In Ages Past
"Rabble? That's Me!": Alfred E. Smith
In Oklahoma, a minister said a vote for Smith was a vote against Christ. (When an opponent referred to papal encyclicals, Smith reputedly asked a friend, "What the hell is an encyclical?") Protestants envisioned the pope taking over the country. One journal predicted
. . . a confessional box in the White House, and the secrets of the Government whispered into the ear of a representative of the Vatican . . . [Smith] will be as a President what he has been as a Governor, the pliant tool of the most Christless system of tyranny the world has ever known.
Although he received the largest popular vote of any Democratic candidate, he still lost by a wide margin. Most scholars agree that the religious factor (along with a decade of Republican prosperity) sealed Smith's fate.
His defeat was a serious blow to Catholics, reminding them that they were still outsiders. The question still remained: could Catholics be "real" Americans? Would their religious obligations conflict with their political ones? It would be another three decades before John F. Kennedy answered that question definitively.
In the aftermath of the election, a jaded Smith moved away from politics, becoming president of the corporation that built the Empire State Building. In 1932, he attempted to win the Democratic nomination once more, but lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Some think he never quite forgave Roosevelt for this, and during the 1930s he opposed many of the president's measures. Smith called him "the kindest man that ever lived, but don't get in his way."
Yet through it all, Smith's biographer writes, "the greatest source of happiness in Al's life was his marriage." He died in 1944, not long after his wife's death. While doctors attributed the death to a heart condition and lung congestion, many believed he died of a broken heart. A Knight of St. Gregory and a Papal Chamberlain, he was buried at St. Patrick's Cathedral. There, an estimated 200,000 people filed past his coffin.
In the end, New Yorkers did not remember an embittered ex-candidate. They remembered the kid from the Fourth Ward who rose from poverty to challenge notions of what a presidential candidate should be. They remembered the man who never forgot his roots, who fought for their rights. They remembered the man that Roosevelt himself once called "the Happy Warrior of the Political Battlefield."
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.