Al Smith and the Fall of Tammany Hall
Kevin C. Murphy, Columbia University
(Copyright 2002-2013, All Rights Reserved)
After Roosevelt had the nomination locked up, Smith refused to go to the convention floor and give up his votes. When asked, he "just sat there, his arms folded in front of him...[saying] over and over again, 'I won't do it. I won't do it. I won't do it.'"15 Said one Texas delegate of Smith's decision, "I have been an ardent supporter of Al Smith before, but he has been very unsportsmanlike."16 Instead, an angry Smith left the convention by a side door and immediately boarded a train back to New York. Upon his return from the convention, the often loquacious Smith's only comment to the press was, "I have absolutely nothing to say to newspaper men...I am tired and I want to get a rest."17
It took five full days after the convention before Smith came out to briefly and publicly endorse the party ticket, and even then his resentment was very much in the open. When asked whether he would campaign for Roosevelt in the weeks to come, Smith declared, "Don't you know what Senator David B. Hill said after Grover Cleveland won the nomination? 'I'm a Democrat still.' But the rest of that quotation from Hill, which some of you reporters may not have remembered, was 'Very still.'"18 Two months later, when Vice-Presidential nominee John Garner tried to solicit Smith's aid once again, the Times noted that "[r]eporters who sought to learn from Mr. Smith what luck had attended the Speaker's quest were barked at more harshly than usual. Evidently Al is still in a bad humor, and Democratic unity must wait on him awhile."19 As one wag observed, "you can't blame a man for sulking a bit in his tent, when you have such an attractive and commodious tent as the Empire State Building to sulk in."20
When Smith finally did hit the campaign trail in 1932, visiting the several cities in the Northeast that had been his political stronghold in 1928, it was still abundantly clear that he was operating from his own agenda. Of a speech in Newark, in which Smith mentioned the Roosevelt-Garner ticket by name once over the course of fifty minutes, the Newark Star-Eagle remarked that "it is doubtful whether any more votes will be cast for Roosevelt because of Alfred E. Smith's speech, for as nearly everyone knows Al Smith does not feel that Governor Roosevelt will fit the office of the President." Similarly, the Newark Evening News said that "more of the speech was devoted to rebuttal against the arguments of 1928 than to the issues of 1932," and the Jersey Journal deadpanned, "It was Smith's night. Franklin D. Roosevelt was 'the forgotten man.'"
The national press weren't fooled by Smith's half-hearted campaign attempts either. "'Damning with faint praise' hardly applies to the speech of Alfred E. Smith," noted the Arizona Republic. "Praise was entirely absent." The Kansas City Star remarked that while "the ex-Governor is enthusiastic for [Prohibition] repeal. . .on other party matters, including the nominees, he is able to restrain his enthusiasm." The Oregonian declared that "the title of Al Smith's first address in supposed behalf of the Roosevelt-Garner ticket might well be 'What the People Did to Me in 1928." And the Denver Post labeled it the "best speech yet for Hoover." To all observers, Smith's failure in 1932 had clearly made him an unhappy warrior.21
Indeed, if the political press could get a sense of Al Smith's disillusionment following the 1932 campaign from his very brief campaign swing, it was nothing compared to the shock and dismay experienced by Smith's friends and colleagues who saw him from day to day. To them, it was clear -- the Happy Warrior was a ruined individual. Indeed, Smith's closest friends had tried to cheer him up that fall with a special commemorative dinner, one that featured skits such as "The Knife in the Back" and dishes such as "Nuts McAdoo," and "Branchless Olives Roosevelt." On the front of the menu, friend, advisor, and ghostwriter Robert Moses had placed a quote from Shakespeare: "Politics is a thieves' game, Those who stay in it long enough are invariably robbed."22
