BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robert A. Slayton, author of "Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith," who was he?
Professor ROBERT A. SLAYTON , AUTHOR, "EMPIRE STATESMAN": The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith"): Al Smith was a great American who is not that well-known anymore; perhaps should be. Al Smith was four-term governor of New York. He, in New York state, really created the modern system the state is governed by. He was the 1928 candidate for president on the Democratic Party ticket, the first Roman Catholic to ever run for president. And most important of all, he was really a state--a spokesman for democracy and pluralism in a very tough time called the '20s.
LAMB:Why are you interested in this man?
Prof. SLAYTON: There are reasons, both academic and personal. As I say, he's someone who we don't know enough about prior. In addition, he really was the great spokesperson for the immigrants, for tenement dwellers. I was born and raised in the Bronx in New York City. My parents--my mother was born in Lithuania; my father was born here, barely. His parents came from Russia. So Al Smith was always the person who stood up for the kind of people I came from.
LAMB:How important was it that--that he was Irish?
Prof. SLAYTON: He was only partially Irish, in--in pa--in all fairness. He considered himself to be Irish, but technically speaking, on his father's side, the grandparents were German and Italian. He was considered, prior to John Kennedy, the best-known and most important Irish politician in the US on a national level.
LAMB:You say he lost in 1928 because of his religion.
Prof. SLAYTON: He lost in 1928--the--the larger sense is of cultural wars. And--and a lot of things--and that's a modern term. A--a lot of things went into that. First and foremost was his religion. You have to piggyback on top of that. Second to that, I would say, was his strong stand against abortion--ag--against Prohibition. Prohibition was similar to abortion in that period as the controversial--the hot-button issue. He was from New York City. He had a terrible New York accent. He was from immigrant descent. He summed up the changes going on in America. And he became a lightning rod.
LAMB:Where did he grow up in New York itself?
Prof. SLAYTON: He grew up on the East Side, very, very close to the Brooklyn Bridge.
LAMB:What were his parents like?
Prof. SLAYTON: He didn't know his father all that well. His father died when he was young. He has to drop out of school in seventh grade. He does not have a grade school diploma. His mother really raised him. She was a quiet, strong Irish woman. She, I think, more than anybody, was the person who gave him his sense of integrity and honor.
LAMB:This is his mother and him sitting next to her.
Prof. SLAYTON: That is correct.
LAMB:And what--roughly what year would this have been taken, do you know?
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, that would have been I'd say about 1925 or so. He--one of the things--up until the end of her life, he--he would be governor, he would walk into a room, he would kneel by her side, kiss her hand and then go about his business. A very, very devoted son.
LAMB:How do you know that?
Prof. SLAYTON: Different accounts, eyewitness accounts.
LAMB:You do say, though, that there wasn't much of a paper trail on Al Smith.
Prof. SLAYTON: He doesn't leave a huge body of papers that--that you can go to one archive and sit down. The way, let's say, for Harry Truman, you can go to Independence, Missouri, and just spend a couple of years there. Truman, among other things, was--wrote letters constantly to Bess back home, details of the presidency. With Al, you really had to go all over the place to track him down. Albany, New York, has the largest collection of papers, but it's not that big. I looked at about 225 manuscript collections in about 25 states. So you can find the stuff, but it's--it's got to be tracked down. It's not easy.
LAMB:Who's in this picture up top?
Prof. SLAYTON: That one's his dad over on the right, with the long, long handlebar moustache.
LAMB:When did he die?
Prof. SLAYTON: I forget the exact year. He died, as I say, when Al was in the seventh grade, 13 years old.
LAMB:What impact did his death have...
Prof. SLAYTON: On Al?
Prof. SLAYTON: A great, great deal. First of all, he never really knew that side of his heritage. But the most important is that Al—as I said, Al had to drop out of school and he starts working. He—he really enters the work force. That gives him both experience, but it also becomes part of the story of Al Smith, the self-made person.
LAMB:You have a picture here with the little altar boys. He's there on the left, right in front of the priest.
Prof. SLAYTON: That's right. That's right. Smiling child.
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, very definitely. Very definitely. All his education was at St. James School, St. James parish.
LAMB:Have you been to all these places, by the way, where he...
Prof. SLAYTON: Absolutely. I--I don't think you can write anything, let alone a biography, without walking every step that you possibly conceivably can.
LAMB:All right. Let's say that you're starting from scratch and you know what you know now, but what would--where would you go if you had to go to places, Al Smith, up there in New York.
Prof. SLAYTON: The--the first place is 25 Oliver Street. Twenty-five Oliver Street is where he went to live. Yeah, so that's 25 Oli--it's still there. It's now a national landmark. I was there the day before yesterday, just for the record. It is where he raised his family. It is the closest you get to the Al Smith homestead in--in any way, shape or form.
LAMB:And that's where in New York?
Prof. SLAYTON: That's right off Chatham Square.
LAMB:Which is where?
Prof. SLAYTON: On the East Side, not far from--Lower East Side, not far from City Hall, not far from--from a modern-day landmark, South Street Seaport.
LAMB:So you're in Manhattan.
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, indeed. Absolutely.
LAMB:Yeah. And you go where from there to see Al Smith's places?
Prof. SLAYTON: Well, one--one thing that I did was Al Smith grew up watching the Brooklyn Bridge get built. So I would walk from places he grew up in, in--including 25 Oliver, and just walk from there straight on to the East River to see `What did the Brooklyn Bridge look like?' And--and it's a really astonishing sight. You can see the bridge launch itself across the river, and you can imagine a young guy standing there just watching this and the immensity of it. It--it—it really is a fabulous sort of thing. And--and I really did walk all of that.
LAMB:Where else did he live in New York?
Prof. SLAYTON: The--the truth of the matter is he was rooted in a neighborhood. And he did not move from that neighborhood throughout most of his life. He becomes governor. He is gaining some affluence. He's obviously gr--gaining national attention. He's still living in the old neighborhood. He's still living in 25 Oliver. It is not until much later in life that he moves out. He eventually moves up to Fifth Avenue, towards the end of his life, in--in around 61st Street. But that's later on. He--he does not--once he gains status and—and money, he does not move out. He stays there.
LAMB:What's the Triangle Shirtwaist fire?
Prof. SLAYTON: In 1911, there was a building called the Asch Building. It's near Washington Square in New York. I've been there. It--when--when I saw the Asch Building, what struck me the most about it, is how unassuming it is. It--it is totally undistinguished. It's an office sort of factory building. It doesn't look special in any way, shape or form.
In 1911 in March, a fire broke out on the top floors, eighth, ninth and 10th floors, where there was a sweatshop, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory; made ladies' garments. You had long, long tables, sitting there. And every couple of feet was a station where the women worked. There was a sewing machine. Below it was a box holding lint, and there was oil dripping into it. The fire broke out. It was absolutely catastrophic. A hundred and forty-six people perished in the fire. These women were standing there on the top floor with their hair burning, making the horrible choice whether to jump to their deaths or get burned alive.
