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The Politics of Alfred E. Smith

October 18, 2008

On Thursday, the presidential candidates for both of the two major parties appeared at the Al Smith Dinner, an annual fundraiser for Catholic Charities which has been a frequent election campaign stop for presidential hopefuls since Kennedy and Nixon appeared there in 1960. The speeches given by the candidates at the Al Smith Dinner are, by tradition, supposed to be funny, and this year the candidates did not disappoint (video of both speeches can be found here). Both Senator Obama and Senator McCain showed themselves to be quite capable of poking fun at their opponents and at themselves which was, I think, all to the good.

One line in particular, though, struck me as odd. During his remarks, Senator Obama stated that he “shared the politics of Alfred E. Smith and the ears of Alfred E. Newman.” Now, obviously, the worst thing you can do with a joke is overanalyze it, but I had to wonder: exactly what were the politics that Barack Obama thought he had in common with Al Smith? Presumably he was not referring to his positions on social issues such as abortion or homosexual unions, which were not major issues in Al Smith’s time, but on which he no doubt would have differed from Senator Obama. Nor, presumably, was Obama referring to Smith’s opposition to Prohibition. Rather, I expect that in making this remark, Senator Obama was thinking that, as a Democrat, Al Smith would have approved of the economic proposals that Obama has put forward.

If so, then Senator Obama is almost certainly mistaken. While Al Smith was the Democratic nominee for president just prior to Franklin Roosevelt, after Roosevelt’s election he became a ferocious critic of the New Deal, saying of the Roosevelt administration: “It is all right to me if they want to disguise themselves as Norman Thomas or Karl Marx, or Lenin, or any of the rest of that bunch, but what I won’t stand for is to let them march under the banner of Jefferson, Jackson, or Cleveland.” Smith went on to become a major player in the American Liberty League (along with, among others, George Bush’s grandfather), which labeled Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration “a trend toward Fascist control of agriculture,” and said that the passage of Social Security would “mark the end of democracy.” Smith even went on to endorse the Republican presidential nominee in 1936 and 1940, making him the Joe Lieberman of his era. His politics had less in common with Barack Obama’s than they do with Joe the Plumber’s.

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33 Comments
  1. October 18, 2008 11:50 am

    Another area in which Al Smith differs from Barack Obama: Smith lost; Obama will win.

  2. October 18, 2008 12:15 pm

    And that’s all that matters, right?

    What a joyous day that will be! And then, as first presidential act, Obama can sign the Freedom of Choice Act into law! Mr. Campbell will then twist himself into knots telling his fellow Catholics how doing so is perfectly consistent with Catholic teaching.

  3. October 18, 2008 12:39 pm

    I’m not really clear why Gerald finds that such a cogent observation. If he imagines that Smith lost because of his economic policy positions, he could not be more wrong.

    Interesting post, Blackadder. I must say, the Alfred E. Smith/Newman comment jarred a little for me as well, but I hadn’t known as much about Al Smith’s economic principles. Thanks for the post — those certainly were the days…

  4. S.B. permalink
    October 18, 2008 1:15 pm

    And Poli and Henry and the rest of the Vox Nova will pretend that if Gerald Campbell said it, then it must be consistent with Catholic doctrine . . . .

  5. Katerina permalink*
    October 18, 2008 5:53 pm

    And this is a great example of why comments are worthless!

  6. David Nickol permalink
    October 18, 2008 6:43 pm

    What a joyous day that will be! And then, as first presidential act, Obama can sign the Freedom of Choice Act into law!

    freddie,

    Obama will then be the most remarkable president in the history of the Republic, since the Freedom of Choice Act has been introduced, but no other action has been taken on it. Here’s the summary of where it stands as a bill that has been introduced only:

    This bill is in the first step in the legislative process. Introduced bills go first to committees that deliberate, investigate, and revise them before they go to general debate. The majority of bills never make it out of committee. Keep in mind that sometimes the text of one bill is incorporated into another bill, and in those cases the original bill, as it would appear here, would seem to be abandoned.

    http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=s110-1173

    If Obama can somehow manage to get FOCA through committee, passed by the Senate, passed by the House, have both versions reconciled in conference, and get the bill on his desk to sign as his first presidential act, he can no doubt accomplish the rest of his agenda in his first 100 days.

  7. October 18, 2008 6:59 pm

    Just watched those 2 speeches. Pretty damn funny.

  8. October 18, 2008 7:06 pm

    David-

    So, then Obama lied to Planned Parenthood?

    Well, let’s hope so. If any group deserves to be lied to, it’s that bunch of evil witches.

  9. little gal permalink
    October 18, 2008 8:55 pm

    On the McLauglhin Report tonight, it was stated that an economist from the Univ. of Chicago whom Obama lunches with frequently describes him as a marxist. The source was a Newsweek article…

  10. David Nickol permalink
    October 18, 2008 10:00 pm

    little gal,

    The source would appear to be a US News & World Report blog entry.