But this friendly commiseration proved to be only a brief respite, and by all accounts Smith continued his decline into self-pity. "I think his hatred and resentment and personal frustration are almost overwhelming," noted writer Walter Lippmann of Smith in a letter to Felix Frankfurter. To Lippmann, Smith had become "an awful human spectacle" who clearly suffered from "what almost amounts to a persecution complex."23 Similarly, Belle Moskowitz, both Smith's closest political advisor and a longtime mentor, also recognized the severe deterioration in the Happy Warrior's demeanor. According to Moskowitz's biographer (and granddaughter) Elisabeth Perry, she noted that Smith "began to drink more heavily" after the 1932 defeat. Moreover, "whenever Roosevelt's name came up," Perry writes, Smith "swore and raged."24
Smith's descent into despair couldn't have come at a worse time for Tammany Hall and its embattled scion, James Walker. In the months following Smith's defeat, while Tammany's most beloved public figure had licked his wounds, Judge Seabury's noose had tightened around the Tiger and the Night Mayor. After two years of thorough municipal investigation, Seabury's "Tin Box Parade" (named so after one Tammany witness claimed to have "found" $360,000 in "a tin box...a wonderful tin box") had made its way to the center of City Hall, discovering, as Robert Caro put it, that "the Mayor had personally accepted more than a million dollars in 'beneficences' from firms doing business in the city."25 When Walker finally went to his old friend asking for advice on what to do about the Seabury onslaught, a distracted Smith said only, "Jim, you're through. You must resign for the good for the party."26
In the weeks following Walker's forced resignation on September 1, 1932, arguably the most damaging blow to Tammany's political fortunes since the removal of Boss Tweed decades earlier, media and political observers alike wondered how Al Smith would respond to Judge Seabury's successful attack on his political base, and the chaos that had engulfed the municipal government. Nor did Smith comment on the special election replacement of Walker by a Tammany hack by the name of Joseph O'Brien, who, when asked who he would choose to be Police Commissioner, answered, "I don't know. They haven't told me yet."27 As Robert Moses noted in a letter to Smith, "This is your last opportunity to comment on the [Seabury] investigation. The subject is interesting and your discussion will arouse a lot of comment not only in New York but in other places where they have had similar experiences with municipal reform investigations."28
So it was with much anticipation that New York listened when Al Smith asked to appear before the final "reform" phase of Judge Seabury's two-year investigation in early December of 1932, a request that was quickly granted. Thus, on December 1, Smith appeared before Judge Seabury and, over the course of an hour and a half, laid out a comprehensive reorganization plan for the municipal government that -- surprisingly -- was partially aimed at defanging the Tammany Tiger.
Smith's reform plan, unmistakably and explicitly based on his earlier restructuring of the New York state government as Governor, centered much more executive power in the mayoralty while removing all kinds of extraneous positions (including the county and borough governments) that had long been excuses for Tammany patronage. In addition, it gave judges tenure until the age of seventy and advocated their appointment by the Mayor rather than election, since, as Smith wryly put it, "no man sitting on the bench should feel that he has to owe anything to anybody to continue his job" and, "as a matter of fact, under the present system the people have a very decided limitation on what they can do about the election of judges."29 (In addition to being an attack on the Tiger's control of judgeships, Smith's remark was also a dig at Samuel Hofstadter, the presiding Republican state senator, and uncle of historian Richard Hofstadter, who had recently accepted a judgeship offered by Tammany. And the Smith reform plan created a small bicameral legislature to replace the Tammany-controlled Board of Aldermen as a check on the mayor's executive prerogative. Clearly, Smith had declared war on the political institution that had nurtured him.