Al Smith leads the investigation, along with Robert Wagner Sr., into the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and as a result of the work that they do and the legislation they then introduce into the New York state Legislature, they changed the way Americans live, all across the country. Because they really start to introduce the modern fire code. When you go into a movie theater, which has to be dark by the very nature of it, and you see that lit exit sign, that was Al Smith and Bob Wagner's work. When you look at a building, there's always a fire door that exits out. One of the things they found in Triangle was that the door pulled in, and it had a doorknob. And the problem with that is if you've got a lot of people burning and terrified, you might not be able to pull it in. And--and that may take a little more manual dexterity than you can do or it might be red hot. So now all fire doors have to go to the outside, and they have what's called a panic bar. I actually went to the New York City Fire Department Library and started looking into all of this. And that's the trade term. It's called a panic bar. And the wonderful thing about a panic bar is you honestly don't have to touch it to get out. You can bang it with your shoulder, you can kick it with a shoe. My God, if you pass out, you could literally be thrust through it. The bar will push down and you will be pushed out and lives will be saved. That's Al Smith.
LAMB:How many people died?
Prof. SLAYTON: One hundred forty-six.
LAMB:And what was his job at that time?
Prof. SLAYTON: He was a state assemblyman.
LAMB:How long had he been a state assemblyman?
Prof. SLAYTON: Since 1903. By 1911, he is becoming one of the masters of the state Assembly. And what happens is the committees responding to this go up and they eventually are told why don't you talk to this Democratic gentleman, in the Democratic Party. And he's the one who says--they had--originally were going to set up a blue-collar--not blue-collar--a blue-ribbon commission. Pardon me. And Smith is the one who says, `Look, get the people involved who are going to have to vote for this stuff.' And that's people from the Legislature. And he's the one who gives them the idea to ask the governor to set up, instead, a legislative commission to look into it.
LAMB:How big was his constituency when he was in the state Assembly?
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, not very big. Thi--this is a study in miniature.
The state Assembly districts are only about 5,000, 10,000 people.
LAMB:And how many years was he in the Assembly?
Prof. SLAYTON: He is in the Assembly from 1903 to 1915.
LAMB:What other jobs did he hold in politics?
Prof. SLAYTON: E--du--during Assembly or after?
LAMB:No, his whole life.
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, he starts out in the Assembly. And he has--he--he eventually becomes speaker of the Assembly. He is minority leader, majority leader from 1915 to 1917. He is sheriff of New York county, which is a strange story unto itself. 1917 to 1918, he is president of the Board of Aldermen in New York City, president of the City Council, in essence. 1918 to 1920, governor. Out of office from '20 to '22. Re-elected '22, '24, '26; '28, runs for president, loses, and becomes shortly after that president of the Empire State Building.
LAMB:How many different times did he run for president?
Prof. SLAYTON: Only once. Only the once, 1928. He tried for the '32 nomination, but obviously didn't get it. Franklin Roosevelt did.
LAMB:What was the situation in '24? What--what role did he play at all there?
Prof. SLAYTON: '24, he almost got it. '24 is--is a--a very unique, strange moment in American politics. 1924, as I--I mentioned before, '20s, the 1920s, I mean, there's background to understand, is--is—is a--a nation split by very, very deep social cleavages. The 1920s is the decade when the Klan is at its height. It is not a Southern institution, as it would be later during the civil rights movement. We have the Sacco Vanzetti trial. We have the Scopes trial.
In 1924, the Democrats show up at Madison Square Garden in New York. And these two wings of the Democratic Party, the rural wing coming out of the days of William Jennings Bryan and the new immigrant urban wing led by Al Smith, and--and the other wing was represented that year by a man named William Gibbs McAdoo. They just clashed head-on. And--and the--the convention deadlocks just horribly. It goes 103 ballots; mercifully, a record that will last, we hope, for all time. Nobody's even come close to that. And they eventually, just for the sake of getting out of there, name a dark horse candidate. Will Rogers says, `The people of New York invited you here as guests; they didn't invite you here to live.' The thing went on forever.
LAMB:Who was the nominee for the Democratic Party in 1924?
Prof. SLAYTON: It is John W. Davis, a Wall Street lawyer.
LAMB:Now what's the circumstances a--around those two issues you're talking about? The religious issue and Prohibition? When was the 18th Amendment passed and who--and what did it do?
Prof. SLAYTON: Well, I believe it was 1919. The 18th Amendment said that you could not manufacture, sell, transport alcoholic beverages, that that was illegal. You could actually have them in your home. That was the loophole that the Anti-Saloon League permitted. If you had them in your own home, you could imbibe them legally.
LAMB:How could you have them in your own home if you couldn't...
Prof. SLAYTON: If you had had go--if you--they had been there prior to the amendment and--and, actually, to the Volstead Act, which was the (unintelligible).
LAMB:Could you make your own in your own home?
Prof. SLAYTON: No, you could not. That was against the law. Manufacture, as well. Pardon me. It was also illegal. The amendment is pa--is--is really a war of small town America on big city America. And in--in all fairness, saloons in small towns usually were pretty tawdry places. A lot of crime and vice originated there. And it takes on, obviously, a lot of other overtones. Clearly, by the early 20th century, it's very anti-immigrant. They would constantly talk about beer and wine, as opposed to all that much whiskey. I mean, this was very, very, very deliberate. It is eventually passed—the way it--it is--is finally gotten through is as a war measure because of the First World War. Partially, the idea that you didn't want intoxicated soldiers. Partially, it was the sense that food stuffs were going into making this. Here we are ra--well, they weren't rationing, but we are trying to cut back, and you're using potatoes and grain and wheat and all these other things. Well, that--that's a crime.
What ends Prohibition, by the way, is the Depression. That it—the minute you--you need people working any which way, get the breweries going, get them going and getting people back to work. But it really becomes a very cultural issue. Where--where you stand on it isn't just a--a position of where you stand on whether or not people should have a drink. It's where you stand on the home, where you stand on religion, where you stand on a whole bunch of things. And Al wound up right in the middle of that by accident, by the way.
LAMB:You say he was a wet?
Prof. SLAYTON: That was the term. You were--were you a dry or were you a wet?
LAMB:What--what did it mean?
Prof. SLAYTON: Were you--dry was in favor of Prohibition; a wet was opposed to Prohibition.
LAMB:Do you have any sense of how many people in the country at that time were for Prohibition?
