Terry Golway’s new book "Frank and Al: FDR, Al Smith, and the Unlikely Alliance That Created the Modern Democratic Party" gives us a reassuring lesson on US politics from the past telling these two great men's stories.
For an Irish lad from the New York City bastion of conservatism—Staten Island—Terry Golway has made a living writing books about some of the most progressive—some would even say radical—residents of the Big Apple. Asked if he came from one of the few liberal families on the island, he laughed, then replied, “Actually, my parents were (and my mother still is) Republican. I also remember my paternal grandfather proudly telling me in 1964 that he was voting for Barry Goldwater. Both of my parents voted for Richard Nixon over John Kennedy in 1960. I think they felt Nixon’s hard-scrabble upbringing was more like their own, which is certainly true.”
Golway’s father was a New York City Firefighter which may have had something to do with him writing the definitive, albeit no-holds-barred, history of the FDNY, So Others Might Live: A History of New York’s Bravest, the FDNY from 1700 to the Present. Golway took the assignment on right after 9/11 and produced the book in a year. What did dad think of it? “He liked it a lot, even if there was some bad language in it—he never used bad language!”
Golway's affection for the FDNY is obvious in a story he tells about his father and his journey out to Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York. “My father worked at Engine 162 in the Great Kills section of Staten Island,” said Golway, “where he grew up. The story goes that he and some other firefighters showed up at Shea while it was under construction in 1963. They were wearing their dress uniforms and said they were there for an inspection. They inspected it all right, but they were mainly interested in scouting out locations for box seats—these were the days when a dozen or so firefighters could afford the most expensive seats in the house. And they found a box that we used until Shea closed. Truth be told, I’m not entirely certain if my father really was part of this ‘inspection’—I suspect he was not but wished he was. But that’s how family legends are born! We definitely were part of the box, though, along with other firefighters and their families.”
Golway’s roots are deep in Staten Island. “I started at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ, as a commuter from Staten Island,” he recalls, “but the oil crisis of the early 1970s led me to switch to a local CUNY school, Richmond College, now called the College of Staten Island. Ironically, I now live a mile away from Seton Hall, so I don’t need a car to get there anymore!”
Getting a start in journalism
Sports was Golway’s avenue into journalism. “I got a job at the Staten Island Advance’s sports department on the day before I graduated from Monsignor Farrell High School in 1973,” he remembers. “One of my teachers was a part-time sportswriter and he recommended me. I worked as a sportswriter while I was in college. I did teach at a Catholic grammar school for a year when I got out of college but continued to work at the Advance in hopes of getting something fulltime there. (I was making as much money part-time at the Advance as I was while teaching full-time!) I started fulltime at the Advance as an assistant night news editor in 1979. After the Advance, I edited a political journal called Empire State Report from 1987 to 1990 and joined the New York Observer in 1990.
Yes, that’s the New York Observer which was eventually bought by one Jared Kushner—the Dauphin-in-law of the Trump Administration. Did he know Kushner? “I did some editorial writing for the Observer until 2015, so yes, I was there for Jared, who bought the paper in 2007 or so. He was always nice to me. I can’t say I really got to know him.”
Golway was at the Observer fulltime from 1990 to 2003, then part-time from 2004 to 2015. When fulltime he was the chief political writer for the Observer. What did he learn about New York politics in that job? “I learned that I preferred Albany to City Hall,” he says, “although I can’t really explain why, and I learned how important it is to pay attention to donors and campaign contributions. I’m not very good at numbers and it’s hard to write colorful stories about fundraising, so I’ve not done much work about that seamy side of politics. But I have enormous respect for colleagues to keep track of these things. They perform a great public service.”
From academia to politico
Golway has gone through some interesting career changes, going from journalism to academia, then back to journalism. Why the career voyage, asked Irish Central? “I always thought I wanted to teach at the college level,” he confesses, “and in the early years of the 21st-century, it seemed like a good move because it was clear that print journalism was about to suffer catastrophic losses. As I told my wife, newspapers are about to lose readers, but there will always be college students. So, I got a later-in-life Ph.D. in U.S. History, worked as an administrator at Kean University in New Jersey (teaching one class a semester on the side), but really missed journalism. So, when Politico sought me out in 2015, I was delighted. I should point out that I’m still in academia—I teach a class in journalism history and ethics at the New School.”
At Politico Golway is a senior editor in charge of New York state political coverage. “I get to Albany for a couple of days each month,” he says. “Luckily for me, we have a fantastic bureau up there—it is such a pleasure working with smart young people.”
Writing about Irish revolutionaries and pols
Golway's first book, Irish Rebel, was a biography of John Devoy who led the Irish revolutionary movement from New York City where he spent the last 50 years of his life. Padraic Pearse called Devoy “the greatest Fenian of them all” and without Devoy’s devotion and nurturing of the revolutionary movement, there’s a good chance the Union Jack would still be flying over the GPO in Dublin today. Irish Rebel remains the definitive Devoy biography twenty years after its publication.