As a result, Smith's "most admirable exposition" was virtually uninterrupted by a normally inquisitive yet clearly impressed Samuel Seabury, who stated that he "wouldn't like to mar what the Governor has said by putting one single question."30 Indeed, throughout the presentation, Smith seemed to have lost the bitterness that had marked his every appearance since the summer of 1932, and instead seemed the jovial, efficient, and lovable Happy Warrior of old, even concluding his statement by plugging his new project, the Empire State Building.31
Newspaper coverage of Smith's testimony definitely recognized Smith's performance as such, and reports seemed universally ecstatic at the return of the Happy Warrior to the political fold. "So entirely foreign to the interests of Tammany was the scheme offered by Mr. Smith," said the New York Herald-Tribune, "and with such plain-spoken sincerity was it offered that the appearance of the former Governor as its sponsor somewhat strengthened rumors that Mr. Smith had spoken strongly in important ears upon the subject, with the implied threat that, if there was no other way of obtaining the reforms, they might be embodied in the Mayoralty platform of Mr. Smith himself."32 The Tribune's editorial page added, "[s]eldom has ex-Governor Smith done a better piece of work than he did yesterday morning. . .the mere fact that such simple and obvious modernizations as Mr. Smith outlines has never been so much suggested during the fifteen years through which Tammany has now held unbroken power speaks volumes as to the real character of Tammany's motive and Tammany's 'public service.'33
Other city editorials were similarly effusive. "Before the Seabury committee yesterday," wrote the New York Evening Post, "Al Smith justified the faith that the people have in him as the best possible Mayor of New York." Moreover, they declared that "[w]e do not believe that the Seabury committee, with all its researchings, will produce a new city charter as good as that sketched yesterday in such masterly fashion by Alfred E. Smith."34 In an op-ed entitled "Smith does it again," the New York Times declared, "[o]ne could almost wish that under some suspension of the rules of ordinary democratic government the myriad citizens' committees and charter groups and reform organizations that have been or will be puckering their brows over this problem could be stored away for a while and that the job of making over the government of the city might be given to the son of whom it has the right to be so proud."35 The New York World-Telegram declared that, by testifying before Judge Seabury, Smith had "sang another verse of a swan song for Boss Curry and the Tammany old gang...[Smith] could give this great city the government it deserves and which it must have to avert ruin."36 And even the Wall Street Journal, alone in its lukewarm reception to the plan, observed, "if any or all [political experts] could be summoned by Judge Seabury to the witness-chair, could any dispute our belief that Alfred E. Smith as Mayor would give this city incomparably better government under the present system than James J Walker...could give it under the projected Smith system?"37
Meanwhile, shocked by the betrayal of their favorite son, Tammany leadership initially responded to the Smith plan in much the same way as the newspapers -- by declaring the reform measure Smith's opening salvo in a bid for the mayoralty. "It is said openly that [Smith] is ambitious to be Mayor of New York," responded Daniel Cohalan, a member of Tammany's board of strategy. "I wonder if he will get very far by announcing some old and well-known theories of government...He suddenly announces that the cost of government must be reduced and its machinery simplified. Next he will be telling us that Shakespeare wrote 'Hamlet' and that Napoleon lost Waterloo."38
When it came to the question of Smith's mayoral intentions, Tammany had more than just the papers to rely on. Indeed, Smith had boasted to Boss Curry earlier that year, at the Democratic State Convention that nominated Roosevelt-Smith ally and independent Democrat Herbert Lehman for Governor, that he could take the mayoralty of New York if he wanted it. When a Tammany lawyer made noise to the effect of blocking Lehman's nomination, Smith declared, "If Lehman isn't nominated I'll come down to New York and run for mayor and take the town away from you." When Curry queried on what ticket, Smith responded, "Hell, on the Chinese laundry ticket."39
Given Smith's semi-idle boast, remarks such as those by Cohalan naturally formed only one minor arm of the planned Tammany counterattack. As both Smith and Tammany knew, the real fight over the future of New York City would have to happen in Albany, where both sides could marshal their legislative influence for and against the reform measures. (Indeed, when a similar state reorganization bill had come before the Congress in 1915, it was loyal Tammany delegate Al Smith who, at the behest of Boss Charles Francis Murphy, had led the fight against it.)40 And, as Smith returned to public life around the city with renewed vigor, stumping for his charter reform plan and speaking before various charities, the political machine began to grind into action in Albany.