Prof. SLAYTON: They did not have polling the way, obviously, we do today, let alone instantaneously. Clearly by the late '20s, a majority of the country is opposed to it. And--and one of the reasons for that was that they saw that--what was actually happening is it was weakening respect for the law; that as more and more people were saying, `This is silly law. I'm not going to obey it,' that--that's a very scary breach. There--there's a famous commission led by George Wickersham, who would have been attorney general of the US, was a good Republican, a conservative by every other measure and a very honest--man of deep honor. And he--he--the report came in saying whatever the pros and cons, this is really, really weakening Americans' involvement and respect for the basic law of the land. And--and this is a bad thing. And that was one of the bigger nails in the coffin of Prohibition.
LAMB:When was Prohibition repealed?
Prof. SLAYTON: I believe it was 1933.
LAMB:What was the amendment? Do you remember the number?
Prof. SLAYTON: It's either 20 or 21.
LAMB:And where was Al Smith during the repeal and the state of New York?
Prof. SLAYTON: He is off the political scene at that time. He is no longer--he's a commentator, but he is no longer actually in office. On the day that it is actually repealed, Anheuser-Busch sends a case of beer on these--on a truck with these big Clydesdales in front over to the Empire State Building to give the leading wet in the country a free case of beer to symbolize the end of Prohibition.
LAMB:I think I remember you saying that there were 48 states at the time and New York was the 44th to repeal it.
Prof. SLAYTON: Something like that. It was very, very...
LAMB:So they were way behind.
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. New York was--the urban states—I mean, it--when--when they're debating this in--in the Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge, who was--who was from Massachusetts, who knows something about what Boston is like, is standing up there and saying, `This isn't going to work. People aren't going to be following this.'
LAMB:So there's also some discussion in here about Al Smith having drinks in the Governor's Mansion.
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
LAMB:Did he buy it from somebody, or did you--could you find out where--had--had it been there?
Prof. SLAYTON: There--there were any number of sources. Supposedly, the Biltmore Hotel, which had to publicly give away a great deal of its liquor closet prior to Prohibition gave it to various dignitaries, among them the governor, who was a long-term tenant there when he was in New York. So there--there--there's any number of ways he could have--any number of friends he could have gotten it from.
LAMB:What was it--when he ran for president in '28, what was his public position on drinking?
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, he absolutely was opposed to Prohibition. He, as governor--as governor, his position was that the law should be obeyed, but it should be also changed. And--and he was very clear about that. But he--he was not going to damage the law. As a matter of fact, during the Coolidge administration, they called a conference of governors and states attorney generals to talk about enforcing the Prohibition law. Smith shows up with his attorney general, attends the conference, does everything the conference says you should do and is one of the few to actually do it. But he will also, in private, not take it very seriously, and he will also openly call for an end to Prohibition.
LAMB:Where is this photo on the cover from?
Prof. SLAYTON: This is, I believe, when he accepted the '28 nomination.
LAMB:How tall was he?
Prof. SLAYTON: About 5'8", 5'9".
LAMB:What other characteristics would you use to describe him?
Prof. SLAYTON: He had a clear face. He had a beak of a nose. If there was one thing that got your attention when you met Al Smith, it was his voice. It was deep, it was gravelly and it had a terrible New York accent. Al used to get up there and say, `It was a pleasure to talk to you here on the radio.' There were two D's in that last word, by the way. He coined it. And he'd say, `It's a--it was--it's a great pleasure to talk about work and public service.' And he really had the real McCoy when it came to accents.
LAMB:Have you heard him speak?
Prof. SLAYTON: Yes, I have.
LAMB:Where did you find it?
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, there are a number of tapes. Columbia has some of them. UCLA has some of them. There are a number of tapes out there. Yeah.
LAMB:You have a picture in here, a number of pictures, with the family.
Prof. SLAYTON: Yeah.
LAMB:And here is a picture of the family with his wife, Katie, in the middle.
Prof. SLAYTON: Absolutely. That's on the steps of 25 Oliver, by the way.
LAMB:What was she like, and where did they meet?
Prof. SLAYTON: Katie was--I--I think the important picture, in some ways, if you really want to see the story, is on the upper side of the other page. When he first met her, that's what she looked like. She was a very, very pretty young lady. What her...
LAMB:You're talking about the other picture.
Prof. SLAYTON: The picture right up here.
Prof. SLAYTON: That one over there.
LAMB:Not the one we just showed.
Prof. SLAYTON: No, no. That--that's what she looked like when Al met her. She was a dashing handsome Irish woman. His--her family was from Al's neighborhood but had since moved out to the Bronx. One of her relatives had to run an errand up there and the Bronx was a long, long way off. I grew up in the Bronx. It was long even when I grew up, but back then, really long. And he said, you know, `Do you want to accompany me?' And Al said, `Sure.' And he took one look at her, and that was it. Now later on, after five kids and years going on, she became a larger woman and more matronly. She was the love of his life. I have eyewitness accounts by grandchildren who spotted them very, very late in life walking up Fifth Avenue hand in hand. And after she dies, by the way, he dies within six months. It was one of those kinds of marriages.
LAMB:Now you talked to an Al Smith IV?
Prof. SLAYTON: That is correct.
LAMB:Where is he?
Prof. SLAYTON: He works down on Wall Street.
LAMB:And how much did he know about his--what would it have been? His grand--grandfather?
Prof. SLAYTON: Great-grandfather.
Prof. SLAYTON: Great-grandfather. What I was looking for from Al Smith IV was stories handed down within the family that only the family would know. And I did get some of that. And it's obviously a unique perspective, some of his commentary, because of that.
LAMB:What are some that you got?
Prof. SLAYTON: Well, there were--you have to realize it wasn't just Al. Al's a great-grandson. I interviewed a couple of the great-grandsons. I also interviewed quite a few that are still alive--quite a few of the grandchildren. One of the more interesting interviews I did was--was with Arthur Smith, who's a priest who's at Villanova. And Arthur was actually with Al. He was a soldier then. He was at Ft. Dix. And they kept flying him in when Katie died. And he wa--he could hear Al in--in the other room. I mean, he didn't handle Katie's death at all well, not surprisingly. And he could hear, `Where are they taking my Katie? What's wrong? What's wrong?' I mean, he was that bereft at the time. And that's the sort of thing that's unique. Images of Al at--at the funeral. And--and he told me that Cardinal Spellman actually went up to Al, took him by the arm and said, `Come on. We're going home.' Clearly, for people like the grandchildren, they were much more helpful for the latter part of his life, of course. And--and beyond that, you could also get some sense of what the stories were, as I say, within the family.
LAMB:Who were his friends?
