By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
My America Against Tammany's
Progressives and the Election of 1928
IV. The Third Landslide
John J. Raskob had been half-right. There had been a 400-vote electoral landslide, only not in Smith's direction. In fact, Herbert Hoover won 444 electoral votes, the most ever, and 40 states, as well as 21.4 million popular votes -- six million more than Coolidge -- constituting 58% of the vote. Smith, meanwhile, ended up with 87 electoral votes, eight states, 15 million votes, and 41% of the vote. The Governor had won 6.7 million more votes than John W. Davis in 1924 and carried the nation's thirteen largest cities, both firsts for a Democrat -- but that seemed little consolation given all else. While the West had stayed Republican, Hoover had carved away Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Texas from the Solid South. In the Northeast, on the other hand, Smith won only Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Republicans also picked up seven seats in the Senate and thirty seats in the House, giving President-Elect Hoover a sizable governing majority on both ends of Congress. And in the cruelest blow of all, even as Franklin Roosevelt eked out a win by a 25,000 vote margin, Al Smith lost the Empire State by 100,000 votes.2
"Losing his own state," thought Smith friend and ally Walter Lippmann, "was more than he could stand." The day after the election, Al Smith announced he was retiring from American politics. "I will never lose my interest in public affairs, that is a sure thing. But as far as running for office again is concerned -- that's finished." When asked by the World why he had been beaten so decisively, Smith emphasized first the Coolidge prosperity, followed by contentiousness over Prohibition and his religion. To Frances Perkins, he was more forthright. "Well, I'll tell you," Smith said, "I don't think we can allege the reason anywhere, or put the reason at any of these things. To tell you the truth, Commissioner, the time hasn't come when a man can say his beads in the White House." A thorough statistical analysis of the election results in 1979 by historian Allan Lichtman came to the same conclusion -- Catholicism, more than anything else including Prohibition, had been the issue of the campaign. Thomas Walsh's worst fear had come true. "The 'Catholic' question has been settled for good,' one correspondent wrote the Senator. "No party will again risk that chance."3
The Nation and The New Republic were mortified about what all the prejudice revealed about the American people. "We must confess to both disappointment and shame," the editors of The Nation, wrote just before the election. "Disappointment that a campaign like this could not have been kept on a decent level, and shame that our nakedness is thus exposed to the world. We cannot but hang our heads when we think of the effect that all this will have upon foreign observers. They will once more say that we are a land of barbarians, and that, whenever we desist from the chase of the almighty dollar, we reveal an attitude of mind no whit different from that which led to the killing of the witches in Salem." This, averred TNR, had been "the bitterest political fight in at least a generation…[A]n unprecedented number of voters will cast their ballots, not for a candidate but against one." A decade that had begun amidst a wave of abnormal panic over the "Red Menace" approached its end with an outpouring of national revulsion towards the possibility of a Catholic president -- It did not speak well for the possibility of enlightened public opinion, and no mistake.4
"Regret and conceal it as we may, religion had more to do with the overwhelming defeat of Governor Smith than any other one thing," agreed George Norris soon after the election. "The madness of religious prejudice and hatred" -- "the most abhorrent thing" in American life -- had worked to "frighten misinformed people in regard to the dangers of a Catholic domination." Worse, the anti-Catholicism of 1928, Norris argued, "has sown the seeds of hatred, prejudice and jealousy, and they will grow and bear fruit long after the present generation has passed away." And all the while, Norris thought, "the greatest monopoly that ever existed," the power trust, had laughed. Still, having broken from the Republicans in 1928, Norris "never felt so independent in my life. I am not sorry for what I did. I am proud of it, and I have been made so, to some extent at least, by the enemies who have jumped on me and the friends who have deserted me; but the main reason for my feeling of satisfaction, or one that really counts, is that I have an absolutely clear conscience on the subject." Whatever had happened in 1928, Norris still believed "a great majority of our people are truly progressive and at heart believe in the fundamental principles for which the progressive group have fought." Norris would continue the fight.5
Another progressive satisfied with his defection despite the final results was Harold Ickes. "It was a landslide for Hoover," he said to Johnson, "although as one who voted for Smith, and has no regrets for so doing, I am able to derive some consolation from the size of Smith's popular vote." Like Johnson, who had said as early as September that Hoover would be elected "due principally to the religious issue," Ickes said there was no "doubt in my mind that the religious issue was the one that cut deepest." As for the president-elect, Ickes didn't "like Hoover any better than I ever did. I would like him better if he expressed a little pardonable human pleasure in the result, but his woodenlike expression indicates one or two things to me, either that he is immune to all human ordinary emotions or that he thinks he is a vice-regent of God divinely appointed to favor our country with the infallible administration that he doubtless proposes to give us."6