Relishing the coming political battle, the papers once again entered the fray on the side of Smith. "The first showdown between Tammany Hall and former Governor Alfred E. Smith...may come as early as next week, before the extraordinary session of the Legislature," announced the Times. "While Tammany was speechless in the face of what virtually amounted to a declaration of war by Mr. Smith...Smith and his friends are keenly alive to the need for speed in putting through his program."41 Similarly, the Post remarked that "[f]ormer Governor Alfred E. Smith appears to many observers at the Capitol as the most potent influence that can be brought to bear [on reform opponents.]"42 As Smith and his closest advisors hurriedly drafted a bill for the special session, a task they completed on December 9, the New York media continued to salivate at the prospect of a Smith mayoral ticket in 1933. As the Herald-Tribune noted on December 6, "[p]olitical leaders of Mr. Smith's own party, as well as prominent Republicans, see in Mr. Smith's plan for reorganizing the city government as the first step in an ambitious effort to be elected Mayor in 1933 and create a powerful personal political machine in the city similar to that which he built up as a Governor by reorganizing the state government on lines somewhat similar to those advanced before the Hofstadter committee."43
Meanwhile, a movement to draft Smith for mayor on the Fusion ticket began to take shape in the city. A statement released by the "Non-Partisan Citizens Committee to Draft Al Smith for Reorganization Mayor" on December 5 declared that Smith must be elected Mayor to break the Tammany machine: "His ability to do so is due primarily to the implicit confidence reposed in him, and the genuine affection held for him, by practically all his fellow citizens . . . they know better than any one else that there is no 'boloney' in anything he says or does." For his part, Smith played it coy -- When asked to respond to the committee, Smith said, "I have not seen the statement as yet and will not comment on it at this time."44 Meanwhile, his advisors declared that the "Smith plan, not a Smith candidacy, is what at the present time pervades the minds of the former Governor and his friends."45
While the speculation in the media (no doubt encouraged by well-placed leaks) and Smith's own earlier boast to Boss Curry both seem to indicate that Smith was in fact contemplating a political return by way of the mayoralty, this view is further enhanced upon review of his written work during this period. On December 1, 1932, the day of his appearance before the Hofstadter committee, Smith edited an article for the New Outlook on the investigations ghostwritten by Robert Moses. Smith went through the piece with a pencil and continually blunted the edge of Moses' often scathing critique.
Crossing out lines such as "the investigation was not supposed to be merely a kindergarten for young lawyers or a civic laboratory for amateurs" and "the investigator who aims at sensational press notices should remember that New York like every other municipality is a nine day town," Smith turned the article from an attack on Seabury into a plea for charter reform. In a later draft, he then removed all mention of the Judge, changing every instance of Seabury's name to "the committee" or "the investigators."46 It is possible that Smith was just being amiable in his revisions of the piece. To my mind, however, it seems that Smith was shrewdly recomposing the essay to set up his mayoral run, both by placing himself firmly on the side of reform (and against Tammany) and by divorcing the reform impulse from the name of Samuel Seabury.
In another article written two days later for Redbook magazine, Smith once again argued for his charter reform plan while hinting at an ulterior motive. "For a period of years I have given thought to the government of the city of New York," wrote Smith. "New York is my home city and I have lived in it all my life and have experienced all its governmental problems."47 Later in the piece, Smith reminds the reader, "[b]y no means should I be understood to say that just a revision of structure will make a new system function. New charters and new structures do not operate automatically. When you have a good machine, an engineer who is not technically qualified may make it work badly."48 Of course, Smith had already outlined his own engineering credentials earlier in the article.
But, before Smith could grasp the municipal apparatus, he still had to get the reform bill passed. And, unfortunately for the Happy Warrior's comeback plans, Tammany still exerted a great influence over affairs in Albany. On December 10, 1932, the Herald-Tribune reported that the recently completed Smith bill would "be introduced at the special session of the State Legislature not later than Tuesday by Senator Samuel H. Hofstadter."49 But, whether it be for partisan reasons or, more likely, his new seat on the Judiciary granted him by Tammany, Hofstadter -- who had chaired the two-year reform investigation -- left Smith in the lurch and refused to sponsor the bill.50 Without a high-profile sponsor, Smith's allies believed, the bill would flounder in the Tiger's den.
Smith's hopes were struck a more grievous blow three days later, when, at the end of the special session, it was announced that outgoing Governor Franklin Roosevelt (a man who, months away from the presidency, clearly had other issues on his mind) had struck a deal with the Tammany Tiger to set up a joint legislative committee in the next session to review the issue of charter reform. In effect, Roosevelt had punted, ostensibly to buy time for the reform bill. But, as the Post noted, "in agreeing to this proposal Tammany has bowed to Governor Roosevelt rather than risk a fight over reform which might have brought former Governor Alfred E. Smith into the battle with even more stern measures."51
At first glance, it would seem a cruel irony that the candidate who had ended Smith's chances for the presidency in July was now taking aim at Smith's mayoral bid as well. However, the Times for one suggests that this "surprising change of front on the part of Governor Roosevelt" was in fact "induced by advice from very sincere advocates of constructive charter reform," including Al Smith. According to their analysis, Smith felt the compromise was "the best means of keeping the matter alive and before the public in the months which must intervene before the regular session" returned. That being said, given his well-documented contempt and rage for his former friend, one must wonder if Smith had been so sanguine about the idea of Roosevelt crushing his hopes for a quick defeat over the Tammany Tiger.52
Return to Part I.