Prof. SLAYTON: He had a unique trio of very, very close advisers. Now one was a man named Joseph Proskower. Joseph Proskower was an eminent judge and--and--and he was a funny fellow. Proskower was a very gruff man. Lawyers hated going before him on the bench because if you weren't completely up to speed, if you weren't do—doing brilliantly, he would interrupt you and practically—not practically--from what I gather, literally take over your case. And he fell in love with Al Smith and vice versa. A strange, gruff man, and--and yet, the bond was very deep. Second was Belle Moskowitz, who really was his campaign manager. Proskower sort of is—eminence grise, is--is his thinking man. Moskowitz ran everything on--on the day-to-day level. And the third was Robert Moses, who goes on to become parks commissioner and power broker. He really plucks Moses and--and it's Belle Moskowitz who spots Moses and--and the two of them pluck him out of just being a researcher. And all his life, his affection for Smith was--and this was a nasty man at times, to put it very mildly. The affection was very, very deep. And--and the—the best single short symptom of that is Robert Moses worked for every governor of New York from Al Smith through Nelson Rockefeller. And he called all of them by name or by Mister, except for one, and that was Governor Smith. That was the only individual he would grant that title to.
LAMB:Did I read right that Moskowitz and Proskower and Moses were all Jewish?
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, absolutely.
LAMB:So he had--his best friends were three Jews, and he's a Roman--a Roman Catholic.
Prof. SLAYTON: Irish.
LAMB:What--what does that say...
Prof. SLAYTON: That--that--well, first of all, it says it got him into trouble because the Irish of Tammany Hall used to go nuts over that.
LAMB:What's Tammany Hall, by the way?
Prof. SLAYTON: Tammany Hall is the New York City political machine, and it was run by the Irish. And they had a nasty little ditty that went that, `Now the brains of Tammany Hall are Mosky and Prosky and Moses,' Moskowitz, Proskower and Moses. So they were not at all happy. What it says about Al Smith is two things. One is his slogan was, `Let's look at the record,' that he was picking people, as well as fashioning his own life, on the quality of your work and not who you were. The other thing that it says about Al Smith is that he was a champion, to use a modern-day term, of pluralism. He--I--I think that--that Al's greatest contribution, in--in all fairness, is that in this harsh decade of the '20s, there was nobody at that high a political pulpit who stood up and said, `These newcomers, these—these people, they're Americans,' that--that we have to accept them as Americans and--and that we have to continue to do that with newcomers, with new kinds of people. And I think that's his greatest contribution, not whether he won or lost. That's a trail-blazing effort, of course, in '28, but he stood there and he--he spread this vision out. And I think it's still important to this day. And I think it's still being debated to this day, very clearly. But I think that's his great contribution.
He--he--I think his greatest moment, he was--he was a fabulous speaker, but not an eloquent one. He--he could pull an audience in. I interviewed people who saw him speak. And they would say, `My God, the guy would be talking on the New York state budget and he'd have us enthralled, on the edge of our seat.' But yet, there--there are no great quotes for that. He has one really wonderful quote. He's speaking in 1924. He's running for the governorship once again. And he's--he's in Buffalo, New York. And he describes--he's talking in the speech about a KKK christening. And--and the image is--is in many ways a horrific one. That here is a hooded Klansman--Al is describing this--holding an infant to his breast while a minister performs the rituals. And he says, `This is horrible. Thi--this is taking an infant and--and breathing into her the spirit of hate and war.' He--and--and he refers to it as blasphemy. But he then gives the—the line that I think are the cl--the--the best statement of his values, of his contribution to America that--that he ever would. He says—he gets up, he says, `The Catholics can stand this, the Jews can stand it, the blacks can stand it, the immigrants can stand it, but the American people can't stand it, that it's out of line with what America is supposed to stand for.' And that's where he really rises above just being another politician. And that really is his gift throughout the ages. And he did it at a time when it took a lot of guts to say that.
LAMB:How many Americans were there in the United States in 1928?
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, I'd say--the 1930 census is probably about 130 million, 140 million.
LAMB:How many of those were Catholic?
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, I would--about 25 percent, I'd say, at that time.
LAMB:So there was 25 percent of the voters were Catholic?
Prof. SLAYTON: Yeah. Probably in that neighborhood. Yeah.
LAMB:Now you are located full-time where?
Prof. SLAYTON: I am at Chapman University in Orange, California.
LAMB:What's the school like?
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, about 3,500 people. Still a lot of contact with students. Lovely campus.
LAMB:When did you first get interested in doing your...
Prof. SLAYTON: 1990.
Prof. SLAYTON: It only took me 11 years.
LAMB:And did Free Press buy it right out of the box?
Prof. SLAYTON: No.
Prof. SLAYTON: Took--took a while.
LAMB:So--so what--what convinced them that they ought to do this book?
Prof. SLAYTON: I have a good agent. First of all, in--in all fairness to the Free Press, I didn't approach them right out of the box. I--I don't do that. When--when--I'm sort of old-fashioned. I really prefer quite a bit of manuscript and quite a bit of research under way before I'm going to go talk to somebody. So I didn't get to them till about--I started in 1990. I don't think I was talking to them till about 1995. And--and they did buy within a year or two after that.
LAMB:And where did you spend most of your time doing your research?
Prof. SLAYTON: The lar--I--I spent about three, four months in Albany, New York. That's the largest collection of documents. But as I said to you before, it--it really is all over the map. I spent a month or two in--in Washington, DC, at the Library of Congress. The--the final bout was that there were about--nah--25 collections left, some of which would only take me an hour or two, but I had to see. Some of which might take me a day or two. And there was no way to do this. They were just scattered. And in '95 or '96, I got behind the wheel of my little Honda back then, and I drove in two months 11,000 miles and hit all of them. It was a tiring two months.
LAMB:What kind of collections were you looking at?
Prof. SLAYTON: Anytime I would read anything on Smith, and I'd see the name of someone who I thought would have a collection out there, I started looking into it. Obviously, any American politician who had a collection was around during the 1928 election. I was throwing the net as wide as possible, and let me give you an example, not from manuscript collections, but--but from printed literature.
Anyone who I ever read about grew up in, roughly, the area where Al Smith grew up in, I said, `I'm going to take a look at their autobiography.' Jimmy Durante had some very valuable material about that neighborhood where he grew up. But here's the real prize. Th--and as I say, people haven't done this before, a--and I just--anything that was out there, I would pick up and take a look at. In 1903, Al Smith runs for the Assembly for the very first time. He is a Tammany hack. He is totally unknown. There is nothing written about that; nor, theoretically, should there be. There's nothing outstanding, unless you're really interested in Al Smith. So we can report, `Yes, he ran. Here's the results,' and not much more.
Eddie Cantor, great vaudeville star, stage star, grew up in the neighborhood. So I picked up Eddie Cantor's autobiography. Eddie Cantor has a wonderful description of Al Smith in 1903. He says, `Yeah, we remember when he ran for the first time, and here's what he was like.' And he tells this wonderful story that Al would take all the neighborhood young men of voting age and below a--and--just for the hell of it and take them into a bar, and what he would do is he would line them up, and if you were wearing long pants, you got a beer, and if you were wearing short pants, you got a soda. And he'd just go, `Beer, soda, beer, beer, beer, soda, soda, soda.' And it's a great story. Nobody had seen it before. A--and that's what comes when you throw the net as broadly as possible.