Golway continued to write about Irish freedom fighters in For the Cause of Liberty: A Thousand Years of Ireland’s Heroes. It was then that all that work up in Albany seemed to get corralled in a great book about Irish rogues and robbers in Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics.
From Machine Made it was a logical hop to Frank & Al: FDR, Al Smith, and the Unlikely Alliance That Created the Modern Democratic Party (St. Martin’s Press, $29.99). It is a meticulous look at two great progressive New York governors who both wanted to be president—but only one could. It is a finely weaved look from cradle to grave of two men who could not have been more different. Roosevelt, a scion of Protestant wealth and privilege from Hyde Park, New York, and Smith, an Irish-Catholic kid (Irish on his mother’s side; his father was German and Italian), who grew up in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge and matriculated at the Fulton Fish Market University while Roosevelt went to Harvard.
When they first met, Smith was the leader of the New York State Assembly and Roosevelt was a New York State Senator elected mostly because of his famous cousin’s name. Politically, they were like oil and water. Smith was slimy Tammany and Roosevelt was an impeccable, pristine reformer. World War I separated them as FDR went to Washington to work as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, as Cousin Teddy once did. Smith became one of the most progressive Democrats in the nation as he fought for workers’ rights and the dignity of the underdog. By 1920 FDR was the veep on the Cox-Roosevelt presidential ticket and Smith was running for his second term as governor. Both of them would be losers in the Warren Harding landslide as America sought a “return to normalcy.”
But things were about to change dramatically—for both men. In 1921 FDR was stricken with polio, making him a cripple for the rest of his life. By 1923 Smith was again governor and began to cast his gaze on the White House. The 1924 presidential convention was held at the old Madison Square Garden in New York and suddenly Smith needed someone to put his name into nomination for his long-shot bid at the presidency. Who better than Franklin Delano Roosevelt?
The only problem, of course, is that FDR was a cripple. In one of the most dramatic moments in American political history, at Smith’s urging, FDR strapped iron to his withered legs and returned to the political arena to nominate Smith—“the Happy Warrior”—for president of the United States, which would have made him the first Catholic President of the United States. The scene is vividly captured in Sunrise at Campobello with Ralph Bellamy portraying FDR.
Smith wouldn’t get the nomination in 1924, but in 1928 he would try again with the active help of FDR.
Golway relates how Smith taught FDR a lot of about grassroots politics. But as the years went by FDR tried to teach Smith about politics on a different level. He tried to get Smith to address politics on a national, not a parochial level. Even on an international level. It’s as though FDR is progressing, and Smith is regressing, not realizing that being the president of the United States is more than being a ward heeler in New York. “I think that’s exactly right,” said Golway. “People who’ve read the book have remarked on the fact that FDR seems to grow as the story progresses, but Smith remains static, and even regresses into bitterness in the 1930s. I think that’s exactly right. Smith was a national figure to the extent that he represented the hopes and ambitions of immigrants and their children throughout the country. But it seems to me that he never really became absorbed in national issues—with the exception, of course, of Prohibition, which he despised and opposed.”
1928 breaks Smith
With his landslide defeat in the 1928 presidential election to Herbert Hoover, Smith became what Golway referred to as “a broken man, a lost soul.” Smith was furthered surprised when he discovered that FDR, who won election as New York governor, did not need him as a “shadow governor.” IrishCentral asked Golway if this was the beginning of the Smith-FDR “divorce?” It looks like Smith took FDR a mite too leisurely. Is this jealousy? Or is it more like the famous Irish trait, “begrudgery?”
“Smith underestimated FDR,” says Golway. “As Roosevelt’s loyal aide, Louis Howe, said, Smith and his top advisers thought of Roosevelt as a little boy. Eleanor Roosevelt said that the Smith-FDR relationship was kind of a reverse snobbery: Smith, a self-taught politician from the sidewalks of New York, looked down on FDR, a Harvard-trained patrician. Smith worked hard at government; Roosevelt was elected in 1910 in part because of his last name, and never became a master of government as Smith did. So, I think Smith believed FDR had been handed something—the presidency—that he, Smith, deserved. And he was encouraged to believe this by his close aides—Robert Moses, Belle Moskowitz and Joseph Proskauer—all of whom loathed FDR as a usurper.”
The change in Smith was momentous. He no longer hung out with the working class and became attached, somehow, to the millionaires who said terrible things about him in 1928. In fact, his running mate in 1928, Senator Joseph Robinson of Alabama said, he “has turned away from the East Side with those little shops and fish markets, and now his gaze rests fondly upon the gilded towers and palaces of Park Avenue.”
