the City College of New York and his Ph. D. from the University of Chicago. He attended the Ludwig von Mises's Seminar at NYU and translated Mises's Liberalism. He is the Editor of the New Individualist Review and a Senior Editor of Inquiry Magazine. Among Ralph Raico’s recent publications are the introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition of John T. Flynn’s "The Roosevelt Myth" and the essay on World War I in the second, paperback edition of "The Costs of War", edited by John V. Denson, both available from Laissez Faire Books. He is also a contributor to "The Failure of America’s Foreign Wars", published by The Future of Freedom Foundation. Professor Raico is professor of history at the State University of New York College at Buffalo.