LAMB:How many children did he have?
Prof. SLAYTON: He had five children.
LAMB:And anything about the relationship between the children and their father?
Prof. SLAYTON: He--I--I mean, clearly, Katie raised them. They liked him a great deal. None of them go on to outstanding careers. Part of that had to do with gender. The real apple of his eye was just one of his daughters, Emily. And Emily really, I think, because this was an earlier age--if Emily--that's very early on--if Emily had been born male, I think she really would have succeeded him. E—Emily really was his heir in--in many, many ways.
LAMB:Which one is Emily in the picture?
Prof. SLAYTON: Emily, in the bottom one, is right over there. It's hard to tell in the upper one. She would have to be the oldest. From that picture, depending--that's probably a young Emily right there.
LAMB:Chapman University a long way from New York City.
Prof. SLAYTON: It is.
LAMB:What do you teach there?
Prof. SLAYTON: American history. We are a small department, so I'm sort of a generalist.
LAMB:Had your--have your students ever heard of Al Smith?
Prof. SLAYTON: They do now. No, not really. He--he really isn't that well known.
LAMB:What's their reaction when they start to study him?
Prof. SLAYTON: Well, part of the '20s; he really, really fits in with the '20s because when I'm teaching about the '20s, I am teaching about these cultural splits, and someone with his background does make sense to them on those grounds. I--in--in all fairness, I also don't really believe that I should be teaching a course on Al Smith because I happen to be writing the book on him. So I don't--there's a limit to how much I'll enforce Al Smith. But I can assure you, they know the name.
LAMB:The Oklahoma speech.
Prof. SLAYTON: In my opinion, it's one of the most important moments of his life. He's campaigning in '28. His slogan is: Let's look at the record. And he really wants to talk about things like waterpower and where he stands on waterpower, and--and...
LAMB:Let me just interrupt to ask you who's he running against in '28?
Prof. SLAYTON: He's running against Herbert Hoover. And he—he wants to run a traditional presidential campaign, and instead, he is running into one of the great buzz saws i--in--in American presidential history. In--in 19--1928 is a very, very hate-filled campaign. People were told--Americans were told and Americans believed, by the millions, that if a Roman Catholic is elected, immediately--immediately all Protestant marriages will be annulled, the children will become illegitimate on the spot, and just the pope is going to come over that--they--they actually showed pictures of building the Holland Tunnel, and it had the caption underneath saying, `This is the tunnel they're building now--right now in secret between Rome and Washington to bring the pope over for Al Smith.'
In Daytona Beach, Florida, they hand out a card, officially, the school board, to every schoolkid that they had to take home to their parents that said, `If Al Smith is elected president, you will not be able to have or read a Bible.' A--and this thing is going on, and it's not just an attack on Al Smith. It's not just an attack on Roman Catholic. It's attack on Al's people. They--they would continually talk about the scum from Europe living in the cities, and eventually he has to deal with it. He honestly doesn't want to, but he has to. This is his life; this is what he represents; this is his people.
He goes into Oklahoma to deliver a traditional address, and as he comes over the border, there are burning crosses around his train. He tries to laugh it off, but--but his heart is bleeding. I mean, he turns to Proskaver, who's Jewish, he says, `Hey, Joe, how'd they know you were on the train?' And he's trying to laugh it off, but he's really serious inside. He goes in that morning, and he rewrites the entire speech. He dictates an entire new speech. He stands up there and he says, `You know, I know all about this talk. I know all about what's going on, and, frankly, I know what it's about,' and a long pause. And he was a very, very skilled orator. `It's nothing more than my religion.' And--and a hush comes over everything.
People I--I talked to who--who--in the Smith family talked about that their parents telling them about listening to this. They thought they were going to hear a shot ring out. They thought explosions were going to go off, that the guy wasn't going to make it out of there alive. And he stands there--I mean, this is in the middle of—of fundamentalist country. Just prior to his arriving in Oklahoma City, the--the minister of the largest congregation in the city had said, and I'm quoting, "If you vote for Al Smith, you're voting against Christ, and you'll all be damned." And--and Al walks into this kind of arena and he says, `I know it's about my religion.'
And he then gives this talk. He says, `You can't do this in America. This is America, and we have certain values, a--and you just can't do this here. This is not right. This is not what it's supposed to be about.' He says, `Look, I'm prepared to win or lose in November, a--and that's fine. If you want to vote against me because you don't agree with my positions, so be it, but not over this because this isn't America and this isn't what we stand for.' And what I write in the book and I truly believe is this is where his destiny catches up with him. He--he's been advocating on behalf of these people e—ever since hi--his early days in the Assembly, and now it is creating this crisis, and he stands up for what he believes. And it--it's a great moment.
LAMB:What role is FDR playing in the middle of all this?
Prof. SLAYTON: FDR is running for governor at that time and a great supporter of Smith. He is constantly saying, `God, isn't it terrible, all the lies they're saying about Al Smith?' Till, finally, they have to say--the campaign aides for--from the national ticket have to say, `Look, you're running for governor. Talk about New York state issues. Keep your mouth shut on this stuff. Thank you.'
LAMB:How close were they?
Prof. SLAYTON: This is a very, very complex and troubled relationship, to put it mildly. I think Al was deeply, deeply fond of Franklin. I think it was sincere. I think it was real. The problem was he looks on Franklin as a child, and I think there were a couple of sources for that. One was the fact that, let's face it, Al came up the hard way--you know, hard work, a lot of brains.
Franklin Roosevelt was from a wealthy family. He was considered a lightweight when he was in Harvard. They frequently said that the `FD' stood for `feather duster.' Walter Lippmann said, `Franklin Roosevelt is a'--in '32--`is a very pleasant man who happens to want to be president.' I mean, a lot of people didn't see the depth to Franklin Roosevelt.
Al also perceived the job of governor a--as a killer; that he--he is cons--when you read his official correspondence, he constantly is canceling meetings because of small sicknesses. And nobody in the family, in any of the records, said that he was ever--there was a serious illness. He just was exhausted. And--and Al looks at Franklin and, to use a--an outmoded term, he sees a cripple, to use a term from the '20s. He says, `There's no way this guy can do this.' So he's very fond of him, but he looks at him as a lesser sort of fellow.
And what happens is, in 1928, Al loses and loses unfairly, loses horribly. He is deeply hurt. He...
LAMB:He loses unfairly?
Prof. SLAYTON: He--he loses--he was--no politician, I think, ever wants to lose an election. I think that's a given. But Al not only lost it, he lost over issues that he didn't think were fair issues; that he lost it because he was a Catholic, because he was a New Yorker. And if he had lost it because of prosperity, because that--that Americans had voted for a different idea on tax policy, so be it. It wouldn't be pleasant, but it would be livable. But to—to have lost it--they were making snide remarks about his wife. They were getting up and saying, `Can you imagine somebody looks like that and is first lady?' That's hard. That--that--that's really tough.