As for Johnson, he was disgusted and at the end of his rope with the one-issue politics of the time. "It is generally accepted that the big thing in our country is prohibition," he told Ickes in March 1929, "and that any human being may be tattooed with every indecency and leprous with immorality, but will be cleansed of all his sins if he shouts loudly enough for the eighteenth amendment and the Volstead Act…No question of supremacy of a power trust; no evil of the orgy of stock gambling; no encroachment by special privilege upon the peoples' rights to a country gone mad over liquor laws, and no domestic wrong will receive either attention or publicity."7
Ickes shared Johnson's frustrations with both Hoover and the ascendance of Prohibition. "I remarked to a friend of mind this morning," he replied soon after inauguration day, "that it would be an irony of fate if this superintellect, this great engineer and administrator would have to face during his administration a business and financial depression after little Calvin Coolidge, possessed of no ability at all, was able to leave office with a record of abundant national prosperity to his supposed credit. And yet I wouldn't be surprised if just this thing would happen." Ickes was also "particularly delighted that Franklin Roosevelt should have won for governor in New York." Other than the sheer schadenfreude of seeing a Roosevelt other than Teddy Jr. take the Empire State first, Ickes thought that FDR, if he maintained "a successful administration, may offer a leadership against Hoover four years from now that won't have to struggle against religious prejudice and social snobbery, although, personally, I wish it were in the cards for Al Smith to sweep the country in 1932. There would be a bit of poetic justice about that that would be very gratifying to me."8
Ickes wasn't the only one whose hopes now turned to Franklin Roosevelt. "The one bright spot on this extremely dark horizon is the fact that you have been elected Governor of New York," former diplomat Sumner Welles wrote FDR. The Governor of Virginia, Harry Byrd, told Roosevelt he was "the hope of the Democratic party." He was also the hope of Al Smith, who thought he might be able to continue on in politics as the eminence grise of the Roosevelt administration. "I told him I'd come up every week if he wanted me to," Smith told Frances Perkins. "I could be there Monday and Tuesday. Those are the big legislative days. I could see people for him. I could deal with them. I could talk with the Republicans and Democrats. I could help him with a lot of things." He also suggested Roosevelt install Belle Moskowitz "right there in his own office. She can see people. She can arrange things. She can keep in touch with me, tell me what's going on. I can tell her what ought to be done." Roosevelt remained courteous to his former mentor -- though he also complained to Perkins that Smith was calling every day offering unsolicited advice -- but he was also determined to be his own man. It was his time now.9
While many Democrats lapsed into despair after Smith's landslide loss, H.L. Mencken thought the candidate had done the Democracy a good deed, even in defeat. "Hoover could have beaten Thomas Jefferson quite as decisively as he beat Al," Mencken averred. "His judgment of the American people was cynical but sound…He let Al bombard them with ideas, confident that ideas would only affright and anger them. Meanwhile he did business behind the door with all the professional boob-squeezers, clerical and lay." The Hoover rout "did credit to his gifts as a politician," Mencken conceded. "But Al hogged all the glory as a statesman and a man." Now, he argued, the "future of the Democracy lies in following the furrow plowed by Al. As a feeble imitator of the Republican party it has no chance. But as a party of progress and enlightenment, dedicated to common sense, common rights, and common decency -- as a refuge for all men and women who tire of government by frauds and fanatics, exploiters and hypocrites, theologians and corruptionists, clowns and knaves -- as the complete anti-Hoover party it faces opportunities. Can it win? Maybe. But, win or lose, it can at least carry on a brave and uncompromising war against the rabble of Babbitts and Gantrys which now afflict the country."10
As for Hoover's main progressive champion, William Borah was now in the catbird seat, even if The Nation now despised him. William Kenyon wrote the Senator after the election and deemed him "the conquerer of Texas…You reversed a great historical miracle and made water Republicans out of wine Democrats." Will Hays -- master of Hollywood and servant of the Continental Trading Company -- told Borah "his speeches probably exerted a greater influence upon the electorate than was ever before exercised by a human voice in a political campaign."11
Borah accepted all these compliments, but his eye was fixed on the future. Affirming Hoover's victory as "a blessing to the country," he argued that "we have an opportunity to put the Republican party in a position where it can remain in power without much trouble for the next twenty years" -- hopefully one that would listen to him more often. But when Hoover extended the offer of Attorney General or possibly even Secretary of State to the Idaho Senator, it was "grudgingly tendered and gleefully declined," in the words of one reporter. Borah instead desired to remain in the Senate. "I have had a lot of fun out of dry champion Borah's refusal an opportunity to track the demon rum into its lair and slay it with its naked hands," Ickes mused to Hiram Johnson. "I wonder just why Hoover offered to appoint him Attorney General. This appointment and its declination only served to make Borah look ridiculous." In any case, very soon into the Hoover administration, Borah -- never happier than when playing the quixotic, principled insurgent of the Senate -- was up to his old tricks again.12