16. New York Times, 3 July 1932, p. 10.
18. Mitgang, 166.
19. New York Times, 21 August, 1932, p. 4.
20. New York Times, 7 August, 1932, p, 18.
21. New York Times, 26 October 1932, p. 11
22. Elisabeth I. Perry, Belle Moskowitz: Feminine Politics and the Exercise of Power in the Age of Alfred Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 211. "Nuts McAdoo" is a reference to William McAdoo, the Senator from California who had been Smith's nemesis at the heated 1924 Democratic Convention in New York, which had run 103 ballots and devasted the Democrats' presidential hopes that year. McAdoo, at the behest of another longtime Smith enemy, William Randolph Hearst, had supported Roosevelt on the final ballot.
23. Perry, 212.
25. Robert Caro, The Power Broker ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Å“ Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 324-325.
26. Mitgang, The Man Who Rode the Tiger, 296. Smith's first public comment about Walker would come well after the Night Mayor had been forced to resign, in the pages of the New Outlook. "Jimmie Walker is learning that life has its serious side," wrote Smith. "I think of him with the kindest of personal feelings, as though he were a younger brother. We roomed together years ago as Assemblymen in Albany. We had different ideas as to hours and bed-time. Jimmie usually got home after I was asleep. When I got up he was usually sleeping. I can see him now in bed as thin as a rail in a pair of red striped pajamas ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Å“ looking like a stick of peppermint candy. What a lot has happened since then!" "Recent Events Remind Me," in Alfred E. Smith papers, New York State Library, Albany, NY.
27. Caro, 324. As Herbert Mitgang notes in Once Upon A Time in New York, O'Brien was something of a master of the malapropism. "Once, before a Jewish audience," [O'Brien] praised 'that scientist of scientists, Albert Weinstein.' Another time, he told an audience in Harlem, 'I may be white but my heart is as black as yours.'" Mitgang, Once Upon A Time in New York, 218.
28. Letter from Robert Moses, November 9, 1932, in Alfred E. Smith Papers, New York State Library, Albany, NY.
29. New York Herald-Tribune, 2 December, 1932, p. 12.
30. New York Herald Tribune, 2 December, 1932, p. 13.
31. New York Herald Tribune, 2 December, 1932, p. 13. "Now," said Smith, "if there is anybody here who wants to rent any office space, I will meet them at 350 Fifth Avenue."
32. New York Herald Tribune, 2 December, 1932, p. 1.
33. New York Herald Tribune, 2 December, 1932, p. 15.
34. New York Evening Post, 2 December, 1932, p. 16.
35. New York Times, 3 December, 1932, p. 16. The Times broke with most papers in believing that Smith's charter reform plan probably did NOT indicate an impending mayoral bid by the Happy Warrior. "Smith is free from all political ambitions of that order, though the call may come."
36. New York World-Telegram, 3 December 1932.
37. Wall Street Journal, 5 December, 1932, p. 8.
38. New York Herald Tribune, 3 December, 1932, p. 8.
39. Mitgang, The Man Who Rode the Tiger, 199.
40. New York Herald Tribune, 6 December, 1932, p. 11.
41. New York Times, 3 December, 1932.
42. New York Evening Post, 10 December, 1932, 1.
43. New York Herald Tribune, 6 December, 1932, 11.
44. New York Herald Tribune, 5 December, 1932, 1, 6.
45. New York Times, 3 December, 1932.
46. "The Seabury Investigation and Municipal Reform," December 1 draft, Alfred E. Smith Papers, New York State Library, Albany, NY.
47. Red Book Draft 12/3/32, Alfred E. Smith Papers, New York State Library, Albany, NY, p. 4.
48. Red Book Draft 12/3/32, p. 6.
49. New York Herald Tribune, 10 December, 1932, 1.
50. New York Times, 16 December, 1932, 4
51. New York Times, 14 December, 1932, 1.
52. New York Times, 16 December, 1932, p. 4.