LAMB:But wasn't it a very prosperous country then?
Prof. SLAYTON: Yes, it was. Yes, it was.
LAMB:So why wouldn't it be, like it almost always is, economics that--that defeated him?
Prof. SLAYTON: I think it would have been economics if it wasn't for all these other factors coming into play. I think the--the--all—the question of whether or not it was morning again in America would have been the key issue. But all of these other issues, these cultural issues, got superimposed on him.
LAMB:How many states did he win?
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, only about eight, I think it was. He gets clobbered. He gets really clobbered. Let--let me just point something out here; that, I mean, if we're going to use that argument, first of all, Smith is pro-business; it's not like he's anti-business. And he makes a decision, which I personally don't agree with--I don't think he ran a great campaign in 1928. He says, `I'm not going to run against prosperity. You'd have to be crazy.' So he's running on--on a pro-business ticket.
One of the most telling things to indicate something's going on here: Voter turnout skyrockets in '28. It goes way, way up compared to '20 and '24. Obviously people are interested in something. Something's motivating that, generating that.
LAMB:But as I remember, there was like 15 million to vote for the winner, 7 million for the loser, so that's--What?--22 million in 1924, and that jumps to 21 million and tw--and 15 million...
Prof. SLAYTON: Yeah, yeah.
Prof. SLAYTON: It goes way, way up. Yeah, yeah.
LAMB:What--and what's the reason for the jump?
Prof. SLAYTON: Well, that--that's my argument. I mean, that--that--you're asking the key question. If you're going to say it's prosperity, then--then that gets real tricky, and it gets part--tricky particularly for this. In 1924, Bob LaFollette runs on a third party ticket, and, first of all, that generally increases turnout. But in addition, he's explicitly running against prosperity--against business-oriented prosperity. He's talking about nationalizing railroads. I mean, this is the real McCoy out there.
So if you're worried, if--if fear of losing prosperity is going to be generating fear and turnout in the polls, '24 is when the real McCoy is--is just running full steam a--and doing that. The '24 turnout, on a percentage basis, is the lowest up until '88 in Bush-Dukakis. Here, we get Smith not challenging prosperity, and we have this huge jump in turnout. Something had to be causing it, and I think it was the cultural issue. I think people, really on both sides, by the way, were really deeply concerned about it.
LAMB:But Al Smith, after winning four times as governor...
Prof. SLAYTON: As governor.
LAMB:...of the state, loses his own state.
Prof. SLAYTON: He loses New York. It breaks his heart.
LAMB:How can he do that?
Prof. SLAYTON: Well, New York, first of all, in all fairness, has a long history of people who they accept in a local role, not elevating to a higher position. You--we've seen this with mayors of New York City. You've seen this with governors of--of New York state. So it--it's not unprecedented. I think the notion of putting this man in the White House, that he was so different, still became a problem. Now, keep in mind, he does carry the cities of New York state, but the upstate vote just overwhelms him this time--just totally overwhelms him.
LAMB:A couple of pictures I want to ask you about. This actually goes back in the--before the '28 race. This is 1926, and this—where was this photo taken?
Prof. SLAYTON: The--the top one?
Prof. SLAYTON: That's on the--the steps of New York City Hall.
LAMB:You've got to look--Al Smith's in the middle, between...
Prof. SLAYTON: Of a sea of cardinals. It--it was a huge conference...
LAMB:He's right there in front.
Prof. SLAYTON: ...of Eucharistic Congress--yeah, he's right there in front. And the--Al has been accused and--and, I think, rightfully so--of being naive. He believed devout--devoutly in the goodness of Americans, found out sometimes they could work a little differently than that in '28. And--and it's a complex image to--to analyze. He's--there were all these cardinals coming to this Eucharistic Congress, and he lets himself be photographed in the middle of that. On the one hand, a man has a right to be part of his religion. On the other hand, from a PR standpoint, knowing you're probably going to be a candidate in '28, it's a disaster. It's just a disaster.
LAMB:On the same page is his running mate from 1928.
Prof. SLAYTON: Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas.
LAMB:Who was he?
Prof. SLAYTON: A mixed bag. The choice was bizarre. We--we still don't totally know why Al chose him. As I said to you, I think the '28 campaign, Al doesn't run a great campaign. I'm not sure he should have won. But very--I mean, and--and that's an interesting debate. The issue is: Should he have lost on those particular issues? Robinson is picked very, very casually because he had once defended Catholics on the floor of the Senate. There seemed to be--in the Smith camp, the planning seems to be, `We've got this fantastic speaker, we've got this incredible guy at the top of the ticket. Not much else matters.' And it was what I refer to as a terrible casualness about the planning of a lot of the '28 campaign, in my opinion.
LAMB:How much of his defeat was connected with the fact that he was pro-immigrant?
Prof. SLAYTON: Again, it--it's--you know, it's hard to separate out, on--on a percentage. For the people who were attacking him, all of this was rolled up into one in a lot of ways.
LAMB:Were the Ku Klux Klan anti-immigrant?
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, the--the Klan actually comes about not--we think of it, because of the--of the '60s and '60s, a--as--the key issue being race. It wasn't. When the Klan--the Klan has three versions. There's obviously the reconstruction version. There's the version of 1915, and there's the version that doesn't totally die off, but then comes back i--in truly large form in the '50s and '60s when it's a Southern movement.
The Klan of 19--that starts in 1915 is, by far, the largest of the three. Millions of members, the largest Klan state is Indiana in terms of--of membership, not Mississippi or Alabama, which you think of from watching "Eyes on the Prize." When they start in 1915, their enemy is--is definitely the question of--of immigration. If you think about it, race had been dealt with by the rise of the horrible Jim Crow laws. This was a non-issue. It had been dealt with. God forbid--God forbid blacks stepped out of line, there would be ways to deal with that person in very forceful ways. But that was under control. What was not under control was the wave of immigrants that had poured in, and the chief group a--at the top of that list was Catholics. Jews were under--the next one down from that. So the KKK really is about immigrants and particularly Catholics, more than any other.
LAMB:So Al Smith, four times governor of the state--is that two-year terms?
Prof. SLAYTON: Yes, it is.
LAMB:And how big did he win in the state when he--when he ran?
Prof. SLAYTON: Generally, pretty well. Pretty well, not...
LAMB:Before I forget it, you've got to tell us about this sheriff story.
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh. Well, sheri--sheriff of New York County?
LAMB:Yeah. And what is New York County?
Prof. SLAYTON: New York County is Manhattan. He--it's 1915, a—and they come running into the state Assembly and say, `Great news. Al Smith has just been appointed sheriff of New York County.' And when I first read that, you know, like anybody else, when you think of sheriff, you think of a guy with a tin star and a cowboy hat and carrying a gun and wearing chaps and things like that. Sheriff of New York County was a really minor position. It was collecting debts from deadbeat dads, bankruptcies, things like that.