    A while back I chatted with a University of Chicago professor who was a frequent lunch companion of Obama’s. This professor said that Obama was as close to a full-out Marxist as anyone who has ever run for president of the United States. Now, I tend to quickly dismiss that kind of talk as way over the top. My working assumption is that Obama is firmly within the mainstream of Democratic politics. But if he is as free with that sort of redistributive philosophy in private as he was on the campaign trail this week, I have no doubt that U of C professor really does figure him as a radical.

    http://www.usnews.com/blogs/capital-commerce/2008/10/16/did-barack-spread-the-wealth-obama-just-blow-the-election.html

    I would contend that saying you want to “spread the wealth around” in the context of explaining tax cuts for the bottom 95 percent instead of the top 5 percent hardly makes anyone a marxist, a socialist, or a radical of any kind.

    I wonder what your reaction would be if someone reported that an unnamed university professor said John McCain was the closest thing to a fascist to ever run for president.

  11. October 18, 2008 10:58 pm

    I would contend that saying you want to “spread the wealth around” in the context of explaining tax cuts for the bottom 95 percent instead of the top 5 percent hardly makes anyone a Marxist, a socialist, or a radical of any kind.

    No, David. Using the term “spreading the wealth around” as a goal of tax policy is the definition of Marxist.

    The mask is off. Why don’t you just embrace your guy’s Marxism.

    And if some unnamed university professor referred to Senator McCain as a fascist, he’d be a liar.

  12. Mike permalink
    October 18, 2008 11:34 pm

    Tony and Little Gal, you don’t understand Marxism or any other ism. I pray that, if you have children, you don’t homeschool them.

  13. David Nickol permalink
    October 19, 2008 11:11 am

    Marxism
    From Wikipedia
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marxist

    While there are many theoretical and practical differences among the various forms of Marxism, most forms of Marxism share these principles:

    – a belief that capitalism is based on the exploitation[3] of workers by the owners of the means of production
    – a belief that people’s consciousness of the conditions of their lives reflects the dominant ideology which is in turn shaped by material conditions and relations of production
    – an understanding of class in terms of differing relations of production, and as a particular position within such relations
    – an understanding of material conditions and social relations as historically malleable
    – a view of history according to which class struggle, the evolving conflict between classes with opposing interests, structures each historical period and drives historical change
    – a belief that this dialectical historical process will ultimately result in a replacement of the current class structure of society with a system that manages society for the good of all, resulting in the dissolution of the class structure and its support (more often than not including the nation state)

    The main points of contention among Marxists are the degree to which they are committed to a workers’ revolution as the means of achieving human emancipation and enlightenment, and the actual mechanism through which such a revolution might occur and succeed. Marxism is correctly but not exhaustively described as a variety of Socialism. Some Marxists, however, argue that no actual state has ever fully realized Marxist principles; other Marxists, such as Autonomists claim Marxist principles cannot be realized in any state construct seen through the 20th Century, and would necessitate a reconceptualization of the notion of state itself.

  14. October 19, 2008 11:23 am

    “Spreading the wealth around” is actually an amazingly vague and meaningless phrase. Tony, one could very well say that it’s the definition of Christianity rather than Marxism. Mike is right; Tony and little gal have no idea what Marxism is other than that it’s rumored to be “bad.”

  15. David Nickol permalink
    October 19, 2008 1:10 pm

    And if some unnamed university professor referred to Senator McCain as a fascist, he’d be a liar.

    Tony,

    The unnamed university professor wasn’t quoted as saying Obama was a Marxist, and my hypothetical professor didn’t say McCain was a fascist. The unnamed professor said “Obama was as close to a full-out Marxist as anyone who has ever run for president of the United States.” Using this way of categorizing presidential candidates, whoever was the most conservative presidential candidate was the closest thing to a full-out fascist the country has ever had. Who would that have been? Barry Goldwater?

  16. David Nickol permalink
    October 19, 2008 1:19 pm

    I accidentally clicked the “Submit Comment” button before I had finished. Just let me add that if we narrow our comments to Obama and McCain, Obama certainly would be closer to being a Marxist than McCain, and McCain would be closer to being a fascist than Obama. Like the unnamed professor’s remark, that tells us basically nothing, and is just an underhanded way of saying Obama is more liberal than McCain, and McCain is more conservative than Obama.

    But here’s a question about Marxism/Socialism. Which Republican administration just requested and received the authority to take $750 billion dollars of taxpayer money and buy into the private sector?

  17. October 19, 2008 1:57 pm

    The unnamed professor said “Obama was as close to a full-out Marxist as anyone who has ever run for president of the United States.”

    Certainly this professor is not unaware of the actual communist parties that run candidates in each presidential election?

  18. David Nickol permalink
    October 19, 2008 2:04 pm

    Why has there been no criticism of Catholic Charities for inviting Obama to the Al Smith Dinner and Cardinal Egan for sitting with him?

    Some Catholics almost seem to think Obama is the Antichrist and feel the American bishops are sending clear signals that it is sinful to vote for him. Why have they not raised this question?

  19. little gal permalink
    October 19, 2008 3:13 pm

    Micheal:

    Gee, if only we were as smart as you. You know everything!