One of the Republicans who showered effusive praise on Borah for his campaigning was the Sage of Emporia. "What a brave old lion you are!" Will White exclaimed to the Senator. "How splendidly you waged the battle. You knew what the issue was when no one else did." To White, that issue was definitively the Noble Experiment. "Mr. Hoover carried the South on prohibition," he said to one correspondent. "It wasn't religion. I was down there and I know." To Louis Brandeis, White offered a longer and more forthright answer. "I think thousands of western progressives balked at Smith," he wrote, "first because he was going too fast; second because he zigzagged on the wrong side of traffic on prohibition; and third because he represented a strange, unfamiliar, and to many narrow minds, an abhorrent tendency in our national life. Partly it was religion that symbolized the distrust. But I think it was chiefly an instinctive feeling for the old rural order and the old rural ways…the old order holds fast in spite of our urban and industrial development." When Brandeis asked him, "Shall we soon have another 'great rebellion?'" White thought: "Probably not, I should say. We shall probably have a slow evolutionary adjustment of the blessings of prosperity…I hope will all my heart that the Hoover administration will mean just this, for I see no other immediate hope."13
White was not alone. "We were in a mood for magic," recalled journalist Anne O'Hare McCormick. "We summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us; now we sat back comfortably and confidently to watch the problems being solved." By all accounts, the machine had been well-prepared for Hoover. "No Congress of the United States ever assembled on serving the state of the union," Calvin Coolidge said in December 1928, in his last address to that body, "has met with a more pleasing prospect than that which appears at the present time." The outgoing president pointed out that "[f]our times we have made a drastic revision of internal revenue system, abolishing many taxes and substantially reducing all others…One-third of the national debt has been paid, while much of the other two-thirds has been refunded at lower rates, and these savings of interest and constant economies have enabled us to repeat the satisfying process of more tax reductions." Lower and lower tax rates, a budget brought to balance, little to no government intervention in business -- "That is constructive economy in the highest degree," President Coolidge averred. "It is the cornerstone of prosperity. It should not fail to be continued." And with the economy humming along to these fiscal principles, it was now time for the Great Engineer to roll up his sleeves and go to work.14
"It was the bitter experience of all public men from George Washington down," Hoover wrote in his memoirs about his entering politics in 1919, "that democracies are at least contemporarily fickle and heartless." In January 1929, as he prepared to embark on his presidency, he confessed similar doubt to the editor of the Christian Science Monitor in words that very much echoed Woodrow Wilson's remark to George Creel on the way to Paris a decade earlier. "I have no dread of the ordinary work of the presidency," Hoover said. "What I do fear is the result of the exaggerated idea the people have conceived of me. They have a conviction that I am some sort of superman, that no problem is beyond my capacity…If some unprecedented calamity should come upon the nation…I would be sacrificed to the unreasoning disappointment of a people who expected too much."15
But that is another story.
Continue to Conclusion: Tired Radicals.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Burner, 207-208. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 129, 384-385.
3. Finan, 228-230. Lichtman, 74.
4. "The Dirtiest Political Campaign," The Nation, October 31st, 1928 (Vol. 127, No. 3304), 440. "This Week," The New Republic, November 6th, 1928 (Vol. 56, No. 727), 311.
5. Lowitt, 414-415. Finan, 230.
6. Ickes to Johnson, November 8, 1928. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson. Johnson to Ickes, September 1, 1928. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
7. Johnson to Ickes, March 8, 1929. HLP, Box 34: Hiram Johnson, 1929-1930.
8. Ickes to Johnson, March 9, 1929. HLP, Box 34: Hiram Johnson, 1929-1930. Ickes to Johnson, November 8, 1928. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
9. Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, 385. Another governor of note who came to power in 1928 was the new Governor of Louisiana, Huey Long. Long won the crucial Democratic primary in January against a split opposition.
10. Mencken, A Carnival of Buncombe, 210, 213.
11. Ashby, 280-281.
12. Ashby, 280. Burner, 209. Ickes to Johnson, March 9, 1929. HLP, Box 34: Hiram Johnson, 1929-1930.
13. White to Horace Mann, December 26, 1928. White, Selected Letters, 289. White to Brandeis, January 11, 1929. White, Selected Letters, 290.
14. Brinkley and Dyer, The American Presidency, 332. Brown, 23. Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 201. Calvin Coolidge, "Sixth Annual Message to Congress," December 4th, 1928. Reprinted at The American Presidency Project (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29569)
15. Hoover, 4. Burner, 210-211.
If you found this dissertation useful or entertaining, please consider contributing to the tip fund.
Alas, history isn't the wildly remunerative discipline it used to be.