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The Inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, January 20, 1961.

The Irish Road to the White House

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The Inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, January 20, 1961.

Three months after the fire, the legislature set up a nine-man Factory Investigating Commission to examine working conditions across the entire state. The chairman and vice-chairman were Senate Majority Leader Robert Wagner and Assembly Speaker Al Smith. (Cynics dubbed them “The Tammany Twins”). The commission was exacting in its investigations and eventually produced over 25 bills. The resulting legislation revolutionized the work place and created protections and safety measures that extended the role of government in unprecedented ways.

It didn’t stop there. The legislature moved ahead on everything from the passage of once-unthinkable stock market regulations to widow’s pensions and public power, from the state primaries to the direct election of U.S. senators. “By blessing the Factory Investigating Commission and endorsing the vote for women,” concludes David Von Drehle in Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, “Murphy helped chart the future of American liberalism…In the generation after the Triangle fire, urban Democrats became America’s working-class, progressive party.”

Under Murphy and Smith, Tammany became an agent of progressive change, and given New York’s position in the American economy, the influence of legislation passed in Albany had national impact. Murphy raised no objections when Smith brought Jewish progressives like Belle Moskowitz and Robert Moses into his inner circle; Murphy was, said Ed Flynn, “as vitally interested in Smith’s social reforms as anyone around the Governor.” But his motivation was always practical rather than ideological. He believed that using the power of the state to improve people’s lives in material ways – guaranteeing decent working conditions, shielding workers from injuries, regulating the employment of women and children, protecting the old from falling into poverty, extending public education – was, quite simply, good politics.

In 1918, Al Smith was elected governor of New York State. He lost his bid for re-election in 1920, but was returned to office in 1922 and served until 1928. During those years, he continued to build on his progressive record in the assembly. He overhauled and modernized the entire structure of state government, bringing it into the twentieth century; passed massive bond issues for hospitals, housing, roads; undertook a dramatic expansion of state parks and invested new funds in education. A model for the kind of dynamic government action that Franklin Roosevelt would undertake as president, Smith’s achievements have often been referred to as “the Little New Deal.”

Al Smith’s outstanding legislative record and achievements as governor brought him national attention. Murphy was soon convinced that putting a loyal Tammany man, a Catholic no less, in the White House – a notion that a few years before would have been unthinkable – was now eminently achievable. Smith shared his ambition. He believed very deeply that the urban immigrant community he represented and took pride in was ready to assume its rightful place in the country’s democratic equation.

However premature or naïve such confidence may have been, Murphy didn’t live to see the result. He died suddenly in 1924, shortly before the Democrats met in New York for their convention. Smith went ahead with his bid for the nomination. After a bitter deadlock that lasted a record 103 ballots, the convention settled on a compromise candidate. More ominous was the failure of the convention to adopt a plank strongly condemning a reborn and widely influential Ku Klux Klan.

Four years later, in 1928, Smith secured the nomination. Given the high-octane prosperity of the “Roaring Twenties,” which was then at its height, any Democratic candidate would have an uphill battle. But Smith wasn’t any candidate, and the heights he faced weren’t so much steep as un-scalable. The Party itself was deeply fractured. While many urban ethnics like Smith saw Prohibition as a nativist power play by rural Protestant America, as grossly unfair as it was unrealistic and unenforceable, a large part of the agrarian populist wing was devoted to it.

The weight of economic good times gave the Republicans an advantage that under the best of circumstances would have been difficult to overcome. But in combination with a widespread, vocal, often hateful revival of old-time suspicions about Catholic loyalties, Smith’s indelible identity as an Irish pol and his classic “New Yawk” accent – available for the first time to millions of voters via radio – didn’t endear him to rural Americans and helped generate a Republican landslide of historic proportions.

In the aftermath, Murphy’s machine seemed to come apart. Smith grew bitter and resentful toward his successor as governor, Franklin Roosevelt, and drifted away from the Democratic Party. Another of Murphy’s protégés was the brilliant, witty, debonair Jimmy Walker, perhaps the most naturally talented politician Tammany ever produced. His combination of New York street smarts, intellectual wattage, Irish charm and jazz-age sophistication made “Beau James” one of the most popular mayors in the city’s history. Unfortunately for Walker, however, he was elected mayor the year after Murphy died.

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