The reason why Tammany Hall gave him that was the salary was unbelievable. On top of a regular salary, he got a percentage of whatever he collected, which, by the way, was so bad that when he left, he saw to it that that was changed to just a normal salary. He was making--for the two years he did it, he was making $50,000, $60,000 a year.
Prof. SLAYTON: In 1915...
Prof. SLAYTON: ...to 1917. So that--that--that's the first time he really has economic stability in his family.
LAMB:How much is that worth today?
Prof. SLAYTON: A real lot. A real, real lot.
LAMB:$300,000, $400,000 a year?
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, no, more than that. You can multiply that by 10
or 20 times for today easily.
LAMB:For being sheriff of New York?
Prof. SLAYTON: For being sheriff of New York, and he c--and he didn't want it. H--I mean, he knew the benefits to his family financially, but when he campaigns, he says, `On the first day, I will know as much as the guy going out, and within a week, I'll know a hell of a lot more.' And he's right. He's bored silly. I mean, the little evidence we have--I--I tried very, very hard to find material, even on the obscure parts of his life and, boy, that was a toughie. I mean, and there--there just isn't an awful lot, a--and he was bored out of his mind.
LAMB:Was he honest?
Prof. SLAYTON: Reasonably so. He cleaned up. The office became much, much, much, much more efficient. I mean, we have some numbers on this. He had the files set up better. He was always an administrative reformer. He did not believe i--in--in having clumsy, bad systems. On the other hand, I cannot believe he didn't make a certain number of appointments politically for Tammany.
LAMB:By the way, does Tammany still e--exist?
Prof. SLAYTON: Not in the sense that we--there is--I mean, there's a Democratic Party...
LAMB:Is there a hall?
Prof. SLAYTON: No. No. The hall is gone. There's a Democratic Party--technically speaking, when you say Tammany Hall, the official item is the--the Democratic Party of New York County, and that obviously does still exist. But the machine, in any sense, no, it does not, a--and there is no more hall.
LAMB:So he tried to get the nomination in '24 and John Davis got it.
Prof. SLAYTON: Right.
LAMB:He got the nomination in '28 and lost badly.
Prof. SLAYTON: Right.
LAMB:What happened in '32?
Prof. SLAYTON: He wants it. He really, really wants it. He wants it for very emotional and personal reasons. He wants to end the sadness. He wants to finally go back to the America that's good and just and that will vote for him and will reject the bigots and say, `Look, I really could do it sooner or later.' And the party is saying--a--and keep in mind, too, in '32, it's pretty clear it's going to be--it's the height of the Depression; it's going to be a Democratic year. He really badly wants it. And the party says, `God, the last thing we want to get into is another fight like we had in '28.'
LAMB:Now in '32, what's the atmosphere in the United States?
Prof. SLAYTON: It's the height of the Depression. I mean, literally, the nadir i--is actually a better term. I mean, this is catastrophic: banks closing, massive bread lines all over the United States, and Hoover's the president.
Prof. SLAYTON: Good time to be running as a Democrat.
LAMB:So how come--how close did he get in 1932?
Prof. SLAYTON: He wins a couple of states. He's a player at the convention. That's about it. Here comes Franklin Roosevelt, a fresh face, a young face, a--a--a fabulous politician in his own right. He just runs right over Al. Al wins a few of the primaries. Massachusetts...
LAMB:Now you--you've got a series of pictures. First is this one down here. It's the only one I think you've got in the book that shows him with a cigar in his mouth.
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh. Yeah.
LAMB:How much of that--how many cigars did he have a day?
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, I don't know a day because they never left. He was--the images you have of all the descriptions is there was constantly a cigar being chewed on. I don't know how many he went through because I don't know how many he lit. Those kind of guys chewed on them a real, real lot. But, yeah, yeah. I ca—actually called Matt Sherman's Cigars and said, `Do you have any idea what kind of brands that he smoked?' And they said to me, `If he was like any ther politician, probably what he was given.'
LAMB:Here's a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Where is that?
Prof. SLAYTON: That's empire--the top picture? That's the Empire State Building. That's the opening day of Empire State Building.
LAMB:Why is he there?
Prof. SLAYTON: He's president of the building. That turned into, by the way, a--a great deal of heartache for him. The Empire State Building--the ground was broken for it in August of 1929, and this is early in 1931. And, of course...
LAMB:What's the picture with FDR there on top?
Prof. SLAYTON: The picture--that's FDR in office. That's Al congratulating him in happy days.
LAMB:No, I'm--it's the one up--isn't that FDR up on top of the...
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, the picture just below that?
LAMB:In the mid--the middle yeah.
Prof. SLAYTON: Yes. That's the two of them on--on the opening day ceremony of the Empire State Building. What--what I find unbelievable about that middle photograph is the parapet there is so low. I mean, if you look, FDR's hand--yeah, right there--is on the parapet. That was--that's 86th floor, far and away the tallest building in the world at the time, and that was all that kept you from taking a header or being blown off or whatever. There's obviously much, much higher railings now or whatever. And I look at that and I get frightened.
LAMB:Now what was the relationship between Al Smith and FDR after FDR became president?
Prof. SLAYTON: Well, here was this guy who he--as I say, I think he--he honestly felt affection for, but he didn't respect, and that's the guy who not only gets the presidency, but within 100 days, he's the great national hero. He became a symbol, I believe, to Al Smith of the shallowness of the American people, a shallowness that had hurt him so badly in '28 and had now elected this fop, which dilettante, which is how he perceived FDR. And it became the symbol of just how shallow they could be, so it seems appropriate that he, in turn, for a while, turned horribly on FDR, just horribly.
LAMB:What was the dinner--the big dinner with 2,000 people at the Mayflower here in...
Prof. SLAYTON: 1936, they--in 1935, a group of verily--very rich Republicans formed a group called the American Liberty League to fight the New Deal. It was mostly about keeping their perks in place. They said they were on behalf of all Americans, but they were on behalf of rich people. It was led by and financed by the du Pont family. Jim Farley, who was Roosevelt's campaign manager, said it was a classic du Pont product, a lot like cellophane in that it was totally transparent. And here was Al Smith, a--and he winds up giving the great speech for them--this is in 1936, early in '36--where he just about calls the New Deal a Communist plot. He says, `This is...'
LAMB:Well, let me--let me read it.
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, please.
LAMB:`This country was organized on the principles of a representative democracy, and you can't mix socialism or communism with that.' He says he's still a Democrat?
Prof. SLAYTON: Oh, absolutely.
LAMB:Member of the...
Prof. SLAYTON: But he is going to support Republicans in '36 and '40. But--but that's horrible language. And--and you--you--th—it gets even worse than that in some of this...
LAMB:Just let me read a little bit more.
Prof. SLAYTON: Please.