  20. October 19, 2008 3:48 pm

    Gee, if only we were as smart as you. You know everything!

    Please. This has nothing to do with relative intelligence. “Marxism” is a word with a meaning. Don’t use it unless you know what it means.

  21. little gal permalink
    October 19, 2008 4:14 pm

    “This has nothing to do with relative intelligence. “Marxism” is a word with a meaning. Don’t use it unless you know what it means.”

    I’ll agree not to mention Marxism, if you’ll refrain from talking about a subject that you know nothing about and that I as a social worker do-social issues.

  22. October 19, 2008 4:45 pm

    Social workers are the only ones who know about social issues? You might just be the most arrogant social worker I’ve ever encountered.

  23. little gal permalink
    October 19, 2008 5:15 pm

    “You might just be the most arrogant social worker I’ve ever encountered.”

    Guess what? Replace social worker with graduate student in theology and blogger.

  24. blackadderiv permalink
    October 19, 2008 5:36 pm

    “Spreading the wealth around” is actually an amazingly vague and meaningless phrase. Tony, one could very well say that it’s the definition of Christianity rather than Marxism.

    “Spreading the wealth around” is hardly the definition of Christianity (nor of Marxism, fwiw).

  25. blackadderiv permalink
    October 19, 2008 5:38 pm

    Why has there been no criticism of Catholic Charities for inviting Obama to the Al Smith Dinner and Cardinal Egan for sitting with him?

    My guess is that if you looked around the Catholic blogosphere, you would find many people doing just that.

  26. October 19, 2008 5:46 pm

    “Spreading the wealth around” is hardly the definition of Christianity (nor of Marxism, fwiw).

    Oh, I forgot. “Free markets” is the definition of Christianity, with the corporation as the poor old Suffering Servant, as Mike Novak says, right?

    I’m pretty sure that sharing is part of the Gospel and that’s what I meant by “spreading the wealth around” being the definition of Christianity. If you want simply flat out deny that that has anything to do with Christianity, go for it. But what an impoverished “gospel” you must believe in.

  27. blackadderiv permalink
    October 19, 2008 8:26 pm

    “Free markets” is the definition of Christianity, with the corporation as the poor old Suffering Servant, as Mike Novak says, right?

    Well, no. I would imagine that any half-way decent definition of Christianity would manage to include at least some mention of Christ, rather than focusing exclusively on a particular economic program or attitude towards material possessions. You say that I believe in an impoverished “gospel” if I deny that sharing has anything to do with Christianity. I do not deny this. I just don’t think that sharing is the definition of Christianity. If I did, then it really would be an impoverished “gospel” that I believed in.

  28. October 19, 2008 8:59 pm

    Michael, you are far too smart for me. I was under the impression that the simplistic definition of Marxism (without reading completely through the Communist Manifesto) was:

    “From each according to his ability. To each according to his need”.

    Please explain to me how this differs from Barack Obama’s proposals. And before you get into a discussion of how that statement reflects Christianity, remember that Jesus never proposed to use force to take something from someone who was unwilling, to give it to someone who was undeserving.

  29. October 19, 2008 9:38 pm

    “From each according to his ability. To each according to his need”.

    Please explain to me how this differs from Barack Obama’s proposals.

    Your question is baffling. Could you start by suggesting how you think Obama’s proposals fit with that line from the Manifesto? We can go from there. Just start by giving specific examples of how Obama’s economic policies are inspired by that sentence. That line from the Manifesto, though, could be a part of the worldview of Marxism, authoritarian socialism, anarchism, democratic socialism, liberal democracy, or Christian charity within a liberal democracy. As such, it is unhelpful as a “definition,” even a basic one, of “Marxism.”

    The Wikipedia excerpt is actually quite good in its description of Marxism. (Bear in mind, though, it’s probably best to talk about “Marxisms” in the plural.) It would be best if you could work from those ideas as a starting point for assessing whether or not Obama is a “Marxist.”

    This isn’t about being smart, but about seeing what is true and what is false. All of us are smart enough to learn some basic definitions of Marxism and socialism and then judge whether or not McPalin is correct in applying those terms to Barack Obama.

  30. October 19, 2008 9:39 pm

    And before you get into a discussion of how that statement reflects Christianity, remember that Jesus never proposed to use force to take something from someone who was unwilling, to give it to someone who was undeserving.

    Surely you can’t be suggesting that governments should never be coercive?

  31. October 19, 2008 10:24 pm

    Careful who you call a socialist.

  32. c matt permalink
    October 20, 2008 9:18 am

    It seems pretty obvious that few people know how to correctly use the term Marxist or fascist, other than as a monicker for “bad”.

  33. October 20, 2008 12:44 pm

    Judging from the links to this post, my suspicion that Catholics who support McCain do so in favor of his economics plans, not in spite of them. In other words, it’s not only about the abortion, and abortion is used as a Trojan horse.

    But back to Smith. Al Smith was a great man, a true progressive pro-labor social reformer. He also detested FDR, for what is saw as stealing the 1932 nomination. Everything that he said after that has to be seen in the light of this hatred.

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