The Winds Of Political Change
…And Why You Almost Never Feel Them Coming
February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
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.