LAMB:He says, `It's all right with me--it's all right with me if they want to disguise themselves as Norman Thomas or Karl Marx or Lenin or any of the rest of that bunch, but what I won't stand for is allowing them to march under the banner of Jefferson, Jackson or Cleveland.'
Prof. SLAYTON: Well, you know, fr--from the standpoint of drama, you have an amazing moment here. A guy like Al Smith, who grows up on streets wh--where the Democratic Party isn't a political organization, as most of us think of it today; it's a social club. It's--it's an act of faith. You don't turn on your party when they're enjoying triumph like that. I mean, that's like turning on your church. Why does he do this? And I honestly believe it is because, by then, he wasn't seeing Franklin Roosevelt, the man; he was seeing Franklin Roosevelt, the symbol of the shallowness of the American people. And--and he just flies into a rage, and it's a blind rage.
LAMB:What happened when FDR, through Eleanor Roosevelt, invited him to come to the White House? What year was that?
Prof. SLAYTON: This is--this is a really sad--poignant, I think, is a better word--story. He's coming into Washington to deliver the speech you just read from. Al--Al was actually closer with Eleanor than he was with Franklin. Eleanor had gotten into politics campaigning for him in the '24 gubernatorial. That's the start of Eleanor Roosevelt in--in actual politics, and it's one of Al's great contributions in a sense. And they are really, really deep friends. In--in 1928, when they say to Eleanor Roosevelt that, `Your husband just won the governorship,' she replies, `Well, what do I care? Al Smith lost the presidency.'
So he come--he's coming into Washington to deliver that speech, and Eleanor, graciousness, old dear friend, writes him and says, `If you want to stay, you can stay at the White House. We'd be happy to have you.' And he writes a gentle letter back saying, `I don't think it's appropriate. I'm coming over with the boys. I'm going to have to stay with them,' and it--it's gentle. But somebody leaks it to the press--we don't know who--and they're saying, `Oh, the Roosevelts and the Smiths are, you know, rebuffing one another.' And she writes him this letter where she says, `Look, you and I are old friends. We shouldn't be doing this. This is not about us. And it's hurt. It--it--it's reaching out. It's a bunch of things at once.' And he writes her back this amazing letter where he says, `I know, but it's so hard to be friends now. It's just so hard.' And it's so poignant.
LAMB:You have a series of pictures here that show animals.
Prof. SLAYTON: Al loved animals. That's putting it real mildly. It--it took me off-guard. It caught me off-guard about Al and animals. I mean, the guy grew up i--in tenements. I--I grew up in the Bronx, and we didn't have a lot of pets, and we didn't have a lot of room for pets. And I said, `My God, where in God's name did he get this from?' Turns out he really did grow up in Lower Manhattan near the docks, when the seaport was just thriving. And what happened was--these ocean voyages were very, very, very long in those days, and you got real sick and tired of your companions when you didn't see anybody else for months at a time. So they would pick up at ports little dogs and cats and monkeys or whatever, but when they got back to New York, that was a real problem when you were making your rounds around the city. So you foisted it off on the kids in the neighborhood. So from an early age, particularly dogs he loved, but everything--he has his own private zoo, his own private menagerie, behind the governor's mansion.
LAMB:What did Robert Moses do for him near the end?
Prof. SLAYTON: As I said, Robert Moses really loved him, and—and Robert Moses I don't think loved much besides Robert Moses and Al Smith. Al was living on Fifth Avenue by then, about 61st Street, and Bob Moses redoes the--the zoo at Central Park. And he calls Al over, he says, `We're going to have a ceremony. We're going to have a ceremony. You know, f--w--it's across the street. The zoo is across the street.' And Al figures, you know, one of these things dignitaries go to.
And he shows up and they say, `We have something special for you. We're naming you night superintendent of the Central Park Zoo.' And it wasn't just a title. Th--this was real. They give him a key to go into the animals, and I have accounts from the grandkids where in the middle of the night, he'd wake them up; he'd hear the animals crying or roaring, whatever, and he'd take the grandkid by the hand and he'd go over. I have eyewitness accounts from--from a bellman and such who said, `Yeah, he really used to go over there and really spend time with the animals.' And there's some wonderful stories about that.
LAMB:When did FDR and Al Smith reconcile?
Prof. SLAYTON: I think they are starting--first of all, I think there always was underneath that affection. I think by 1933, and even though this is three years before the horrible speech, some thing's being put into place that will eventually pull them together. Th--there--what I say in the book is that there was only one person who really could get Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt back together, and that was Adolf Hitler; that--that both of these two men basically stood for the same sense of human decency, and both instinctively and initially looked across the ocean and said, `That's wrong. That's just wrong.'
Smith is speaking out against Hitler by '33, I mean, almost immediately. And as we get later on into the '30s, going obviously, once you get to the war era, where Roosevelt is also talking about, `We have to quarantine the aggressors,' that stand is pulling the two men together again.
LAMB:What year did he die? How old was he? And what did he die of?
Prof. SLAYTON: He dies just short of his 71st birthday. He dies in October of 1944. He dies of heart failure and lung congestion.
LAMB:What about his wife? Did she go before or after him?
Prof. SLAYTON: She goes six months before him. She dies of cancer. And, again, as I said, this is one of these old-fashioned marriages; one partner was not going to last long without the other.
LAMB:I don't know if it's every year, but every four years...
Prof. SLAYTON: Every year.
LAMB:...there's always a big thing about the Al Smith dinner...
Prof. SLAYTON: Yeah, yeah. Yes, indeed.
LAMB:...in New York. And both presidential candidates are a--invited.
Prof. SLAYTON: Absolutely.
LAMB:What is it?
Prof. SLAYTON: In about '47 or '48, they--the Catholic Charities, which he had been working with his latter years, created a fund-raising dinner that they named the Al Smith dinner. They have major dignitaries show up throughout to that. Every four years—it goes on every year. When--when you look through the list of people who have been speakers there, at one time, it really was the great dignitaries of the world. Winston Churchill spoke there. The commandant of Allied forces in Berlin at the height--just after the Berlin airlift was the speaker at the Al Smith dinner.
But every four years, it is, generally, the two presidential candidates, and the most famous line came in 1960. There was, of course, Richard Nixon and--and John Kennedy. And John Kennedy got up--and you have to know a little bit about the factions within the Republican Party at the time. And the host then was Cardinal Spellman--Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, immensely powerful. And the famous line is John Kennedy stood up and said, `Only Cardinal Spellman could have gotten to the same table two people so different in their politics, so different in their outlook, so different in their philosophy--only Cardinal Spellman could have gotten Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller to the same table,' and just broke the house up. And that's the classic line.
LAMB:Our guest has been Robert A. Slayton. This is what the book looks like: "Empire Statesman." Al Smith it's all about. He was the 1928 Democrats' candidate for president. Thank you very much for joining us.
Prof. SLAYTON: Thank you.
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