Golway wrote in Frank & Al: “Now that he was keeping company with business leaders, Smith’s rhetoric lost some of the grit from the sidewalks of his youth. He wore silk hats now, not brown derbies, and it showed.” Why would Al Smith want the endorsement of Republican millionaires who he knew, viscerally, really hated his guts? “His bitterness blinded him to this reality,” Golway told Irish Central, “I think. They flattered him and made him feel wanted at a time when he felt unwanted by FDR and his advisers. I do think that Al felt that the New Deal centralized too much power in Washington at the expense of state and local governments, but that doesn’t account for his really bitter condemnations of FDR and his policies in the mid to late 1930s. It was personal.”
Divorce and rapprochement
But the Smith-FDR rapprochement was almost as quick as was their political divorce. Smith was against FDR in both the 1936 and 1940 elections. He turned on the New Deal, a lot of which, ironically, was based on policies Smith had enacted while he was governor of New York. But 1941 saw a reunion of sorts. The reason? Adolf Hitler.
Smith, like FDR, was quick to see the threat of Hitler and the other fascists. Even before Pearl Harbor Smith was a frequent visitor to the White House. “First of all,” says Golway, “there are some issues that transcend grudges and personality conflicts. Al Smith saw the threat of Nazi Germany early on, and by the late 1930s—well before Pearl Harbor—he understood and sympathized with FDR’s effort to align the United States with those who were resisting Hitler. And FDR noticed. He broke the silence between them by thanking Smith for his support. And that’s how and why they reconciled. Because they knew this was an issue that was so much more important than any hurt feelings between them.”
The end of Frank & Al shows a genuine affection between the two men, who would die just six months apart.
Lessons from "Frank & Al" in the time of Trump
In 1928 the bigots who hated Catholics, blacks and Jews wore sheets and hoods; ninety years later, they give the upside-down OK-sign. The sheet and the OK-sign signal the same thing—white nationalist privilege and power. Remarkably, the political lesson of Frank & Al is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“We are in a time of tremendous dislocation and demographic transformation,” says Golway. “People who are alienated tend to lash out and blame others for their problems. And mind you, this is a pattern throughout American history. As author Peter Quinn [Banished Children of Eve] says, America loves immigrants—two generations removed. They hated the Famine Irish, but they loved Jimmy Cagney. The America of 2018 doesn’t look very much like the America of 1968 (which in some ways is a good thing for those of us who remember that awful year). A portion of America is fed a daily diet of resentment about these changes, and so they’ve come to believe that all problems can be reduced to a few simplistic solutions, most of which revolve around the presence of newcomers and their children.”
Is abortion the new prohibition?
One of the great points of Golway’s book is how Prohibition changed the country. Brought into being by temperance fanatics, it ignored the cultural needs of many Americans, especially immigrant populations like the Irish, Germans and Italians where alcohol played a big part in social intercourse. It led to lawlessness on a national level. It was a law that was almost impossible to enforce.
Al Smith—with a little political nudge from Silent Charlie Murphy, the head of Tammany Hall—was a fierce “wet.” In fact, while governor of New York he passed a law that basically said that New York would not enforce the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.
As Republicans try to pack the Supreme Court today one wonders that if Roe v. Wade is overturned will abortion become the new Prohibition? Is there another constitutional disaster in the making? “Well,” said Golway, “Prohibition certainly made for single-issue politics. Al Smith could have been an Anglo-Protestant patrician like FDR but if he opposed Prohibition, he still would have been anathema to a large part of his own party—the so-called ‘progressives’ and the populists, like William Jennings Bryan. New York under Al Smith passed a law that withdrew the state from the enforcement of Prohibition. I wonder if something like that could be on the horizon.”
Making JFK possible - in a way
Smith went through tremendous anti-Catholic bigotry during the 1928 campaign. What lessons from 1928 were used in 1960 to make John F. Kennedy the first Irish-Catholic president of the United States? “The first Irish-Catholic president couldn’t be somebody up from the sidewalks of New York with a Lower East Side accent,” said Golway with a laugh. “That’s the lesson! The first Irish-Catholic had to be polished and unthreatening, had to have attended finishing school at Harvard, and had to have the approval of the party’s grand old men and women. But even Kennedy had a hard time with that: He had to overcome the skepticism of people like Eleanor Roosevelt and the only living Democratic president in 1960, Harry Truman—but then again, that might have been a function not of Kennedy’s ethnicity and religion, but less-than-positive feelings towards his father. Truman said he wasn’t worried about the pope—he was worried about Kennedy’s pop!”
The message of Golway’s book is that there is hope. The country has gone through trying times before and has been rescued by the likes of Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt. “Frank & Al,” concludes Golway, “I think, shows how two ambitious men found a way to work with each other despite enormous differences in class and upbringing and temperament. We could use a little of that cooperation these days!”
"Al & Frank" is available for purchase on Amazon.
* Dermot McEvoy is the author of the The 13th Apostle: A Novel of Michael Collins and the Irish Uprising and Our Lady of Greenwich Village, both now available in paperback, Kindle and Audio from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook.