Al Smith and the Fall of Tammany Hall
Kevin C. Murphy, Columbia University
(Copyright 2002-2013, All Rights Reserved)
To be sure, Smith's own self-imposed reticence during this period as he licked his campaign wounds, coupled with his unfortunate tendency to leave very few personal thoughts behind in his correspondence, have worked to further obscure the importance of the winter of 1932-33 to the trajectory of his twilight years. And several other factors of the time conspired to silence a politician usually known and loved for his remarkable gift of gab, from loyalty to his fallen friend Walker to the death of Belle Moskowitz.
Nevertheless, despite these silences, I believe it behooves us to explore further this moment when these two integral strands of Smith's political life -- reform and Tammany -- collide. Did the Happy Warrior's bitter loss to Roosevelt, a loss that must have signified the end of his Presidential hopes much more conclusively than the experience of 1928, liberate Smith from the lifelong shackles of a politician? Was it the impetus he finally needed to turn his back on the machine that had created him, and throw in wholeheartedly behind the cause of reform? If so, Smith would not be the first politician to make the transition to statesman once all the cards were down.
Or, alternatively, was Smith, so recently neglected by his party and his erstwhile protege, secretly relishing the many calls from Republicans, Fusionists, and independent Democrats to take the mayoralty and "save" New York? Was his reform plan, which so mirrored the changes he had made as Governor and which invested so much "strong executive" power in the office, the prelude to his political resurrection free from the chafing restraints of Tammany? If this was the case, than Roosevelt's compromise with the Tiger in the December special session, the compromise that, given later events, effectively killed Smith's plan, must have seemed a cruel joke to the once-happy warrior, twice vanquished by his former friend, colleague, and patron.
And what of Tammany Hall? Did it survive this uprising by its favorite son, however brief? Were history purely a literary endeavor, it'd be tempting to argue that it didn't, that Al Smith succeeding in defanging the Tammany Tiger as only he could have, in much the same way that only Nixon could have gone to China. And in fact a circumstantial case can be made that Al Smith was one of the key factors in Tammany's downfall.
For one, it was Tammany's brash decision to support Smith over Roosevelt at the 1932 convention that incurred the wrath of the latter. As Charles LaCerra argues in his book, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Tammany Hall of New York, FDR the consummate politician never forgot a snub, and paid Tammany back in spades when he overlooked the Tiger when dispensing federal patronage under the New Deal.68
More importantly, however, Smith signed Tammany's death warrant by refusing any longer to play by their rules. Given the Happy Warrior's remarkable popularity in New York City, a case can be made that, had Smith reentered the New York political arena in 1932 squarely on the side of the Tiger, he could just as easily have blunted the Seabury offensive and ensured the political machine's survival, even after the resignation of Walker. By aligning himself against his former masters, however, and by remaining neutral in the mayoral campaign of 1933, Smith consolidated the anti-Tammany opposition and paved the way for the reign of Fiorello La Guardia.
If Belle Moskowitz had not passed away at such an inopportune moment and Al Smith had carried the fight for charter reform into Albany, perhaps he would played an even greater role in the Tiger's demise, using his own allies in the Tammany machine to break with the leadership and support his bill. Indeed, perhaps a Mayor Smith would have presided over the final dismantling of Tammany. But, that being said, that's not the way things turned out, and the political machine did manage to survive Smith's attack. And, while Tammany limped on for several decades, it was Mayor La Guardia, if anyone, whose reform tenure probably deserves the most credit for crippling the machine.69
In addition, it was Mayor La Guardia who finally managed to pass charter reform, in 1936. For his part, Smith briefly returned to the charter reform foray in 1934, when he and Judge Seabury were chosen by Governor Lehman as co-chairs of a reform commission designed to get a bill through the State Congress. But Smith's attention flagged on the issue and, soon thereafter, he and Seabury jointly resigned from the commission as a means of decrying Tammany influence. As Smith explained his departure, "The people I couldn't get along with were the stowaways who were put on board with monkey wrenches to throw into the machinery and scuttle the ship."70
Despite the insinuations of Tammany sabotage, it is clear that the real reason for Al Smith's resignation was his resignation -- the Embittered Warrior had no heart for it anymore. As he admitted in a radio address on the subject, "[n]o one consulted me about the membership [of the commission] nor about my being named as chairman. After the bill was passed and signed I had to decide whether to serve or not."71 In the end he decided to give it a go, but as his short tenure on the commission suggests, the Smith of 1934 was not the Smith of 1932 who had clearly relished the prospect of one more political fight.
Indeed, the possibilities of December 1932, this contingent moment in Smith's personal history, makes his later trajectory, marked by further loneliness, political isolation, and disillusionment, that much more tragic. As Robert Caro notes in The Power Broker, Al Smith "was no businessman. He was the Happy Warrior of the political battlefield. And he yearned desperately, with all the desperation of a man who see the sands of his life running low, to be part of that battlefield again before it was too late."
But it was too late. Caro goes on to paint a grim picture of Smith's final decade. In the late afternoons," he writes, "when [Robert] Moses came to Al Smith's apartment, he would often find the old Governor sitting, alone except for Emily [his daughter], in the darkened living room, sunk deep in an easy chair, a glass of whiskey in his hand, staring in silence out at the sunset behind Central Park."72 Had things turned out differently, Smith might instead have been watching New York sunrises over City Hall. As it was, the Happy Warrior spent his last decade in the city that had always loved him, hopelessly alone.
Return to Part III.
69. Indeed, in homage to La Guardia's role as the bane of Tammany, Smith would in the lighter moments of his later years entertain onlookers by yelling "La Guardia!" at the most ferocious tiger in the Central Park Zoo, a provocation that would invariably elicit an angry roar from the caged beast. Caro, 382.
70. Mitgang, The Man Who Rode the Tiger, 346. Despite these protests, Smith had in fact returned to his position as political advisor to Tammany a month previously, at the behest of John Curry's successor, James Dooling. New York Times, 20 July, 1934, 1.
71. New York Times, 7 August, 1934.
72. Caro, 574-575. In this classic tome, Caro paints an equally moving portrait of the elderly Smith's visits to the Central Park Zoo, which had been built for him as a gift from Robert Moses, who had also given him a night key. "Until the end of [Smith's] life...[t]he doormen at No. 820 would become accustomed to seeing him walk out the front door in the evenings and across Fifth Avenue under the street lights...and disappear down the steps of the darkened zoo, not to reappear for hours. The former Governor and presidential candidate would walk through the animal houses, switching on the lights as he entered each one, to the surprise of its occupants, and talk softly to them...And if one of the zoo's less dangerous animals was sick or injured, Smith would enter its cage and stand for a while stroking its head and commiserating with it." Caro, 382.